Netflix's Strong Island chronicles director Yance Ford's 10-year investigation into his brother's killing

By Chris Harris
September 06, 2017 01:54 PM
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Credit: Netflix

The year before he was shot through the heart – killed by a man who was never prosecuted — people were calling 24-year-old William Ford, Jr., a hero. Ford, then a 24-year-old math teacher who had applied to be a corrections officer, had witnessed the shooting of a former district attorney. Ford had chased down the fleeing gunman, tackling him to the ground, and held him until police arrived.

Ford spent much of the last day of his life in a Brooklyn courtroom, a witness for the prosecution in the case. On April 7, 1992, after returning home from his testimony, he was shot in the chest on Long Island, New York, during a heated confrontation with mechanic Mark Reilly, 19, who was working on Ford’s girlfriend’s vehicle. Ford lated died from his wounds.

Reilly, who was white, was arrested for manslaughter, but an all-white grand jury refused to indict him. “Reilly should have gone to trial but didn’t, and my family was destroyed because of injustice,” says Ford’s brother, Yance.

• For more on director Yance Ford’s search for answers about his brother’s death, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.

Yance Ford
Director Yance Ford
| Credit: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

Now, Yance hopes to shine a light on his family’s devastation – and how race factors into the justice system – with his movie Strong Island, a documentary chronicling his 10-year investigation into his brother’s death that premieres on Netflix on Sept. 15.

The film, produced by Danny Glover’s Louverture Films, suggests Suffolk County detectives let their personal racial biases impact the investigation. Though Reilly and investigators into the case could not be reached for comment by PEOPLE, former Suffolk County investigator James Hughes is featured in the film saying that evidence supported the grand jury’s decision.

“One of the tragedies of the film is that William was trying to figure out who he was — 24 is that age,” Yance Ford tells PEOPLE. “He had a future, he was working towards a future. Unfortunately, it was taken away from him.”

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William Ford Jr. (back) with sister Lauren (blue jean jacket) and Yance (white jacket)
| Credit: Netflix

Ford is hopeful Strong Island will be an important part of the conversation about racial injustice and the American criminal justice system.

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“People don’t understand what kind of a void is left behind when someone you love is taken from you and what it feels like over time,” Ford says.

Strong Island helps us realize it is not just the day, the week, the month, the year that families lose a loved one — that pain, it lasts a lifetime and there’s a lifetime of grappling with a ‘justice system’ that didn’t deliver as much as a trial.”

Strong Island begins streaming Sept. 15 on Netflix.