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Interview: Matthew Perniciaro Tells the Story of the Murder of Michael Jordan’s Father in “Moment of Truth”

Award-winning producer Matthew Perniciaro is making his directorial debut with the Amazon Studios/IMDBtv original docuseries Moment of Truth: The Killing of James Jordan. The series tells the never-before-seen story behind the murder of Michael Jordan’s father, James Jordan, in 1993. Fans of last year’s The Last Dance may recall the horrible story of Jordan’s murder, but MOMENT OF TRUTH explores the circumstances surrounding the murder further by exposing the rampant corruption in the small North Carolina town where the heinous crime and subsequent trial occurred. We spoke to Perniciaro about the project:

Hi, Matthew. Thanks so much for chatting with me to talk about your latest project, Moment of Truth, which documents the murder and subsequent investigation into Michael Jordan’s father James Jordan.

Thank you very much. It’s actually interesting. We were in production for this project prior to even knowing about The Last Dance. I was in Raleigh working with the team at lunch and we were at a sports bar with ESPN on. They had a commercial for The Last Dance and we were like “oh, okay”. We were in production on this in 2018 and at the time we didn’t know about The Last Dance. It didn’t really affect the overall story we were telling but knowing they were doing an in-depth story about Michael’s life, we knew this would be a deeper dive for audiences who had questions around his father’s case. It’s really a gateway. James Jordan’s murder is a gateway to a larger story of what happens afterwards and at trial. So much of this footage had never been seen before. It had only been seen 25-28 years ago on the NC nightly news. And that was at a time when the local news went national. So if you took a look at the coverage that took place in NC which is where I grew up and first saw this news coverage, it wasn’t in such a greater amount of detail that had never been reported on a national level. We felt there was so much to explore in the story at the time but also there’s a lot of new developments that have emerged about the case in the past few decades.

You’re originally from North Carolina, where this all took place. Was this personal for you at all? How intimate did that help in getting you to the subject matter?

Being from NC absolutely influences my wanting to tell this story. It actually played an even bigger role in how this series came to be. Jimmy Goodmon, one of the executive producers of the series, his family owns WRAL in Raleigh and he and I grew up together. We went to high school together and were friends growing up. He saw what I was going in the doc and film world. Simultaneously, they were going through their archives and unlike a lot of local news archives, WRAL kept everything.They were digitizing their archives and got through the ‘90s. He called me in 2018 and said “Matt, I’m seeing all the footage that we have that no one has seen in all this time. I think there’s something here”. We started talking about the project and I officially got on board in 2019. We worked on it together along with a great team of journalists from WRAL. Clay, Shelley, and Jay. Just a great Emmy winning team who had already started working on the story. And then Chris Mumma had taken {Jordan murder suspect} Daniel Green on as a client so she was uncovering all this new evidence they had never known publicly before as part of the filings she was making with the state in an effort to get Daniel a new evidentiary hearing. We had the convergence of all these things along with the root of all being from NC. And this was reported on the nightly news every night for years in NC. It was probably the largest criminal case in the history of the state. We had an awareness of it that I don’t think the rest of the country did. I was 13 when the crimes took place and that’s a seminole experience. A moment in your life you remember.

How much access were you able to get to court documents, testimonies from key individuals that aided in this being never-before-seen-or-heard footage and information regarding the case? And how did you go about retrieving that?

We went through a variety of ways of retrieving the various pieces of information. Those range from evidence emerging from the case with Chris Mumma’s efforts with her public filings. A majority of the archival is from WRAL’s public archives. I think that’s one of the reasons no one told this story before because they never knew that the footage existed. Anyone who would try to tell this tory before would’ve hit certain roadblocks because they didn’t have the elements to tell it completely. Once we realized we had this unbelievable archive, that really opened up the door for us to do justice to telling the story. Then we did traditional FOIA requests and the state showed us evidence that had never been seen outside of the trial such as photos and documents. We also were able to get the court audio which had never been digitized prior to the project. It was all still sitting on physical tapes at the Robeson County Courthouse.It was a multi-year investigation we conducted to make this series and we pretty much used any means at our disposal to get as much information about the case. Even the trial transcript was 8000 pages long. I don’t think most people have read it before. Even though we had audio of the actual trial – which no one has heard outside of the courtroom since 1996 – we had the transcript so we were going from the transcript and finding these elements of the stories, many of which were shocking, and then once we had the audio we knew we could represent that to the audience through the audio files by bringing the trial to life. We used photos and built almost a virtual courtroom to match those audio files.

This is so timely with the retrial that Daniel Green had just announced a couple months ago he was seeking. Does the docuseries touch on that at all in later episodes? And if not, would the outcome of that potential retrial compel you to put out an epilogue bonus episode?

I think it’s an immensely relevant story. It’s one of the things for me that was difficult and sad in telling the story. This is a story about loss. The Jordan family has lost the patriarch in their family. He was a beloved person both by his family and the state of North Carolina. He was a celebrated individual. So you’re dealing with the loss but you’re also dealing with the loss of these two young men whose lives and their families lives were altered because of this. When you’re telling a story like that, you have t o tell it with a great deal of respect. You have to be very sensitive in telling a story that is as deep as this. The other part that made it sad is we’re talking about issues 30 years ago that we are still talking about in our society today. We’re talking about corruption in law enforcement, racism in the criminal justice system. These are things that, 30 years later, are very much in the public conversation today and are necessary to be in our public conversation. This makes the story very relevant to today even though it is a story that took place nearly 30 years ago.

