Returning to the Scene of the Crime


cj0_3315On screen, a retired Birmingham homicide investigator is still searching for the truth.

Written by Rosalind Fournier         

Portrait Photography by Christopher Jones

Chris Anderson, a retired Birmingham homicide detective and co-star of Reasonable Doubt on the Investigation Discovery network, has a certain look. If you’ve seen the show—in which Anderson teams up with Los Angeles attorney Melissa Lewkowicz to re-examine homicide cases for families who believe a loved one has been wrongly convicted—you’ve seen the look. His brow furrows a little bit. His lips purse. Yet it’s significant, because the slightest change in his expression is the only hint that every once in a while, the otherwise unflappable Anderson is slightly taken aback by the facts of a case.

But you have to watch for it. After all, after serving 21 years on Alabama’s largest police department—where he solved over 90 percent of his homicide cases—this is familiar territory for Anderson: the crimes of passion, drug deals gone bad, crazy alibis and gruesome, bloody crime scenes. So no matter what he hears or sees—that the accused appears to have been hundreds of miles away on the morning of the murder, or the suspect was in a three-way sexual relationship with his wife and the babysitter, or whatever it is—Anderson is mostly unflappable. He’s been here, seen this, and he’s not about to change his professional demeanor just because there’s a camera crew in tow.

“I think that First 48 helped me prepare more for Reasonable Doubt, because I’m able to tune the cameras out and still be able to directly say what I need to say to the people involved,” he adds. “It’s easier now just to be Chris, having had that experience before.”

Chris Anderson teams up with Los Angeles attorney Melissa Lewkowicz

Chris Anderson teams up with Los Angeles attorney Melissa Lewkowicz

A Role He Almost Didn’t Take

Though in retrospect it’s hard to imagine the show—which started its first season slated to run for six episodes but stretched to 10 due to popular demand—without Anderson, he did, in fact, almost turn it down. It wasn’t for lack of enthusiasm for the concept, which he loved, but the fact that he following his recent retirement from the police force, Anderson had just signed on for a new job in an investigative position with a railroad company. After learning the show’s production schedule—which would involve being away for 14 days at a stretch—he didn’t see how it could work with his new employer. “Before I even approached my supervisors, I said, ‘There’s no way I can do this,’” Anderson remembers. “I can’t take care of my family with just the salary of the show, and I don’t want to leave this new job that I have.’”

But producer Rob Rosen didn’t take “no” that easily. “He said, ‘You know, Chris, I think we can figure out something. And I can tell you, we’re going to sit back one of these days and laugh about how you almost made the biggest mistake of your life, because I think this show is going to be the best thing that you’ve ever done.’

“So I sat down and prayed about it,” Anderson continues. “And I got up one day and just decided to call my supervisors and see what they had to say, and if they told me I couldn’t go, then God would lead me where I needed to go.” His first supervisor couldn’t authorize it, but he told Anderson to go ahead and call a higher-up, who in turn sent him to yet another company director…who gave him the go-ahead. “He’s a former homicide investigator out of New York,” Anderson says. “Being former cops, we know this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. It’s like winning the lottery, honestly.”

Interestingly, one aspect of the show that was never a conflict for Anderson was the idea of taking a second look at cases other police departments have already closed—in some cases, decades earlier.  As he sees it, he and Lewkowicz are simply trying to shed more light on a case that might have left unresolved questions in the mind of the public, the people involved and especially the family that has contacted them. And if the shoe were on the other foot, if someone were independently investigating a case he had been involved with in Birmingham, he says he’d be fine with that. “In my opinion, there shouldn’t be a loyalty issue when there’s suspected injustice,” he says. “No one is saying that cases are purposely, wrongfully prosecuted. I just think that if something seems wrong, any police officer should be willing to say ‘Hey, I don’t think that this is right.’ There shouldn’t be a loyalty to this ‘blue wall of silence.’ Good cops don’t do that. My loyalty is to the public that I serve.”

The Thinking Man’s Crime Show

If getting the role represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Anderson, you could also make a case that Reasonable Doubt is a one-of-a-kind program. It’s the thinking man’s crime show, because in spite of the material at its core—homicide—the show and its stars treat every person involved with respect, playing down the drama to stay focused on the facts. That might seem like a counterintuitive approach in a pop-culture environment dominated by crime shows played for maximum sensationalism, but it seems the producers of Reasonable Doubt were willing to gamble that viewers would be compelled simply by stories of regular people who end up in terrible places.

Largely due to Anderson and Lewkowicz’ no-nonsense approach, it’s also a great way to learn how good investigative work is really done. The pair starts by meeting with the person who believes their loved one was wrongfully convicted—usually a parent or other family member. They listen to the reasons the family thinks the original investigation was botched. Then they go out and follow up on those leads with independent forensic experts; interview witnesses and people who knew the accused, victim or both; and finally talk with the convicted person him or herself.

Then Anderson and Lewkowicz return to the family to break the news. Either their probe has led them to believe the original investigation was flawed and their loved one deserves a new trial, in which case they connect them with a new private investigator and attorney to try and help with an appeal, or they come back with the news that based on what they’ve learned, they believe this person truly is guilty of the crime.

“You have to do it gently,” Anderson says. “You can’t just go in and say, ‘Hey, he’s guilty. He did this,’ and be mean about it. These people have been suffering for years behind this whole ordeal. And they look to you as almost a last ray of hope, so you have to be able to convey a message to them that, ‘Hey, you’re not wrong for what you were doing, but after our investigation, we believe this person may be guilty of this crime.’ Some people accept it, and some people don’t, and there’s nothing we can do about that, but we try.

“I think our whole thing is bringing closure,” he continues. “If there’s someone who’s in prison who has been wrongly charged and is innocent, we want to try to do everything we can to help get that person out of prison. But we also want to bring some closure to those people who are struggling with the fact that in their minds, an innocent loved one is serving time in prison—but that may not be the case. So we may be able to help bring a little bit of closure for them, too, and that’s the interesting aspect about the television show because nothing else has been done like this. It’s completely new.” 

Check Anderson’s Facebook page at facebook.com/DetectiveChrisAnderson for updates and recaps of recent episodes. You can also stream “Reasonable Doubt” at www.investigationdiscovery.com/tv-shows/reasonable-doubt/.

SIDEBAR:

Success is a Decision

For now, Anderson is eagerly waiting to find out if the network will pick up Reasonable Doubt for a second season, which would include some new twists, including investigations in which the relatives of homicide victims believe the wrong person was convicted of their loved one’s murder.

He’s also doing a lot of speaking engagements, because he feels like he has a powerful message to share—especially with kids—about staying on a positive course, drawing on his long career as a police investigator. “I always teach them how you have to make a decision in life to be successful,” he says. “Success is a decision. You have to make a decision whether or not you’re going to do right from wrong, or if you’re going to get up and get to work 15 to 20 minutes earlier than you have to. For a police officer it might be, ‘During this traffic stop, am I going to try to change the perception this person has of the police?’ It’s little things like that you do every single time that you meet someone. Those are all decisions to be successful.”

He also talks about the darker decisions that change lives, drawing on at least one example directly from Reasonable Doubt. A 15-year-old boy named David chose to tag along with his older brother and a friend when they went out one night intending to cause trouble and ended up stabbing two people. One died. “Because David was present before, during and after the murder and helped get rid of some of the physical evidence, he was guilty of felony murder,” Anderson says.

“He could have made a decision not to go with his brother that night—and that’s a hard decision for a 15-year-old to make—but it would have changed his entire life.”

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