A recent novel inspired by an infamous 1988 murder in Roxbury — and the subsequent questionable trial and conviction — will soon be adapted into a motion picture.
The Hollywood Reporter reported earlier this month that producer Tonya Lewis Lee (wife of director Spike Lee) acquired the rights to former Boston Globe Spotlight Team reporter and current Boston University journalism professor Dick Lehr’s 2017 young adult novel “Trell” (Candlewick Press). The work of fiction centers around a young girl named Van Trell Taylor who teams up with Globe reporter Clemens Bittner in an attempt to prove her imprisoned father’s innocence.
While “Trell” is a work of fiction, the story has its roots in the 1988 murder of 12-year-old Darlene Tiffany Moore and the ensuing conviction of Shawn Drumgold. On May 4 2003, Lehr wrote an article for the Globe questioning whether Drumgold was guilty. His reporting included interviews with two key witnesses who recanted their statements and testimonies and claimed to be victims of police intimidation, the revelation that one key witness had extensive criminal charges wiped clean after he testified, and the fact that a key defense witness’s brain cancer (which can affect memory and perception) was not revealed to the defense or jury during the trial. The next day, Suffolk District Attorney General Daniel F. Conley ordered prosecutors to conduct an internal review of the new evidence casting doubt on Drumgold’s conviction. In November 2003, Superior Court Judge Barbara J. Rouse vacated Drumgold’s conviction, and in 2014, the City of Boston settled a wrongful conviction lawsuit with Drumgold for $5 million.
“Trell” is Lehr’s first foray into the young adult genre, but it isn’t the first of his works to be adapted for the screen. “Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal” (PublicAffairs Books, 2012) became “Black Mass,” the 2015 movie starring Johnny Depp as the notorious Winter Hill gangster. “The Birth of a Movement: How Birth of a Nation Ignited the Battle for Civil Rights”(PublicAffairs Books, 2017), which chronicles the heated debates that surrounded the release of D.W. Griffith’s controversial film, was made into a documentary that aired on PBS’s “Independent Lens” in 2017. And “The Fence: A Police Cover-Up Along Boston’s Racial Divide”(Harper Perennial, 2009), which follows the 1995 beating of Boston police officer Michael Cox by fellow cops and its cover-up, will also be adapted into a feature film.
Lehr told the Globe in 2017 that part of his inspiration for making “Trell” a young adult book was that when Drumgold was released from prison, Drumgold’s daughter — just an infant when he was initially convicted — was close to the same age that Moore had been when she was killed.
“That never left me,” Lehr said. “That’s where it came together — writing a novel for young adults. Tell the story for kids. It made sense, all the wonderings about that girl.”