Would you consider an epilogue episode depending on what the retrial results in? Would there be a result that would compel you enough to finish this story? Because it seems like it’s still not finished yet.

There’s been a number of developments. Chris Mumma took Daniel on as a client and is petitioning the state for a new hearing based upon a lot of the new evidence she has uncovered and that we detail in the show. Absolutely, if the story progresses, we want this to be the definitive telling of the story. If the story progresses, we abostely want to continue if those efforts come to light. We weren’t sure what was going to happen. But there were a number of curveballs and unexpected things that took place even as recently as last summer as we were in the process of editing. We had to go back and change our edit because new information was coming out. New developments took place. If Daniel is given a new hearing, there is a question of fact about what took place in this case. There is a lot of new evidence the court has never seen before. And I do think that if there is a question of fact, an evidentiary hearing is what our legal system provides for. I believe that it is just an evidentiary hearing that takes place. And if that happens, of course we want to document that and complete the end of this story.

You come from the realm of producing, having been at it for nearly 20 years. This is your first time directing I believe. What compelled you to step up to the plate to helm this project and was it a challenge at all for you at first?

It was definitely a first for me. I’ve produced a number of projects over the years. I’ve been fortunate to produce a number of compelling films and TV works over the past 20 years. I watched a lot of this unfold as a child when I was 13 years old and it stuck with me for a period of time. So when I got that first phone call and we were first talking about it and I dived deeper into it even more, I think it was Shelly who said to me “I think you should direct this because you have a deep understanding of not just the filmmaking process but also you’ve been living and understanding this case for many years”. And that really compelled me to want to take that step. I’ve been looking to make that step eventually. I’ve been wanting to direct, especially in the documentary space. And I felt a really deep connection to want to tell this story. And that felt like the right decision, to move forward with my first official directing project.

Without giving anything anyway, what do you think were some of the most shocking aspects of the story that audiences will take away from the series?

One of the things we do in the series is we show the history of corruption where the trial took place. We take a real deviation after the first episode. We bring audiences back about10  years in the second episode to provide history of this case. Some people might now know what’s happening at first as we go away from the core story. We felt strongly that you have to have that understanding to understand what’s going on in the rest of the case. If you know that there’s a history of corruption and mishandling of evidence in this county, then you’re evidently going to question what is presented at this trial. The biggest thing that stood out to me that shocked me the most was how certain pieces of evidence were presented at trial as opinion yet entered into the courtroom as fact. Our legal system actually doesn’t allow for a lot of that practice to take place anymore. Things said as opinion cannot be entered as fact. The other side of it is when you look at the trial, the lack of actual physical evidence of this case. When you see the early videos of when they discovered James Jordan’s car, you have the sheriffs on camera saying that they found no blood in the car. Yet when it gets to trial, they said they had blood evidence in the car. We get into great detail in the series of how that all transpires. That was one of the things that has caused so much mystery around this specific case is that there was a lot of disinformation and I think  that led people down different conspiracy theory rabbit roles. And that led to a lot of really unfair conspiracy theories that pointed at the Jim Jordan family. I’m glad this series is able to dispel a lot of those rumors and show audiences the truth. But there were questions about the actual audience. And I believe that’s what led people to come up with these conspiracy theories because you couldn’t make sense of the information you were being told. So we laid it all out for the audience to understand it. But some of it is shocking when you see reports of blood evidence that say “inconclusive” yet in the court record it’s being stated as fact that it’s blood. I was not aware that that was allowed in our legal system. But at that time, things like that were.

Have you heard anything from Michael on how he received the series or if he’s even seen or heard about it at all? Any reaction from him?

We have not received any reaction. Early in the process, we did request an interview through his spokesperson both out of respect from the family because if they wanted a voice in telling the story, we wanted them to have that voice. They declined, which was anticipated by us. This is something that the family has spoken on very briefly and in a limited fashion. We respect that. Even though Michael Jordan is a public person, that doesn’t mean he has to grieve in public. There should be things that people should retain their privacy on and the loss of a parent should be one of those things. But out of respect, we requested and they said “no, thank you”. But I do hope that if they were to watch it, they would sit back and say “Obviously, this team spent a lot of time and effort and a substantial amount of time in their lives to tell the truth” which is something the media at the time did not do. The media, at the time, jumped to a lot of conclusions. Specifically, print journalism. They would immediately jump into conspiracy theories. That probably also created almost a wall around the family and never wanting to talk about this because they were not being treated fairly. We were trying to make every decision so that every person involved was being treated with respect and fairness.

This series is currently available on Amazon Prime via their IMDbTV channel. How did Amazon and IMDbTV find out about this project and want to get involved?

We were working on it independently for a few years. We tried something a bit different from what we ever did, which was, we really edited the first episode completely on our own. It was still rough with visual effects. It wasn’t a complete vision yet. A lot of the time, especially in the documentary space, people put together a sizzle reel or sampling of footage that lays everything out in the series. We wanted to take a step further with this and show distributors what we were creating. When we went to have conversations with the distributors, a number of the distributors were able to see more of the series than most distributors get to see at that stage in the process. And then Amazon came to us with the new IMDBtv streaming service and that was really exciting to us. We did not want a barrier for entry for the audience. We wanted any audience to have access to this without having to be a paid subscriber. When that option presented itself, we got really excited and that accelerated the conversations really quickly with them as a partner and they were wonderful to work with.

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Written by Max Geschwind

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