The first thing you notice about Moment of Truth, Matthew Perniciaro’s five part investigative documentary series about the murder of Michael Jordan’s father James in 1993, is the abundance of revealing archival material. In the first episode, there’s James in a black and white still, in private with a smiling Michael, their intimacy jumping off the screen. By the end of the same episode we see Daniel Green, one of two men convicted for Jordan’s murder, rapping into a camera while wearing one of Michael’s All-Star rings. Tapping into a buried vault of footage from the North Carolina broadcast company WRAL allowed Perniciaro and his team to show both the glamour and grittiness of the Carolinas in the nineties.
Perniciaro deploys this footage to take another look at the decades-long mystery around the circumstances of James’ murder, which has long been shrouded in conspiracy theories suggesting that it was somehow related to Michael’s gambling. (The Jordan family was not involved in the documentary and declined interviews.) Jordan disappeared while driving to Charlotte one night and was not reported missing for weeks; his red Lexus was found stripped in the woods a couple of weeks later, and his body turned up at the bottom of a river 60 miles away with a single gunshot wound in the chest a day after that, but was not identified for another 10 days. Green, who was 18 at the time, and his best friend Larry Demery, 17, were arrested because they had made calls from the car’s phone; Green has maintained his innocence from the beginning to this day, while Demery admitted to being involved but said Green pulled the trigger. Both men are still in prison, but Demery is set for release in 2023.
What starts out as an empathetic portrait of James Jordan in the first episode takes a couple of right turns, first to examine pervasive racism and corruption in Robeson County, North Carolina, where Green and Demery lived and were charged, and then to analyze the case mostly from the perspective of Green, who was recently denied a retrial. Ultimately, the doc’s approach feels like a dash of The Last Dance blended with a heavier dose of the first season of the podcast Serial, as it focuses on turning up inconsistencies in the evidence that poke holes in the official version of events while not quite reaching a surprising conclusion.
Moment of Truth appears on Amazon’s iMDBtv on April 2nd, and director Matthew Perniciaro, who grew up in North Carolina during the same time period, talked with GQ about the making of his documentary, what he thinks really happened, and what he learned about systemic racism during the three years he spent working on the film.
GQ: What was your impetus for making this documentary?
Matthew Perniciaro: I grew up in North Carolina and this case is something that I’ve known about for the majority of my life. I was 13 or 14 when James Jordan was killed and it was much more heavily reported on in North Carolina than it ever was nationally. So it’s something that was a really pivotal moment of my young life and stuck with me for many years.
I’ve always been kind of surprised that no one had really looked at doing a deeper dive into everything around this case. The public narrative was very uniform at the time, but there’s obviously always been a lot of questions and things that didn’t make sense that surrounded this case. And I think that’s led to a lot of conspiracy theories and things emerging, but I had always had this nagging idea of what was the truth.
A good friend of mine that I went to high school with named Jamie Goodman, his family owns WRAL and Capitol broadcasting, which is one of the largest news networks in North Carolina. He had mentioned to me that while they were digitizing their archives and they got to the nineties, they realized that they had a massive amount of footage that no one had seen nationally since it was broadcast in North Carolina. We just started talking and realized that there was something much bigger that we could look into with the story.
One of the things that really stood out to me was the beauty of the archival footage. Tell me about the choices you made in how to use that?
We embraced the idea from very early on of using the motif of the tape room and embracing the visual aesthetic of this four by three video footage, which is a little rough around the edges, but it brings you back to that time and that place. Knowing that you have that degree of archival to work with as a filmmaker is something that really excites you.
Again, outside of North Carolina, this footage has never been seen. It wasn’t licensed to third parties. So this is fresh for an audience for the first time. And I looked at those interviews with Daniel and I looked at a number of the segments, and I got chills. You look at Daniel and Larry being marched into the courthouse by law enforcement, and it just visually says volumes about what was happening at that time. It was striking. You watch Daniel get older. You watch him grow into a man. They were arrested 27 and a half years ago. When you look at him aging and becoming an adult in jail over the course of that footage, it’s sad.
The series spends a lot of time on race and racism in Robeson County. Why did you decide on that approach?
We take a very specific left turn after the first episode to give context for this area. If you do not have a history of Robeson County, especially during this period of time, you are not going to have a full understanding of what plays out over the course of the rest of the trial and the convictions of Daniel Green and Larry Demery. I’ve always viewed James Jordan’s murder, especially as more information has emerged, as a gateway into a larger story about corruption in law enforcement and systemic racism. Prior to a lot of the things we’ve seen in the past year, people really believed we’re progressing as a society. And as I was going through this archival material, there was a very sobering reminder of how little progress we’ve made. It is harrowing. A lot of times you were seeing things reported on the local nightly news that in today’s world would become national news in a matter of minutes.
Going into the series, I was expecting to hear more about James Jordan that wasn’t known before. But the focus turned out to be much more on Daniel Green. Were there any specific reasons you went that route?
We wanted it to be respectful of James Jordan. This is probably one of the most difficult things the Jordan family has ever gone through in their lives. They lost their patriarch, their father and husband, and we wanted to be respectful of his memory. When it comes to the case, like I said, the crime is in many ways a gateway to this investigation and what took place after the crime. The story that we’re telling is this is a case that has been shrouded in conspiracies for a very long time. And instead of leaning into those conspiracy theories, our goal was to really discover the truth of what happened.
