“Moment of Truth,” the new five-part docu-series about the murder of basketball legend Michael Jordan’s father, doesn’t provide definitive evidence about why James Jordan was killed in 1993 after he pulled over to the side of the road in North Carolina, or prove who pulled the trigger. But what it does illustrate is the many miscarriages of justice that took place in the lead up to the conviction of Daniel Green, a Black man, and Larry Demery, his white friend, for the crime.
“This crime and the subsequent trial and convictions speak to a larger conversation about systemic racism in the criminal justice system,” says Matthew Perniciaro, the director of “Moment of Truth.” “One of the saddest parts of the story is looking at how little progress has been made in those systems in the decades since this crime occurred.”
One thing that Perniciaro is not trying to maintain is that Green or Demery had nothing to do with James Jordan’s murder, just that the facts surrounding the case were murkier than the media narrative that sprung up around the investigation. After James Jordan’s body was found in a South Carolina swamp, Green, then 18, and Demery, then 19, were quickly identified as suspects. It didn’t help their cause that video was released of Green dancing around to rap music while wearing jewelry, including an All-Star ring that Michael Jordan had given his father. Demery ultimately cooperated with investigators in exchange for leniency, fingering Green as the triggerman.
However, other questions still remain. Eyewitnesses said Green was at a house party at roughly the time James Jordan was killed. There was also a lack of physical evidence tying Green to the crime scene and there are holes in the prosecutions contention that Green shot James Jordan while he was sleeping in his Lexus, namely a lack of blood found in the car. He has long claimed that his involvement extended only to helping cover up the crime. And even Green’s defense was flawed, with his lawyers squandering a key opportunity to have the case declared a mistrial.
Green’s case has been taken up by Chris Mumma, executive director of North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, but so far the courts have refused to hear new evidence that might reduce his sentence. Demery, in contrast, is due to be released in 2023.
“The prosecution’s case was built off of Larry’s testimony,” says Perniciaro. “His voice was heard. Daniel did not testify, so providing Daniel with a voice to tell us his story was very important to us in order to get a fully realized understanding. What I do believe very strongly is there is substantial question as to the facts as they were presented at trial, and because of that I do believe that Daniel Green is deserving of a new evidentiary hearing.”
“Moment of Truth,” which is currently streaming on Amazon’s IMDb TV, allowed Perniciaro to look at the part of the country where he grew up in greater detail, while also enabling him to provide an insider’s view on a story that benefits from an intimate regional understanding. A North Carolina native, Perniciaro followed the case avidly at the time, devouring the wall-to-wall local coverage. Later, an old high school friend, Jimmy Goodmon, whose family owned news networks WRAL and Capitol broadcasting in the state, informed him that the company was digitizing his archive. Footage of Demery and Green’s trial and reporting on the murder helped form the spine of Perniciaro’s docuseries. At the same time, “Moment of Truth” tracks Green’s efforts to get a new trial and Mumma’s attempts to find discrepancies in the case.
“This is a case that has been shrouded in mystery for so long that even if you think you know the facts about it, come with an open mind,” says Perniciaro. “There’s more here than I was aware of it. By telling all sides of the events that took place and allowing audiences to come to their own determination, we’re hoping to shed some new light.”
Perniciaro also understood the history of Robeson County, N.C., the part of the state where Demery and Green were tried. That gave him insight into the pervasive racism in the area, as well as tensions between the Black community and the police force. It’s the kind of place, the film notes, where the statue of a Confederate soldier stands in front of a courthouse.
“It wasn’t until I went to college in New York that I came to understand the degree of imagery I was exposed to and how that was minimized in that part of the country,” says Perniciaro. “The Confederate flag is omnipresent, but when you’re surrounded by it, you don’t understand what this imagery means because it’s everywhere. When you get some distance, you realize how broken it is that a Confederate soldier would be in front of a courthouse.”
“Moment of Truth” has interviews with most of the key stakeholders, highlighting both the prosecutors and investigators who put Demery and Green behind bars, as well as their friends and family. It does not include any interviews with Michael Jordan or the Jordan family, who have stayed largely silent on the tragedy.
“As a documentary filmmaker, I always want as many people to participate as possible,” says Perniciaro. “It was not unexpected that the family didn’t want to do that. This was the greatest loss they endured and they have every right to grieve however they chose and to do so in private. Just because someone is a public figure does not mean that every aspect of their life has to be public.”