Modern true-crime documentaries tend to have a specific look and feel, but 1992's Brother’s Keeper - a harrowing, empathetic look at the death of a rural cow farmer in Upstate New York and the firestorm of the resulting trial - remains one of the most distinctive entries in the popular genre. Rather than relying on twists or last-minute evidence, Brother's Keeper simply introduces the audience to its cast and lets the story tell itself.
After the film's release, the directors continued to make intense documentaries about intense subjects. In 2019, co-director Joe Berlinger used his true-crime roots as a springboard into dramatic filmmaking with Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, a film about Ted Bundy told from the point of view of his ex-girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall. But the director's interest in dark subject matter all began with his first film.
Brother's Keeper tells the story of the Ward brothers - Delbert, Roscoe, and Lyman - whose modest life together on their family farm erupts into controversy following the death of the fourth brother, William. Delbert, the youngest of the four, is put on trial for William's murder.
As gruesome as it sounds, authorities initially believed Delbert did away with his brother in order to put him out of his misery. According to the Ward brothers and law enforcement, William was suffering from complications due an accident with a chainsaw, he often experienced intense headaches, and he may have had stomach ulcers.
Authorities believed that on the night of William's passing, Delbert smothered his brother in his sleep while the two shared a bed. Delbert signed a confession saying as much, although he later claimed he had no idea what he was signing because he can barely read.
While this theory seems to be the most plausible way for William to have expired, the documentarians were never able to parse exactly what happened that night.
There were a lot of theories about William's death thrown around by authorities during their investigation, although many of the ideas they had about Delbert and William came from a bias against the brothers, who lived on a rural farm and rarely ventured into nearby cities.
It's never explicitly stated, but it's implied that some members of law enforcement believed William was either molesting Delbert, or that the two were involved in an incestuous relationship that ended in an accidental death. The film doesn't dwell on this charge long - mostly because it's more of a rumor than a legitimate theory - but it's proof that the authorities may have came into this case with preconceived notions of the parties involved.
While Brother's Keeper unravels a backwoods mystery the best it can, it also illustrates a stark parallel between city and country life. Both groups of people are shown to be mischaracterized by the other; the "big-city" DA and police seem to foster a belief that the Ward brothers are incestuous hillbillies, while the people of the rural farming town see the case against the Wards as a product of big-city prejudice.
The film presents the story of the Wards with little editorializing. Instead, the filmmakers allow the Wards and the urban law enforcement members to tell their own sides of the story. Co-director Bruce Sinofsky told the LA Times:
We're not presenting the official version of Delbert's trial. We're simply mirroring what we saw going on in that community. We tried to keep our opinions out of the film and let the participants express their own feelings.
Shortly after William's death was reported, the Ward brothers were brought to Oneida, NY, for questioning by the state police. While there, two detectives interrogated the three remaining brothers - without a lawyer present - and allegedly coerced a four-page confession out of Delbert. The confession read:
I decided to put my hand over his mouth. I reached around behind him with my right hand and put it over his mouth. He struggled for a little bit, but then stopped. I wanted to make sure that Bill wasn't suffering anymore - that he was dead.
I was nervous and shook up. I hadn't eaten all day. I was tired. My brother had just passed away... I don't know why I said it. I thought if I said yes, they would let me go home. But they didn't.