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Finding Justice on Film
In 1997, when James Ronald Whitney, a broker at Tucker Anthony
in New York, was speaking on the phone with screenwriter Jim
Hart about a Broadway musical Whitney had written, Whitney's
mom beeped in to tell him his grandmother was dying.
When Whitney clicked back to Hart, Whitney had a new idea. He
thought a story about his incredibly dysfunctional family "would
be amazing as a film." But he needed to get information from
his grandmother before she died.
Whitney doesn't waste time. "An hour and a half later, I had
the treatment [of the film] done," he says. "Later that day,
I had booked flights, hotels and ordered film."
What was the story? "When you grow up with a suicidal mother,
you're constantly asking, 'Why?'" he says. "I realized it had
to do with [sexual] abuse by Melvin Just," Whitney's grandfather.
"He was abusing most of the family, and raped and murdered a
social worker in front of three of them."
In fact, Just, a junkyard mechanic in Carlotta, Calif., molested
10 of his children and stepchil-dren. Although the abuse was
reported to authorities, Just was only charged with some of
the crimes in 1978. "He was sentenced to 13 years and served
eight," Whitney says.
The social worker, Josephine Spegel, was sent to the Just home
to help the children. She was strangled on March 10, 1969. "He
killed her and got away with it," Whitney says.
The case was reopened in the mid-90s, and Just took a polygraph.
"Minus seven is lying. He was minus 16," Whitney says. The detective
tried to get the district attorney to bring him to trial, but
Just suffered a stroke and his neuro-surgeon wouldn't let the
police interview him.
Since the courts had failed Whitney's family he decided to try
Just "in the court of public opinion," he says. "When I started
making the film, I promised the audience I wouldn't stop until
he was in jail or dead."
Whitney got his wish. On July 31, 1999, a few months after Whitney's
last interview for the film, Just died.
Since its January 2000 premiere at the Sundance Film Festival,
"Just, Melvin" has won best documentary at four film
festivals in the United States and Canada. HBO bought the rights
and will air the film Sunday, April 22.
Whitney was screenwriter, co-producer, co--executive producer,
co-editor and co-music writer. On camera, Whitney confronts
his grandfather about the molestation. Just denies the abuse.
"At one point he threatened to molest me if I asked him any
more questions," he says. And although he was never physically
abused by Just, Whitney openly reveals that an uncle molested
him at age five.
Whitney pursued the film to bring attention to the horrors of
child abuse. "I'm so proud of my family for having been as honest,
open and coura-geous as they were," he says. "They're so strong.
They've gone through so much."
Broker James Ronald Whitney wrote, produced
and directed an award-winning documentary film about his sexually
abusive grandfather, Melvin Just.