11/02/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
IT HAD ALL THE MAKINGS OF A CLASSIC crime story: a picturesque setting, an alleged fratricide, a suspect so backwoodsy that he seemed to have stepped out of the 19th century. On July 19, 1990, filmmaker Bruce Sinofsky walked into the Manhattan office of a colleague, Joe Berlinger, and pointed to the front page of The New York Times. There, staring impassively from the newsprint, were three wizened farmers, their hard eyes peering out from beneath gnarled brows. "My God," thought Sinofsky, "this could be The Grapes of Wrath." The two men scanned the story, then looked up in instant, unspoken accord. After months of searching for a human drama to turn into the documentary film they dreamed of making, they knew, says Sinofsky, that "this is it."
About 225 miles away in the rural dairy-farming town of Munnsville, N.Y. (pop. 438), this, to Delbert Ward, was a nightmare he could hardly begin to understand. Painfully shy and with a recorded IQ of 68, he could barely read. Before the morning of June 6, 1990, life had demanded little more of the now 62-year-old farmer than milking cows and working his fields. But on that day Ward awoke to find his older brother, Bill, 64, dead in the soiled and dilapidated bed they had shared from childhood. By evening, Delbert was in the Madison County jail, charged with murder. As police told it, Ward had suffocated Bill with his hand. To this day, Delbert denies it. "He went on his own," he says. In jail he simply stared into space and wept. "I thought maybe I would be able to get out," he says, "or maybe I wouldn't."
Back in Munnsville, the case stirred neighbors who until then had no more than made small talk with the reclusive Delbert in the town diner. Outraged by what they saw as outside-authorities' manhandling of a good-hearted local, they rallied lo Delbert's support. "There's not a mean hair on his head," says longtime neighbor Harry Thurston. "The whole thing would be preposterous if it hadn't been so damn serious."
In the months that followed, acquaintances and strangers found a common cause in Delbert Ward. For Joe Berlinger, 30, and Bruce Sinofsky, 36, long hours filming the people of Munnsville in their quest to free Delbert led not just lo valued friendships but to an acclaimed documentary, Brother's Keeper, currently playing in several major cities. As for the townspeople, they found in their small-town determination both strength and pride, slicking by Delbert's side through an emotionally grueling trial and being rewarded, in April '91, with Delbert's acquittal. A few weeks ago, 40 Munnsville residents awoke before dawn to take the six-hour bus ride to Manhattan, where Delbert appeared on The Maury Povich Show.
For Delbert himself, it was a memorable visit to the big city, 'it's too loud," he grumbled, staring at Manhattan from the window of a stretch limousine. "Sirens. Horns."
The attention could hardly have come to a less likely subject. For most of his life, townspeople admit, no one had much to do with Delbert or his brothers, Bill, Roscoe, now 73, and Lyman, 69. Cancer had claimed the lives of their father. George, in 1944: their mother, Mary, in 1965; and their sister, Emma, in 1988. But the brothers stayed on at the family farm—with a barn full of cows, a few mangy mutts and about a dozen chickens and turkeys. Bill, who had been badly injured in a chain-saw accident in the mid '80s, headed what household there was. Though their stench led locals to speculate that they rarely bathed. Bill made sure that dinner was on the table each night. Delbert, especially, was attached to his older brother. "They never went anywhere off the farm unless the two of them were together," says Harry Thurston.
Believing Bill had died in his sleep, the people of Munnsville were stunned when Delbert was charged with killing his brother. "Everyone you talked to agreed," recalls Emilie Stilwell, a waitress at the Shack Café. "Delbert could not have killed his brother." And yet, police insisted, their information came from a good source: Delbert himself. As they told it, Delbert had confessed to "placing his hand over the mouth and nose of his brother until he felt he was dead."
Though not given to questioning authority—much less bucking it—Stilwell and most others balked at the story. "Delbert has never shown any violence of any kind," says Charles Young, town supervisor of neighboring Stockbridge. "He never even raised his voice." As for the confession, Delbert said, the officers did not ask him whether he'd killed his brother—they told him: "They told me you done this, you done that. They told me if I cooperated it would be easier." To those who knew Delbert, his story rang true. "If I told him to jump off a barn," says Thurston of his friend, "the damn fool would try it."
For three weeks, Delbert languished in the county jail, where he was held until bail was set. Stilwell, Thurston and Young, meanwhile, galvanized the community. They contacted a lawyer, Ralph A. Cognetti, from Syracuse; they alerted both national and local media to the case; and they set up canisters in every store within miles to collect money for Delbert's defense. "We had to make sure he got a fair shake," says Young, who, within a half hour after bail was set at $10,000, had rounded up enough cash to free him. "He had no one to turn to but us."
It was that fierce loyalty that Berlinger and Sinofsky encountered when they arrived in Munnsville a week after hearing of Delbert's story. Cognetti had already been approached by Hollywood producers hoping to turn Delbert's ordeal into a movie-of-the-week. Joe, with Bruce's help, had put out just one short film—and they had little more than credit cards for financial backing—but they struck Cognetti as fair-minded and compassionate. "Too often Delbert and his brothers are looked upon as freaks," says Cognetti. "I was impressed that they weren't going to make a spectacle of them."
But as Sinofsky and Berlinger soon learned, their open-mindedness was no preparation for what lay ahead. "Driving up the dirt road, I thought, Is this going to be Deliverance II?' " says Berlinger. Strewn with decaying auto parts and rotting furniture, the Wards' run-down farm seemed more like a junkyard. In the hut they called home, says Sinofsky, it was difficult finding the human beings beneath the squalor and stench. "In the beginning, they were frightening," he admits.
And yet each weekend—after putting in full weeks at Maysles Films, a Manhattan-based documentary film studio—the two men headed upstate. Initially they left their cameras in their cars and spent long days with the Wards, just sitting. To find common ground, Sinofsky tried chewing tobacco and talking tractors. One weekend, the filmmakers took to the fields to bale hay. "We took the time to build relationships," says Bruce.
The strategy worked. By March 1991, when Delbert's case went to trial in the Madison County Courthouse, Bruce and Joe stood tensely behind their cameras not just as filmmakers but as friends. "We were totally committed," says Sinofsky. "It became a labor of love." During the trial, prosecutors pointed out tins hemorrhages on Bill's mouth and windpipe that suggested suffocation. (The defense countered that Bill could have suffocated from natural causes.) The motive, they speculated, was either greed—Delbert's desire to gain leadership of the farm—or mercy: a desperate attempt to free his ailing brother from pain. But on the stand, Delbert stood firm, saying of Bill's death what he said before and after his confession: "He went on his own."
After 11 hours of deliberation, a jury found Delbert not guilty—perhaps not a surprise to the accused. "Delbert was like a child," says Emilie Stilwell. "He thought that since we were all there, nothing could happen to him."
Exactly what occurred that night in the Wards' shack may never be known. In Munnsville, though, the case is closed. Though they still chat happily about Bruce and Joe's movie, talk at the Shack has mostly returned to milk prices. Delbert, too, is eager to get on with his life. He signs auto-graphs because people ask him to. And he sometimes wears a Brother's Keeper pin, he says, "because they gave it to me free. I just wake up and get up," he says, trudging along a muddy farm road. "That's the way it always was."
KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
BRYAN ALEXANDER in Munnsville