Ray Klonsky first encountered David McCallum nine years ago, when Klonsky (now 29) was in college and McCallum (now 44) was 19 long years into a life sentence. Then as now, McCallum was languishing in Otisville Correctional Facility—incarcerated for a crime he claims he did not commit.
In 1986 McCallum and his friend Willie Stuckey, both 16-year-old Bushwick residents at the time, were arrested and charged with the kidnapping and murder of a 20 year-old Queens man. Under duress, both boys confessed to the killing—which took place at Aberdeen Park on Bushwick Avenue.
Despite what McCallum’s lawyer says was insufficient evidence, contradictory statements, and a lack of coherence between the boys’ accounts (each implicated the other), both were sentenced to 25 years to life. They had recanted by the time of their arraignment, but the confessions remained on record. Stuckey died behind bars in 2001, but McCallum remains in prison, convinced he was wrongfully convicted and desperate for outside help.
This was how he met Klonsky, now a New York-based filmmaker. Ray’s father Ken was part of a group of well-wishers (including the late Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer whose wrongful conviction for murder cut short his career and was eventually overturned) who have steadily campaigned for re-trial. As part of that advocacy mission, McCallum has now become the unlikely star of Klonsky’s documentary David & Me, which is set to open the upcoming Manhattan Film Festival. We sat down with Ray to talk criminal justice, friendship, and filmmaking.
My dad was a high school teacher in Toronto, and he was also a freelance writer. He wrote an interview with Rubin Hurricane Carter, which appeared in a very obscure literary magazine. David just happened to pick up that magazine one day in prison. He wrote to my dad, and the rest is history. This is also what the film is partially about—how we met and how we became friends [via writing letters], and how that friendship materialized into us joining the team of activists and lawyers fighting for his freedom.
Well, it definitely took me sitting down and looking at the case materials myself. In terms of the film, we definitely are biased. We definitely admit that we’re friends and this is a biased perspective. But you can see it’s a shoddy case. There are so many holes. It’s almost unbelievable, once you really dig in, that this was allowed to happen in terms of his representation and with the evidence, or lack thereof, that was used to convict him. It’s crazy to think that we live in a country where so little can send a 16-year-old away for the rest of their life.
When we started, we were just shooting fish in a barrel, going out knocking on doors, but then we got a bit of financing. After that, we were able to strap up a private detective with a hidden camera and really go out after the key players that we had been waiting so long to approach.
We premiered at HotDocs, and also played on TVO [in Canada] on June 4. All the questions were, “What can we do to help David?” Which is exactly what we were looking for. It’s been a great response. We’re very early in the process of getting it out in the world and this screening at Manhattan Film Fest is as much an activist screening as it is a film festival screening. The case is before the Conviction Review Unit right now, so we need to keep up the pressure on the DA’s office. As much as anything, this is a story in process right now.
Well, I believe that David is the longest serving prisoner in the Conviction Review Unit’s caseload. They’ve said they’re aware of it and they’re going to review it. So we’re supposed to have a meeting with them any day now. It’s important to keep up pressure and not take our foot off the gas. There’s a lot of momentum for him right now. While we were filming, we found something that led to new evidence, that we feel shows that the police covered up information. We’re hoping that that, combined with this new Conviction Review Unit, as well as the fact that a lot of people have been walking free, will mean that there’s a timely review.
You know, there’s a lot of money being made by keeping people in jail and suffice it to say that that is fundamentally wrong and needs to change. But at the end of the day this film is more about a relationship, a friendship; one person trying to survive while a group of people outside help him. I’ve realized that it takes a monumental effort to get someone out of jail. And who knows how many Davids there are? All of them don’t have this amount of people working for them.
He’s such an inspirational person. He has every right to be an angry prick, but he’s not. He’s very caring, emotional, and he’s so curious. He literally has the experience in the world of a 16-year-old and he’s 45. He just wants to be involved in the outside world in any way he can. The fact that he’s not angry I find so inspirational, and I hope other people do as well. I consider him like an older brother, and I hope he considers me a younger brother.
David & Me will screen at 7:15pm on Friday, June 20th, at Quad Cinema (34 West 13th Street). Get tickets here.