Texas Tech University

Law Professor Creates Documentary as a Learning Tool for Students

McKenzi Morris

January 15, 2020

Vickie Sutton

"The Court Martial of Apache Kid" highlights the complex relationship between the Apaches and the U.S. Army during the late 1880s.

When Texas Tech University's Vickie Sutton learned to edit and shoot videos with a short course through the New York Film Academy, her original plan was to use those skills to film lectures for online classes at the Texas Tech School of Law.

Sutton, associate dean for digital learning and graduate education and Paul Whitfield Horn Professor, soon returned to campus to teach online courses, but realized her new talents could be used in other ways as well – as a nontraditional teaching tool through documentaries.

Her interest in this started with the legend of Apache Kid and his trial, a case about a Native American scout who originally was sentenced to death for seeking revenge against his father's killer in the late 1880s. This led to the creation of "The Court Martial of Apache Kid," a book and documentary Sutton directed herself.

Sutton knew how complex the case and trial were and decided to create the documentary in part to help law students understand how it all went down. She said most trials on TV and in books are abbreviated, focusing solely on the highlights, but don't tell the whole story.

"The Court Martial of Apache Kid" was published as a book and turned into a documentary by Vickie Sutton in part to help law students understand the complexities of the trial.

"I wanted to do something that was more educational, that might feel like you're sitting through the trial," Sutton said. "I wanted to show the building of anticipation, seeing how evidence is presented and learning something about how it was different compared to now."

She also wanted to shed light on the case by presenting the side that typically gets left out of the narrative.

"I wanted to get the Apache's perspective on him and find some descendants who had memories and handed-down knowledge they were willing to share so their perspective could be heard," Sutton said. "I wanted to know how they felt about it because it wasn't a fair trial."

Production process

As she began working on the documentary, Sutton wanted to keep as much information historically accurate as possible. To start, she found the tribe Apache Kid was part of, the San Carlos Apache, and visited the reservation. She met with tribal leaders who mentored her through the filming and editing process as well as helped her cast the main character.

Sutton wanted to cast a San Carlos Apache tribe member as the Apache Kid, someone who could authentically portray the character. To do this, she drove house to house on the reservation with a tribal leader who helped her find people that would fit the role.

They visited with several people, but eventually ended up at the house of Marsh Logan, a firefighter for the tribe.

"He gets out and he's talking to us and they kind of start laughing," Sutton said. "They reverted to speaking Apache and I said, 'What happened?' She said, 'We just found out that he's actually a descendant of the Apache Kid.'"

With the Apache Kid cast, Sutton needed a location to film the trial scenes. She originally wanted to do it at the location the trial happened, but it was wiped out when a dam was put in the area. In search of something from that time period, Sutton discovered that there is a building from the same year as the trial at the National Ranching Heritage Center.

The building served as the courtroom for the documentary, and Sutton said the authenticity of the house, including its lack of electrical outlets and heat, helped set the scene.

"We did a really hard five days of shooting there," Sutton said. "We had horses and tents on the outside for some shots, but most of the action took place inside the room."

Texas Tech connections

Through every part of the process, colleagues from Texas Tech helped Sutton make this documentary possible. At the beginning of the work on "The Court Martial of Apache Kid," Jamie Baker, an associate dean and director of the Law Library, helped Sutton locate the original trial transcript at the U.S. Archives in Washington D.C. As Sutton began writing the book and filming interviews for the next phase of the project, she worked closely with Richard Rosen, the Glenn D. West Endowed Professor of Law at Texas Tech.

On camera, many of the military lawyers who provide sidebar commentary throughout the film work in the School of Law. As Sutton was directing, they would provide analysis about what was happening during that point of the trial and how it compares to the way things are handled today.

The lead character, the military trail judge advocate, was played by Robert Sherwin, the Champions in Advocacy Endowed Professor of Law and director of the advocacy programs at the law school, and the court martial president was portrayed by Dick Baker, an adjunct professor of law.

The project was interdisciplinary, featuring Red Raiders outside the School of Law as well. Jonathan Marks, professor emeritus in the School of Theatre & Dance, served as the casting director, as he has with all her projects. Students were involved as well, with many of the actors coming from the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts.

"Being able to collaborate with all the resources at Texas Tech makes this a really special place," Sutton said. "It really enabled me to be able to put together my vision for visual legal advocacy about this particular issue in history."

In the spotlight

From the project's inception to its release in 2017, Sutton never anticipated it would be a blockbuster documentary. Shortly after its release though, the film was accepted into film festivals across the U.S., including the Seattle Transmedia & Independent Film Festival, Utah Film Festival and Olympus Film Festival.

"Honestly, I thought only lawyers would love it, and maybe the Apache people because they could see what happened in the trial," Sutton said. "But I was a little surprised when it got accepted to all these festivals."

She was even more surprised when it started winning awards at the festivals it was accepted to.

Most recently, it was named Best Documentary Made in Texas at the Austin Indie Festival, and now "The Court Martial of Apache Kid" is being viewed and enjoyed by people across the country.

It's been shown on TV in eastern Oklahoma after a film festival appearance in the area, expanding its reach to a wider audience.

As more people come across the Apache Kid case and her documentary, Sutton hopes people from every background can benefit from its content and use it as a new way to understand the complex relationship between the Apache people and the U.S. Army during the late 1800s.

"There are so many aspects of this trial that can be hard to understand," Sutton said. "The relationship between the tribe, the relationship between the community, the constitutional relationship with Native Americans and the relationship of the territories to the United States are all present. All those complex relationships were changing during that year, and this case captures some aspect of every bit of that change and dynamic."