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'Burder of Proof's Catch 22 and the Messy Business of True Crime and Hope

By Alison Lanier | TV | June 30, 2023 |

By Alison Lanier | TV | June 30, 2023 |


Cynthia Hill’s new docu-series Burden of Proof on HBO—sorry Max—is not an easy watch, but for the right reasons. In a crowded field of true crime, it’s distinguished primarily by its scope at the outset: filmed over the course of seven years, the four-part series follows Stephen Pandos as he fights tooth-and-nail, through police, courts, private eyes, and forensic specialists, to hold accountable the person responsible for his fifteen-year-old sister’s disappearance. The first snag is that his sister, Jennifer, disappeared back in 1987. The second is that … well, it’s hard to start in any kind of order. Missing case files, conflicting stories, failed polygraphs, and a history of abuse are all contenders.

This true crime story is a personal odyssey for Stephen: his abusive father and his mother were the only other people in the house on the night of Jennifer’s disappearance, making them the prime suspects. The police can’t make it stick; there’s no evidence except a clearly creepy and irrational note left on Jennifer’s bed—not by Jennifer.

The obvious villain of the story (and there’s no point looking for redemption here, even if he was ultimately not responsible for the specific harm to Jennifer on this specific day) is Stephen’s own father, a war-battered Vietnam veteran with a short fuse and a vicious history of physical abuse against his children and unspecified abuses against his first two wives. He was verbally abusive to Jennifer the night she vanished. He was the last one to see her. It’s not hard to piece together.

The story opens with Stephen’s crusade to finally hold his father accountable for the crime—to somehow truly prove what his father has all-but-admitted to doing, shoving Jennifer—as Ron had done to Stephen many times before—and accidentally killing her. At one point, Ron even indicated he knew the location of the body. He’s a horrible man, even on his best behavior for the cameras—self-righteous and cruel, with a timid and submissive new wife at his side. It’s easy to see how he was so hungry for authority and control that he hurt his own family.

But did Ron actually do it? Besides the extraordinary time frame over which the series was shot, there’s something else that makes Burden of Proof remarkable. Certainty is the enemy here, even while it’s ultimately what Stephen is after. It’s a hard realization, a catch-22, that remains insurmountable.

For instance: Stephen’s estranged mother, who was alone with her abusive husband in their house after their daughter’s murder, came into the police’s crosshairs as an accomplice, someone who might have forged the strange note, in part because her behavior didn’t appear consistent with how a frantic mother should behave. This was the entrenched, official, irrefutable narrative for decades. But even in aggressive interrogation, she maintains: she can’t give answers she doesn’t have.

Profilers who point conclusively at the parents initially begin to backtrack more than thirty years later. DNA is found—but the test swab is bad or inconclusive or…something. And if it came back it probably wouldn’t have helped anyway. Also, the handwriting analysis is taking forever. And is there even a body out there to find?
The quiet turmoil of this story can’t be overstated. Stephen wades with patient, diligent, methodical focus from year to year, from development to development—but still, his obsessive combing over and over the facts doesn’t protect him. At one point he sat and prayed with one of the actual perpetrators—the man who either instructed or assisted the murderer in disposing of Jennifer’s corpse—after listening closely and earnestly to this man’s self-serving account of events.

It’s a tangle, and the slough year to year to year of shifting roles and changing evidence, all managed behind the curtain of police confidentiality, is maddening even as a viewer who can breeze through the whole timeline in only four hours, rather than seven years.

True crime as a real-time investigation usually gains momentum, some kind of clarity in the long journey of filming and interviews, with the promise of at least implied consensus or an avenue forward. I won’t give away if there are truly answers at the end of Burden of Proof. But the burden in the title is very tangible, as the family is fractured and Stephen is ground down by the weight of knowing that someone—almost certainly someone he knows—is responsible for his sister’s death.

His rationale for holding onto that burden, for continuing to champion the investigation, is that this is what family is supposed to do for each other—and by pursuing “Jennifer’s truth,” he can somehow retroactively create, from the painful mess of his childhood, a family as it should be, built on boundless love and loyalty. The irony is that he has built a family, two daughters of his own, and a loving partner.

The weight of time and the nightmarish uncertainty of pursuing justice—or even the perception of justice—is captured here, an element of true crime that is often discussed but delivered with such raw, unspoken force. Burden of Proof is an excellent true crime story full of twists and turns, too, but that’s beside the point. The personal odyssey of the story towards a conclusion is not the difficult, unrelenting, and heroic course toward justice framed in so many other true crime programs. It’s an odyssey in the truest sense: a series of trials and tribulations, endured with a righteous and unwavering hope.

Burden of Proof is now streaming on Max.