Chasse v. Humphreys: Don’t blame a yet-to-be-finished film for biasing the jury pool

Guest Column published in The Oregonian by Brian Lindstrom, January 14, 2010

I was surprised to learn the city of Portland has asked U.S. District Judge Garr M. King for a change of venue for the lawsuit over the death in Portland police custody of James ChasseChasse v. Humphreys — due to “inflammatory media” and specifically my documentary film, “Alien Boy.”

For more than two years, I’ve worked with a dedicated group of filmmakers, writers and mental health advocates. To date we have shot more than 60 hours of interviews. I plan for the civil trial to conclude the film.

How strange that the city cited my film as one cause for potential jurors in a civil trial to be adversely prejudiced against the Portland police when the film has yet to be completed, let alone screened.

“Alien Boy” is neither inflammatory nor anti-police. It uses interviews with eyewitnesses, policy and legal experts, politicians, mental health consumers and police advocates in an attempt to decipher what happened to James Chasse on Sept. 17, 2006.

Just as importantly, “Alien Boy” uses interviews with Chasse’s friends and loved ones to create an in-depth portrait of who he was. Not only was Chasse’s life taken from him on Sept. 17, 2006, but that life was also robbed of depth and nuance. It was reduced to, and forever defined by, a headline: “42-year-old schizophrenic man dies in police custody.” There is more to James Chasse than the awful way in which he died.

“Alien Boy” follows a teenage James Chasse’s exuberant participation in Portland’s vibrant punk rock scene (the title of the film comes from the anthemic song of the same title that punk pioneers the Wipers wrote about Chasse). The film follows the onset of Chasse’s mental illness and the meaningful life he built for himself under very challenging conditions.

I welcome the opportunity to interview any police officer involved, or other officers and/or police department personnel willing to discuss the events of surrounding James Chasse’s death and/or articulate how police and jails serve as our de facto mental health system.

But to blame a documentary film-in-progress for biasing prospective Oregon jurors is absurd.

Brian Lindstrom of Southeast Portland is director of “Alien Boy.”