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A GRAVE INJUSTICE

If the Showtime original movie, "The Killing Yard" (8 p.m. Sunday) proves anything, it is that it's not exactly easy to make an involving movie about an African-American inmate at the Attica Correctional Facility who was falsely accused of slitting the throat of two white inmates during the prison uprising 30 years ago.

It is difficult to root for the inmate, even if he was unjustifiably accused of the crime by a state trying to cover up the accidental shooting of several prison guards by state police during the retaking of the prison. After the state lost the trial, 60 pending cases against Attica inmates were dismissed.

The movie tries to get viewers involved in the story about the convict by making a hero out of the white lawyer defending him, and then to cast sensitive actor Alan Alda in the lead role.

Alda is Ernie Goodman, the liberal attorney who took the unpopular case tried before State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Mattina, who served as a consultant on the film.

Not only is he battling the state, Goodman also is battling a physical problem that jeopardizes his health and causes him to have blurred vision.

Unfortunately, the script also is a little blurry. It suggests a romance between the angry defendant, known as Shango (Morris Chestnut), and a prominent member of the Attica Brothers Legal Defense Committee, Linda Borus (Rose McGowan), who aids Goodman on the case.

But the script seems too fearful to actually show much of anything, leaving almost everything to your imagination.

The movie doesn't really have much of a villain, either. The state is the culprit. Its investigators and prosecutors used intimidation to elicit false testimony, but it seems almost to be business as usual in the courtroom rather than addressing those outrageous offenses.

The prison riot is re-created in black-and-white scenes that illustrate the chaos. It is just about the only artistic aspect of the movie. There is only one memorable line, when an inmate notes the state "ain't after justice, just us."

Chestnut gives a strong performance as Shango, who was initially so suspicious of Goodman that he demanded to be his own co-counsel. But once you get past Chestnut and Alda, the acting is second-rate.

There is no big dramatic moment, with the 1975 court case apparently hinging on the bravery of a state medical examiner from Monroe County, Dr. John Edland (Arthur Holden). Portrayed as a mousy figure, Edland eventually agrees to testify about his autopsy findings before the state asked for a second opinion to justify its conclusions.

Basically, what you are left with is Alda playing an old guy with principles who is willing to die for justice and Chestnut playing an angry inmate who redeems himself.

It just isn't enough to sustain a two-hour drama, especially since "The Killing Yard" premieres on the same night that ABC trots out a special two-hour season premiere of its legal drama, "The Practice."

The written postscript at the end of the movie makes you wonder even more about the choices made in the script by Benita Garvin, who Showtime says was a friend of Goodman's.

According to the postscript, Shango and Linda Borus eventually married and had a child. In other words, they had a deeper romance than suggested here.

Goodman lived until he was 90, suggesting his health problems apparently might not have been as dangerous as they are made out to be.

After waiting more than 25 years to tell the story, the timing isn't exactly right for "The Killing Yard." After last week's tragedy in New York City, Americans want to believe in their institutions again. They don't want a reminder that states aren't always truthful, that sometimes they manufacture evidence and launch coverups.

Still, the best thing that "The Killing Yard" does is remind us that being an American means that everyone has rights that can't, and shouldn't be, trampled upon.

Rating: 2 stars out of 4

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center last week resulted in the preemption of a Channel 2 special on the Attica uprising that was to have run last Thursday.

"I don't know when it is going to be right to run it because of the violence," said Channel 2 General Manager Darryll Green. "We're going to look to see if we can reschedule it. I hope we get a chance to run it because it was a very good special."

David Letterman and Jay Leno have seemed almost apologetic about going back to their late-night routines. The night after Letterman came back and wondered why, Leno opened "The Tonight Show" Tuesday with a long monologue in which he tried to explain "why we're here" and will eventually try to get back to being funny.

At one point, he noted that the World Trade Center attack led him to make telephone calls to several areas far away from Ground Zero to make sure his friends were OK. Among the places he said he called friends was Buffalo.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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