Rachel Bellwoar reviews the miniseries Code of a Killer…
When Alec Jeffreys invented the probe that made DNA testing a readable, genetic fingerprint he didn’t consider its applications for criminal justice. DCS David Baker sought him out, after reading about the test’s success in paternity and immigration cases. Two teenage girls from the same town are murdered three years apart (1983 and 1986). For most of that time the police went without suspects, believing the murders were committed by the same person – a local, with knowledge of the area – but unable to find viable leads. The outcome, following months of investigation, is a confession for one of the murders, but not the other. Baker hopes Jeffreys’ test will prove the confessor guilty of both crimes. The results make DNA testing a fixture of criminal justice forever.
Told across three episodes, Code of a Killer stars John Simm and David Threlfall as the doctor and detective respectfully. Spitting out dialogue to enunciate its importance, Simm’s Jeffreys should seem aggressive but is a much more articulate, team player than scientists tend to be portrayed on-screen. With an eagerness to teach, his use of layman’s terms won’t ostracize viewers, if unlikely to enlighten those who know what he’s talking about.
Whether it’s true of his profession or not, the distracted professor is a card TV likes to play and the first episode becomes preoccupied with Jeffreys’ marriage. This isn’t Masters of Sex. Jeffreys works with a younger colleague (Lydia Rose Bewley) without ever brushing close to infidelity. It’s work overriding his life, to where his wife has to wake him out of it, that’s caused some neglect. When able to be reached, Jeffreys is very acknowledging of his absence, without inviting excuse. It’s just that his regroups are short lasting. Quick to get caught up in the lab again, when he’s present Jeffreys is there, but needs reminding to get to there.
Threlfall’s Baker is a more typical detective but a few details prevent him from receding out of notice. His determination to keep the murders in people’s minds, as more time passes, gives a personal touch that doesn’t ease off. The simple act of recognizing the victim’s sister, when her parents are first told the news that their daughter is dead, shows considerable awareness on both a professional and human level.
What’s discouraging about Jeffreys and Baker’s collaboration is there’s no time to revel in their achievement before shortcomings become known. The actual test is revolutionary. If anything, science is remarkable for accepting the test so immediately, but the special factors around this trial run are impossible to replicate as a routine.
That’s not a criticism but a fact. The manpower and devotion put into these murders by the police is not going to be available for the thousands of cases after, when DNA testing becomes universal. That doesn’t diminish the amount of good the tests will bring, catching and exonerating killers, and engaging interrogation methods to be more mindful of forced confessions, and the conditions that produce them. These are priceless developments and, were they able to be carried out with the completeness of this first trial, the possibilities for conviction seem hopeful (if slow). Instead, backlogs are part of DNA testing’s inception. Already, before getting involved with murder, ‘urgent’ samples are forced to the back of the queue by the number of requests. That’s not encouraging.
Also not encouraging: a gimmick the show falls into of putting viewers in the presence of the killer, looking out of the windshield of his car where an ornament hangs from the rear view mirror. If this is supposed to be creepy it’s mostly aggravating and tries to create suspense out of history. If that’s your reason for watching Code of a Killer, then there won’t be much satisfaction, but if it’s groundbreaking, world-is-never-the-same discoveries you want to see, this series is an occupying place to begin.
Streaming now on Acorn TV and a DVD is scheduled for May 30th in the US.