A Baffling Murder Case. An Unimaginable Tragedy.
Jun 28, 2019
At 3:10 p.m. on October 2, 1998, 13-year-old Gregory Witman returned home from school. Seven minutes later, his 15-year-old brother, Zachary, who was home sick that day, dialed 911.
“Is he breathing?” the operator asked.
“No. I gotta call my mom!” Zachary said.
Police arrived on the scene to find Gregory dead in a pool of his own blood on the laundry-room floor. He had been stabbed more than 100 times with a penknife, and nearly decapitated. Later, Zachary would testify in a Pennsylvania court that he had roused from his sickbed after hearing a commotion downstairs. After checking the house, he had found his brother brutally murdered in the laundry room.
Over the next five years, the case underwent a series of botched pretrial motions and appeals. In 2003, despite a dearth of evidence, Zachary was found guilty of first-degree murder and later sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. (He was represented by Cristina Gutierrez, the attorney featured in the podcast Serial; before her death, she was disbarred due to negligence.) Zachary and his parents, Ron and Sue Witman, have maintained his innocence.
Rick Lee, a journalist at the York Daily Record, reported on the case. Fifteen years after Zachary’s conviction, Lee’s son, Joe, wanted to check up on Ron and Sue. Though generally wary of the media—the Witmans felt that most reporters, with the exception of the York Daily Record, had jumped to conclusions about their son’s culpability—they agreed to let the younger Lee make a short documentary.
“They wrongfully accused him and ultimately wrongfully convicted him,” says Ron Witman in Lee’s film, The Witmans. “In the process, they killed the parents as well—myself and my wife.”
Rather than foreground the intrigue of the crime itself, Lee focuses his devastating film on how Ron and Sue have coped with the unimaginable tragedy that befell them.
“It’s not a true-crime show or an investigation podcast,” Lee told me. “We just wanted to show these two people, what they’ve been through, and what they continue to go through. I think especially for young filmmakers, it would have been enticing to get caught up in the drama of the crime—which there is quite a lot—but I just kept pushing that urge away.”
In the film, Ron speaks candidly about how the couple’s relationship has deteriorated. “We love each other, but we cope differently,” he says. “It leads to a lot of arguments, which makes us in a lot of ways roommates more than husband and wife … we have been placed [in] an impossible situation, and it has torn us apart.”
Toward the end of the film, Ron admits that the only thing that keeps him going is the hope of Zachary’s eventual release. Just months ago, his wishes were granted: Zachary’s conviction was thrown out after a retroactive ruling that mandatory life sentences are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. In May 2019, Zachary agreed to a plea bargain and was released from prison.
“After 16 years, they have their son back, and they couldn’t be happier,” Lee said.
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Author: Emily Buder
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A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.