We structured the series almost like a trial itself, in that we wanted to present the audience with a very kind of complete picture of what took place. This is the first time Daniel has had a platform to kind of speak publicly in his own voice. And talk about his side of the case. Ultimately there’s only one or two people that know exactly beat for beat what happened that night.
I’m glad you brought that up, because I was wondering why we didn’t hear more from Daniel Green. If part of the goal was to understand where he’s coming from, why didn’t we get more of those closeups of him?
It was our intention to interview Daniel on camera more. The first issue that started was that we had made a request to film Daniel on camera and received a letter from the Department Of Corrections in North Carolina that said Daniel Green is not available for media interviews. Both our team and Daniel’s team said that doesn’t seem appropriate that you could single out an individual prisoner. The following day, a letter was received from the Department Of Corrections saying no prisoners in the North Carolina jail system are available for interviews.
That limited our ability to go do a follow-up interview. We ended up relying on an in-depth interview that he had done previously for WRAL. It’s the only one that exists. Before we could push against that decision any more, COVID set in, and the prison system was completely shut down, so we ultimately had to rely on audio interviews to support the one on-camera interview we did have for Daniel to tell his story.
As someone who has spent a significant amount of time poring over the details of this case, what do you think happened?
I don’t believe we’ll ever know the exact details of what transpired. And I’m not a judge and I’m not a jury. I’m not an attorney. But what I do believe is that there is enough question of fact in this case that Daniel Green deserves a new hearing. I believe there was a degree of ineffective assistance of counsel in his original trial. I believe that there are a lot of questions about the evidence that has been proven inaccurate. He deserves a new evidentiary hearing. And he has not been granted that despite multiple attempts. That is what I believe.
Do you believe he’s innocent?
I believe there are a lot of questions about the evidence as it was presented at trial. As a documentary filmmaker, it is not my role to proclaim his guilt or his innocence. It is my role to look at all of the facts and try to present them for the audience. And I want audiences to come to that determination. I know that some audiences might think he’s guilty and some audiences might think he’s innocent. Some audiences might believe some of this new evidence and some of them might not. I’m trying to be the vehicle for bringing all this information to the audience. No one talked about all of the aspects of this case. No, one’s heard all of the aspects of this case. So that’s how I view my role: presenting all of this and allowing people to make their own decisions.
The facts in the documentary and the way they’re presented do seem to make Daniel’s case, though. So what do your facts say if, if you, as a filmmaker, don’t say it?
Well, I think the facts say that there needs to be a new hearing and that Daniel deserves a new hearing. I want people to experience the revelations of that information for themselves. But I do think that there’s a number of items. You know, there’s a question about the bullet hole in the shirt, which was not found during the autopsy before James Jordan was identified, when he was only identified as a John DOE.
At that point, they did not find a bullet hole in the chest area of the shirt. When the shirt shows up at trial, there’s a bullet hole. And not only is there a bullet hole, there’s a bullet hole that has gunshot residue on it. I think it’s questionable that gunshot residue could maintain being in the water for two weeks and still show up on a shirt, on a bullet hole. The shirt also had disappeared for a period of time from the evidence room in the process. So there’s questions there. There’s questions about the blood evidence. You know, the blood evidence was dated at trial, as an opinion, not as scientific fact. The test results were inconclusive, but the blood expert from this state Bureau of Investigation at the time made an opinion that that was blood.
Now legally in our court system, you can not make that statement as an opinion. So if you look at the facts and those facts, those are two of a number of items that we delve into, but those two facts cause questions. Well, then it needs to be looked at again. It needs to be put in front of what our court system allows, and Daniel and his legal team need to be given the opportunity to present that evidence to the court. That’s what the facts say to me: that they were not presented properly at the beginning during this trial in 1996.
Systemic racism in Robeson County is a major throughline in the documentary. What did you learn about race and racism as a white filmmaker digging into this case that you didn’t know before?
Having grown up in North Carolina at that period of time and seeing a lot of this with my own eyes, I would say I probably didn’t recognize how much of it I was surrounded by and that I witnessed myself until I was kind of removed and had gone to college in New York. Racism in the South at that period of time was pervasive. You didn’t fully understand it. Confederate flags were everywhere. You know what I mean? You don’t think about it because it was pervasive.
So I took all of those memories with me in trying to tell a story about this period of time. I understand that my shared experience is not necessarily the shared experience of those in the story, but I have to look at every individual, whether they’re perceived as a good guy or a bad guy, as a human being. When you’re doing a documentary and these are real people’s lives, you have to create it with a great degree of care.
This series is ultimately about flawed systems that have permeated all aspects of our culture for far too long. And that’s what I want people to look at in this series and say, this was almost 30 years ago yet we’re still grappling and fighting these same issues now. It’s a sobering reminder of how far we have to go. Those are the things I carried with me in making this series. And I think when you do that, and combine that with the actual, factual history of the place and what surrounded this case, that’s what allows you to have a deeper understanding of the story we’re telling.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.