Witch Hunt premieres on Easter Sunday, April 12, at 7 p.m. PST (10 p.m. PST) on MSNBC. DVDs go on sale April 14 for $24.98 through Amazon.com or witchhuntmovie.com, or as a $9.99 download from iTunes or witchhuntmovie.com.
Witch Hunt, by Dana Nachman and Don Hardy, tells the harrowing story of lives shattered and families torn apart when mass hysteria sparks the breakdown of the criminal justice system in one California town.
The documentary, executive produced and narrated by Sean Penn, made its world premiere at the Tornoto International Film Festival last September. Its U.S. premiere followed two months later at the Los Angeles International Film Festival. It was so well received that the film was purchased by MSNBC Films and will air on cable channels later this spring.
"This is a chilling story about American law-enforcement run amok and untethered… a movie that can't help but move you - to tears and to action.”
Silicon Valley Metro article about the Witch Hunt premiere at Cinequest
San Jose Mercury News article about Witch Hunt
NBC Bay Area news article on Witch Hunt
SF Gate article on Witch Hunt
San Jose Criminal Law Examiner article on Witch Hunt
Press release for Bakersfield showing of Witch Hunt
The Little Doc that Did
Sept. 7, 2008: Waves of anticipation swept through the AMC movie theater in Toronto, Canada. It was the fourth day of The Toronto International Film Festival and most of those jam-packed into the large auditorium knew only that they were about to see the world premiere of the provocatively-titled documentary, Witch Hunt.
Actor Sean Penn, who narrated the film, eased into a seat in the reserved section, setting off the kind of tsunami generated only by A-list celebrities.
The house lights dimmed. The movie began. For the next 91 minutes, the audience remained spellbound. Early buzz had been favorable. But no one was prepared for the sheer power of this film - for the way they were moved to tears and fury.
"How could this happen?" many asked as the closing credits scrawled across the screen. "How could the legal system in a country that promises 'justice for all' experience such a catastrophic collapse?"
June, 1984: On a chilly spring night in Bakersfield, Calif., John Stoll was startled awake by two policemen standing by his bed. He didn’t know it at the time — in fact, he thought this was just the next development in his on-going nasty divorce — but he was about to embark on a terrifying journey that would stretch into the next millennium.
Downtown at the station house, John was bewildered and incredulous when he learned the real reason for his arrest. He’d been accused of a most heinous crime: child sexual molestation. And what struck him, like a bullet to his heart, was that the accuser was his own 6-year-old son, Jed.
In jail, John, an affable, easy-going carpenter, was certain his innocence would set him free. But that was before he met another prisoner whose story was eerily similar to his own.
There are others just like us, Ricky Pitts told him. Many, many others.
By the time "tough on crime" Kerns County District Attorney Ed Jagles wrapped up his investigation, dozens of men and women had been rounded up and slammed behind bars.
Most of them did not know each other, but common threads united them.
- They were all young parents.
- They were all accused of sexual child abuse.
- They were all unable to hire top-notch lawyers.
- They were all living in Bakersfield.
- They were all innocent.
September, 1985: The charges against John had escalated. Six children had testified against him. He was convicted of 17 counts of child molestation and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
1985-2002: John served his sentence in some of California’s meanest prisons. Now and then, he’d hear about a Bakersfield man or woman who was released from prison when proof of innocence was proven. But his countless attempts to find legal help were met with failure. Hope, which once burned brightly, had dulled to a dying ember.
2002: An appellate lawyer contacted the Northern California Innocence Project about John’s plight. NCIP took on his case. Attorneys Cookie Ridolfi, Linda Starr and Jill Kent, along with their students at the Santa Clara University School of Law spent hundreds of hours reinvestigating. They discovered that the evidence against John rested solely on the testimony of six young boys, ranging in age from 7 to 9. All but one, now said the sexual abuse stories were lies, explaining how they were intimidated and coerced into making false allegations. Only John’s son, who had no memory of the abuse, refused to alter his testimony. On the basis of 5 of the 6 boys recanting, NCIP was granted an evidentiary hearing.
January-April, 2004: The evidentiary hearings took place in three parts. Dana Nachman, a special projects producer, and Don Hardy, a photographer, covered the hearings for their San Francisco Bay Area television station.
May 4, 2004: On his 60th birthday, with a jaunty bow and a wide grin, John walked out of prison, taking his first steps — in 20 years — as a free man. Dana and Don were waiting outside to capture this exhilarating moment for their viewers.
2004-2005: Dana and Don kept in touch with John, who was living nearby in the San Francisco Bay Area. Through conversations, they discovered the scope of the Bakersfield "child abuse" cases and were moved to bring this story of crimeless punishment to the American public.
The two journalists pursued their story in Nevada, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and of course, Bakersfield. They interviewed parents wrenched from their children; children forced to grow up without mothers and fathers; and the haunted, guilt-ridden accusers, who’d been betrayed by the very people who were supposed to protect them.
2005-2007: Dana and Don wove these interviews together with archival footage and created a rough cut of the still unnamed documentary. A mutual friend encouraged them to send the film to Sean Penn.
September, 2007: Sean watched the film and immediately signed on as narrator.
June 3, 2008: Dana and Don submitted Witch Hunt to the Toronto International Film Festival, considered one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world.
July 29, 2008: The festival announced its lineup and Witch Hunt made the cut. Cheers resonated from California to New York (where both Don and Dana’s parents live).
Sept. 7, 2008: At the AMC theater in Toronto, Dana and Don took the stage with John and his NCIP lawyers, Cookie, Linda and Jill. Joining them were several other parents and now grown children who’d been ensnared in DA Jagles’s web. If there was a dry eye in the house, it was only because a tissue was on its way up to dab away the tears.
Sept. 11, 2008: In her blog, festival moderator Kate Lawrie wrote, "I’ve never had to fight back tears while moderating a Q&A after a film. Not until this past Sunday, September 7, that is – at the world premiere of directors Don Hardy and Dana Nachman’s documentary Witch Hunt."