Defendants Kerry Myers and William Fontanille are charged with conspiracy to commit second degree murder and second degree murder of Janet Myers. Previously, Fontanille was arrested and charged with first degree murder. His trial was held in October and November of 1986, resulting in a hung jury, with six jurors voting to acquit and six voting to convict. Following the mistrial, the case was again submitted to a grand jury and both defendants were indicted. Defendants filed pretrial motions to have the state lay the predicate for its introduction of certain statements made by the defendants, before using them at trial. After a hearing on the matter, the trial court ruled that [**2] the statements were inadmissible since the state failed to present a prima facie case of conspiracy. The state applied for writs in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal, which were denied. State v. Myers and Fontanille, No. 88-K-778 (La. App. 5th Cir. 10/28/88). We granted writs, State v. Myers and Fontanille, 537 So.2d 1156 (La. 1989), and now affirm the trial court's ruling.
The scant record before this court reveals the following events. In the early morning hours of February 24, 1984, William Fontanille entered the Jo Ellen Smith Hospital with numerous stab wounds. He was questioned by John Taylor, a police officer with the New Orleans Police Department, about the wounds. Fontanille explained that he had gone to the home of Kerry and Janet Myers at about 4:00 p.m. on February 23, 1984 to retrieve a baseball bat he had left there on the previous day. Fontanille claims that Kerry Myers let him in the door and attacked him with a knife and stabbed him several times. The two men fought intermittently for the next nine and one-half hours, pausing occasionally to watch television. He stated that Myers kept him at bay with the knife and later the baseball bat, and would not allow him to [**3] call an ambulance to treat him for his wounds. He contends that at one point, Myers gave in and stated that he would call an ambulance. Myers went into the kitchen to place the call. After several hours when the ambulance did not come, it became apparent that Myers had not actually made the call. Later, Myers gave permission for Fontanille to go to the bathroom, but while walking down the hall Myers attacked him from behind; they wrestled for several hours, with neither person being able to gain control of the knife. Fontanille claims that eventually Myers' grip on the knife loosened and he was able to flee from the house.
On March 15, 1984, with the assistance of counsel, Myers related a similar story to Sergeant Robert Masson. In his statement, he contends that it was Fontanille who attacked him when he arrived home from work. He stated that when he entered the door of his house, Fontanille was already inside and attacked him with the baseball bat. He fended off one of the blows with his arm, which was broken by the impact. He told a similar story of how the two fought, also stating that the two would suspend the fight to watch television and discuss their respective domestic problems. [**4] He stated that he heard the moans of his wife and the cries of his children, but was unable to check their condition because Fontanille was armed with the bat and the knife. When Fontanille decided to use the bathroom, Myers claims that he was ordered to lead the way down the hall, and Fontanille attacked him from behind. He further related that the two wrestled each other to the floor, where they remained for several hours until Fontanille's grip on the knife loosened and he was able to chase him out of the house. He immediately called the police and grabbed a shotgun to protect himself in the event Fontanille returned. He later checked on his wife and found her beaten and stabbed body in the living room.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA)
January 11, 1994 Tuesday, THIRD
SECTION: LIVING; Pg. D1
LENGTH: 1209 words
HEADLINE: TRUE CRIME IN NAME ONLY
BYLINE: By MARK LORANDO Television editor
The flamboyant and controversial Cajun defense lawyer Rene Le Gallais turns to his legal adversary, assistant New Orleans district attorney John Thorn, and says in an ominous tone, "This is New Orleans . . . nothing is what it seems."
That line, from a scene in Monday night's NBC docudrama "Murder Between Friends," referred to the brutal, bizarre killing of housewife Janet Myers. But the Le Gallais character's remark also could have applied to the movie itself.
This is television . . . nothing is as it seems.
"They took one of the strangest cases in American jurisprudence, a case that had incredible character dynamics, and they trivialized it," said Joe Bosco, author of "Blood Will Tell," a 560-page non-fiction account of the same murder dramatized Monday in "Murder Between Friends."
Though billed as a "true crime" drama, "Murder" mixed fact and fancy freely, leaving unsuspecting viewers to sort out where the truth ended and the producers' imagination began. In so doing, it brought an old Hollywood debate close to home: Does a TV movie inspired by actual events have an obligation to portray those events accurately? Or is its only duty to entertain?
"We try to be faithful to history, faithful to the crime," executive producer Roger Gimbel said by phone from his office in Hollywood. "You don't want to change all the facts. But we would never claim that every word in the movie was spoken just that way. We're trying to do a piece of entertainment.
"A murder of this kind took place," he said. "The motives are the same. But we certainly feel the right to change whether a character has a moustache or doesn't. We feel we have the right to make it interesting."
