The recent killing of George Floyd and other unarmed Black men has spotlighted law enforcement’s cruel, deadly racism, but sadly those tragedies aren’t the only ways cops fail their communities. Sometimes the death sentences the police mete out are undertaken in slower and perhaps even more insidious ways, prompted less by bigotry than by simple arrogance and incompetence. Errol Morris’ 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line was a landmark in detailing a murder investigation that went terribly wrong, which resulted in sending the wrong man to prison, but the new Showtime series Outcry has moments that are nearly as enraging.
Telling the story of a Texas teenager put behind bars for 25 years for sexual assault of a child, a crime he didn’t commit, this five-part, five-hour documentary is a slow-motion examination of how local law enforcement and the legal system botched a case every step of the way. It’s so upsetting you may need assurances that the series has a happy ending in order to keep watching.
Outcry introduces us to a familiar world — that of suburban Texas, where high school football is treated like a religion. (Sure, that’s a cliché, but it’s a phrase we hear almost verbatim near the start of the documentary.) We’re in Leander, just outside of Austin, the hometown of Greg Kelley, a handsome, gifted defensive back who had a full ride to the University of Texas at San Antonio and who dreamt of one day playing in the NFL. This teenager had an inspirational story — he lived with a family friend while his father recovered from a stroke and his mom had a brain tumor — and was a popular guy in his school. He even had a pretty blond girlfriend, Gaebri, who was a lovely, supportive soulmate. This isn’t the sort of young man you’d imagine was harboring a dark side.
And yet, in 2013, the high-school senior was arrested on suspicion of molesting a 4-year-old boy, who told police that Kelley put his penis in the child’s mouth. The charge seemed preposterous to anyone who knew Kelley — until another 4-year-old claimed that Kelley had assaulted him, too. Both boys were at a daycare center run out of the house where Kelley was temporarily living, so it was at least conceivable. But could this squeaky-clean, soft-spoken young man with everything ahead of him really be a pedophile?
A jury thought so, convicting him the following year. When his term was finally over — there was no option for parole — he’d be in his 40s.
The first chapter of Outcry, which premieres on Sunday, dives into Kelley’s background and the horrors of his alleged crimes. (We see video of the accusations made to the police.) Outcry was directed by Pat Kondelis, an Austinite who previously made The Scheme and spent six years following the bizarre twists and turns of the case, interviewing Kelley in prison as well as lawyers and law enforcement officials. If you know how this story unfolded, it may not be as suspenseful, but even so, Kondelis has done an impressive job of laying out the injustices and surprises in store for Kelley. What Outcry never loses track of is the nightmarish procedural quality of a prosecution that was determined to put away the wrong man. The more Kelley asserts his innocence — and the clearer it becomes that he didn’t commit these acts — the worse everything gets for him.
To Kondelis’ credit, Outcry modulates its outrage, preferring a sober, thoughtful approach so that both the documentary’s fury and sorrow can hit harder. In some ways, the series is about why cognitive biases lead to bad decisions — and how in law enforcement those errors in judgment can have serious repercussions.
An accuser who simply says that he was assaulted by “Greg” is never questioned about whether he means Greg Kelley. Other possible suspects are simply ignored because the cops are sure Kelley is their guy. And most worryingly, the interrogation of the 4-year-olds is mishandled, the detectives essentially leading them to outcomes rather than actually listening to what they had to say. Law enforcement wasn’t looking for the truth — they just wanted a prosecution. And Kelley paid the price.
The movie has no shortage of villains, including Sean Mannix, the chief of police who, remarkably, agreed to talk to Kondelis. Once Kelley is sentenced to 25 years, a groundswell of community support begins, which Mannix dismisses as “cult-like.” But as more evidence comes out — and it becomes increasingly apparent that the police and the D.A. didn’t properly investigate this crime — Mannix’s stubborn insistence that Kelley is guilty starts to feel like a face-saving ploy. Refusing to budge, Mannix is grilled by Kondelis, who without grandstanding presents a portrait of denial that’s downright chilling.
Every once in a while, a possible white knight enters the story, and Outcry’s secret MVP is Keith Hampton, the attorney who takes up Kelley’s defense after he’s sentenced, dedicating his energies to proving that the young man didn’t get a fair shake at his original trial. Not just a sharp lawyer but also a warm, articulate presence on screen, Hampton is Kelley’s only hope of getting released early, and the documentary shows just how arduous the process is to exonerate someone, even in a case like this where there’s overwhelming proof that the defendant didn’t commit the crime. Hampton is such a stirring hero — the sort of lawyer you’d desperately want in your corner — in part because, as we’ll learn, so many others who were supposedly on Kelley’s side ultimately betray him.
To reveal those twists would minimize their shock, but let’s just say that Outcry is a galling examination of how the judicial system is set up to disadvantage someone like Kelley, especially once he’s assumed to be a pedophile.
All of this is more heartbreaking because of the man at the documentary’s center. Kelley was just a talented football player — this high-school kid was in no way prepared for the legal landmines he’d have to negotiate over the course of several years. Kondelis interviewed him repeatedly over that span, and Outcry serves as a journal of his difficult maturation. Near the start of the film, as he’s first accused of sexual assault, Kelley seems bewildered by the whole spectacle, convinced that he’ll be found not guilty because that’s the truth. But over Outcry’s subsequent chapters, we observe how Kelley grows up and becomes jaded, holding onto the hope that he’ll be freed but also angry at what’s happened to him.
In some ways, this documentary is an unorthodox coming-of-age story that’s acutely poignant — this wasn’t how Kelley thought his life would play out. That Kelley is somehow able to hold his composure and sense of decency despite his ordeal is downright miraculous, particularly when, late in Outcry, he tells his mother about the terrifying prison conditions he’d kept from her so she wouldn’t worry. No one should be tested the way he was, but Kelley emerges as an unusually wise and grounded individual while simultaneously remaining a young guy who can’t fully comprehend the years of his life that have been stripped from him.
As viewers learn about lawyers concealing their conflicts of interest, corrupt detectives who skirt the law and a byzantine Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that holds Kelley’s fate in its hands, Outcry is forever mindful of the survivors of this sexual assault — those 4-year-old boys who claimed they’d been molested. For obvious reasons, we never see their faces or learn their names, but Kondelis understands that Kelley was far from the only victim here. (Outcry even makes room for a woman who was sexually assaulted by another man, believing that her attacker was the individual the cops should have investigated in the Kelley case. If the police had done their job right the first time, she might not have been raped. Indeed, the ripples from bad police work extend far, far beyond the original crime.)
I will say that the film eventually reaches what one might consider a happy outcome, but you won’t forget how close it came to not happening — or the lingering trauma that still stains this story. The Black Lives Matter movement may have raised awareness of how systemic racism imperils our society, but Outcry reminds us that, even in non-lethal situations, law enforcement can so easily and callously destroy individuals. Greg Kelley has been forever scarred by his experience. After seeing this documentary, you will be, too.