Reckless Indifference is about the 1995 murder of a student at Agoura High School, in the suburbs of LA. I went to Agoura, was a student there when the murder took place and vaguely knew more than half of the kids involved in the case. It’s the second most infamous event in our town’s history, behind only the meeting of the founding members of Linkin Park. Since the film seems to have a second lease on life via Netflix streaming, I thought a review might not be totally irrelevant.
The basic facts of what happened are clear enough. Five boys in their late teens went to a backyard “fort” where two other boys hung out and stored, maybe sold, pot. One boy waited in the car while the others went to the fort. A fight broke out and one or more of the boys from the larger group stabbed the two friends, killing one and hospitalizing the other.
The film takes a strong editorial stance that the boys who were charged were treated unfairly, and that the police officer who was father to the murdered boy, manipulated the criminal justice system to that end. Also, it’s a piece of shit. The distortions begin almost immediately with the caption “Agoura Hills, California: 50 Miles North of Los Angeles.” This is true, in the sense that Agoura Hills is ten miles North of Los Angeles, thirty miles North of downtown. The film further distorts matters with tactics like emphasizing unsubstantiated statements by defendants. One kid, Brandon Hein, didn’t even know that the actual murderer or murderers had knives with them. He didn’t even know anybody had been stabbed until well after the fact. How do we know this and why is it repeated several times? Because he said so.
Most of the facts of the case and the perspectives of prosecutors are presented, though reluctantly. Initially we get Alan Dershowitz’s characterization–that a fight broke out between teenagers and somebody wound up getting stabbed. This is the impression we are left to hold. Now, this is bad enough. I mean, teenagers fight all of the time without anybody getting stabbed. The reason that there is usually not a stabbing, is that no one pulls out a knife and sticks it into the person they are fighting. Let’s take a step back, as the film never does, and consider that the kids who were stabbed were outnumbered four to two by the kids who were attacking them. You can make whatever “heat of the moment” arguments you like, but it is critical–and never discussed, that 1) The perpetrators initiated the conflict and 2) They did so with a two to one numbers advantage. Yet, 3) they still wound up stabbing not one, but both of the boys they were attacking.
While these facts are evident in the film, they are never presented in an organized way because that is a pretty tough scenario to finesse. Rather, the film tries to convince us that the stabbings were borderline self-defense, focusing on a smaller version of events within the larger scenario. The chief aggressors were brothers, Micah and Jason Holland. Micah was being punched out within the conflict, so Jason stabbed Mike McLoren, the boy who was beating up his brother. Then Jimmy Farris attacked Jason , who stabbed Farris fatally. The details of the stabbings are withheld until more than an hour into the film, when it is finally revealed that Jason stabbed Mike three times (lacerating his liver, as you can find out from wikipedia), and Jimmy twice, puncturing is heart, though he would claim the stabbings were an accident. The fact that it was only a two inch blade is mentioned far more often than the five, separate stab wounds to two different boys who never presented lethal force when attempting to defend themselves. This is because we are meant to believe that a two inch blade is about equivalent to a bee-bee gun. Maybe not even that. Hey, these kids were practically throwing water balloons. Should you go to jail for throwing a water balloon?
If the stabbings were part of a robbery, the killing, of course, becomes first degree murder and all participants are guilty of it via the felony murder rule. Certainly, a contributing factor to the judgment that this was a robbery, was the fact that the boys committed another robbery, literally on the way to the “fort.” They stole a woman’s pocket book from her car, though it turned out not to have money. The woman followed and confronted the boys but was scared off, as the boys threatened her and fled again, allegedly hitting her car in the process (the final detail comes from wikipedia, not the film, again). The film even goes so far as to include implications that the woman is at fault here, initiating a dangerous, “high speed chase” of the boys who robbed her. Within half an hour, the boys approached the fort to acquire pot–either by stealing it or having acquired a sudden aversion to robbery. If it was not a robbery, how did the fight break out? The Hollands and their friends had come to give Jimmy and Mike money, but Jimmy and Mike decided they would rather be on the wrong end of a two-on four fight than make some easy cash? Though the film repeatedly presents an the assertion that this was somehow not a robbery, it never gives an alternate theory. It also seems unlikely that any of the boys went to the fort not knowing why they were going there, which is the assertion given most often in the film.
I have only a bit to contribute as an “insider” to the case. I didn’t know any of the people involved well and, at the time of the murder, had no clue who the dead boy, Jimmy Farris was. I can say, with certainty, that the Holland brothers were no strangers to fighting. Jason was in my fourth grade class and threw a chair at our teacher. This was not an isolated incident. So I’m sure that the film is correct in asserting a rough upbringing for the Holland boys. In any case, the pattern of violence and fighting was established early on and nobody mistook them for cream puffs later. The filmmakers talked to one student–a half witted blond chosen at random–and one teacher to paint the Hollands and the others as good boys. The prosecutor’s allegation that they were a neighborhood menace is never investigated beyond that. I can’t say if these kids were a general menace or not–other than that they never bothered me. But I do think it is relevant that they were experienced fighters. They had to know what they were doing. The stabbings were not the result of a sheltered child or a nerd flying into a panic in his first taste of physical conflict.
There is no doubt that the prosecution went overboard in the case. They sought fist degree murder charges for all of the boys including Tony Miliotti who, by all accounts, never threw a punch. The prosecution successfully portrayed the boys as belonging to a gang, though the judge ruled that they could not do so. They seem to have coaxed testimony from the boy who survived the stabbing and withheld the fact that he was given immunity from drug charges. In fact, they told the jury that he was risking those charges by testifying, knowing that they had already given him immunity from them. Despite protests to the contrary, the LAPD father of the victim was a factor in pursuing, and getting, life without parole for three of the boys and 29 years for Micah Holland, who was fifteen at the time of the killing. Brandon Hein–who was a marginal figure in the actual fighting was among those to get life, certainly an unfair sentence. Mike Valardo, the boy who waited in the car while the attack took place, wound up serving about five years.
But it seems to me that the law allowing for such things–which it clearly does–is the greatest instance of immorality. As severe as the crimes are, does a teen guilty of a fatal stabbing in a small time robbery deserve life without parole? Does the teen standing behind him? Is it worth paying $50,000 a year to keep them locked up? The scattered and biased approach of the film doesn’t really do favors to anyone. If you are familiar with the case, or take a minute to consider the information objectively, it comes off as prejudiced and unreliable. With so much time wasted quibbling over details and obfuscating facts, there was plenty of room for a compelling, fair-minded film. Rather than diminishing the magnitude of this particular crime, the film could have included three or four similar cases, asking that we reevaluate harsh sentencing in general and the felony murder law in particular, and reign in overzealous prosecutors. Instead, it’s just a waste of time. About which I wrote a 1500-word review.