John and Chris are two sides of the same coin. I reached out to John first. He’s a circuit judge up north in Scottsboro.
When I first met John, I watched him hold court, and it was such a sight to behold. I knew then I was going to try to push the envelope and ask if he'd let us film him behind the bench in the midst of drug court. He agreed. I was flabbergasted.
Before we filmed, John started doing his homework, and he had his own ideas about which verses he might like to read most (and least). Then he texted me:
Some of this is 19th century porn! I like Verse 16. Less risqué than some.
I told him that verse was already filmed. But I had a passage for him: #37. "The keepers of convicts, it is I that is barred in the morning and let out at night."
He wasn't sold.
Was hoping to avoid the judge-y ones—especially that "pronouncing a death sentence" one.
Verse 37 is also about identifying with those we tend to judge. I thought it was kind of perfect. But if he had strong objections, we could find something else. I texted him and waited for his response. Not long.
No, I’m fine with it. Looking forward to this. It’s gonna be so cool!
The day of filming he posted a sign and let everyone know what we were doing. The defendants could opt out of that session if they wanted. I’m not aware that anyone did.
I don’t want to romanticize anything here, but John was like that judge you think only exists in movies—the small-town judge who recognizes everyone who approaches the bench, chatting them up with details about their kids, their jobs, their lives. It’s good to know this can be real.
We also asked if one of the defendants might be willing to read that day. Chris Freeman said yes. We lucked out. I figured we might be able to create an interesting dialogue between Chris and John—a call and response kind of thing. I didn't know exactly how it would go. I just tried to create a space for what that and they might offer. Chris seemed into it. I think it went well. And I can't be more grateful for how open everyone in the courtroom was that day.
by filmmaker Jenn Crandall as told to writer Liz Hildreth