It's up to the producer to decide how many facts can change before a movie no longer qualifies as "fact-based."
In the case of "Murder," the criminal act was a more or less faithful reconstruction of the slaying of Janet Myers, who was clubbed to death in her home nine years ago with an aluminum baseball bat. Her husband Kerry and his best friend William Fontanille claimed to have been arguing and fighting in the home for several hours without ever realizing Janet lay dead in another room. Each man accused the other of the killing; after one mistrial and an investigation lasting several years, both men wound up in jail, Kerry Myers convicted of murder, Fontanille of manslaughter.
But the brief scene described at the beginning of this story is typical of the "Hollywoodization" of certain aspects of the case.
There was no lawyer in this case named Rene Le Gallais, for instance. Fontanille's lawyer was Nick Noriea, a serious-minded Alabama native who is anything but the colorful Cajun of NBC's movie. "He played football for Bear Bryant, for crying out loud," Bosco said. "In this movie, he's downright effete."
Noriea opposed a whole team of prosecutors in the Jefferson Parish district attorney's office, not a single crusading New Orleans attorney as played by Timothy Busfield.
Those were relatively harmless bits of creative license-taking. What confounds Bosco are the more fundamental changes "Murder Between Friends" made for the sake of a screenplay.
For instance, in the movie, Myers and Fontanille were scruffy blue-collar working stiffs who lived in an old New Orleans neighborhood. In reality, Myers and Fontanille were college-educated, middle-class young family men who lived in the upscale Woodmere subdivision of the West Bank.
"Why make them lower class?" Bosco said. "They were yuppies. Everyone in the story is cinematically perfect just the way they are: Upper class, the women all beautiful, the men all good-looking."
Gimbel responds that in reading the transcripts and watching and listening to tapes from the trial, actors Stephen Lang and Martin Kemp and director Waris Hussein felt the characters sounded unsophisticated and should look the part.
"Everybody thought, because of the grisly nature of the crime, plus the fact that one of the men was out of work, that doing it this way was more close to it," Gimbel said.
In other words, the truth wasn't credible enough; less factual was more believable. By lowering the socio-economic standing of the principals, however, "Murder Between Friends" discarded the one element of the story that so fascinated the local news media, which was that so sinister an act could have occurred in a more or less well-to-do neighborhood.
Locals also were intrigued by the fact that the violence occurred not in the city, where murders are a daily occurrence, but in the relatively tranquil environs of the suburbs. The movie, by contrast, characterizes the story as a uniquely New Orleans whodunit. Gimbel said moving the setting from the suburbs to the city gave the story needed texture: "Viewers appreciate a strong sense of place," he said, and New Orleans is a more familiar place to a national audience than any part of Jefferson Parish.
He said the producers worked hard to avoid pandering to "Looziana" stereotypes, though it's doubtful that many New Orleans viewers will feel that they succeeded in that regard.
There was the obligatory overweight, incompetent cop with the thick drawl, for instance, and a judge with a Cajun accent and a laissez-faire approach to the law. The climactic trial took place in a courtroom so old and steamy that people had to cool themselves with hand fans, as though New Orleans in 1984 hadn't discovered air-conditioning. And the critical decision to give Myers and Fontanille separate trials in the same courtroom is treated as an act of whimsy on the part of the judge, who points out, "Well, this IS Looziana . . ." In reality, it was a long-debated, precedent-setting ruling that is now part of the curriculum in many of the nation's law schools.
"It's as though someone made a conscious decision: 'Let's parody New Orleans,"' Bosco said. "As a Southerner - and a Southern writer - I'm sick of always seeing the South portrayed in this fashion, especially since in this case it was totally unnecessary. This is a story that could have taken place anywhere in the country."
Bosco hopes to have the opportunity to see the story told accurately, or at least more accurately. Hearst Entertainment has an option to make a TV or feature film from his recently released book. Ideally, he said, he'd like to see it done as a two-part, four-hour film that delves into the murder's impact on the Myers and Fontanille families. He'd also make Janet Myers more of a central character, and try to get Rosanna Arquette to play her, he said.
ABC was seriously interested at one time, but backed off after Gimbel and NBC announced their project; the networks are still licking their wounds from their multiple versions of the Amy Fisher story. Bosco denies that his criticism of NBC's adaptation is sour grapes. On the contrary, he said, the revisionist version that aired Monday will probably improve the chances of his movie ultimately getting to the screen somewhere else.
"They did me a favor," he said. "The movie is so far off from the facts of the case that if someone else tells what really happened, no one will recognize them as even being the same story."
In 1993 the author's book about the murders prompted a retrial.
In 1993 the author was ordered to turn over conversations that he taped with the killers, and he refused. He was almost arrested.
In 1995 an unsual museum displayed the bat that was used in the brutal murder.