Burden of Proof, HBO’s brand-new documentary directed by Cynthia Hill, takes us through the case of Jennifer Pandos, who disappeared from her home at the age of 15. Stephen Pandos wants to prove his parents’ involvement in his sister’s disappearance. It has been 22 years since she was last seen, and ever since, there has been tension between Stephen and his mother and father.
Stephen Pandos’ Theory
With the advent of technology in the late 2000s, Stephen hopes he will be able to prove his suspicions because his parents were at home with Jennifer, and nothing would have happened without their knowledge. As an audience, it is depressing to watch the parents, Margie and Ron Pandos, being questioned by their only son. No one deserves to be treated with such humiliation, even if it means they will be proven guilty. Stephen is obsessed because he thought his parents were supposed to protect Jennifer, and their failure led to her disappearance.
Jennifer could be alive or dead. We think Stephen, as a parent of two girls, is seeking justice and closure to seek reassurance that the world might just be a safe place for women. Stephen and his investigation team work hard to find proof against Margie and Ron Pandos. As an audience, we believe he would stop at nothing to prove his theory.
The Abuse At Home
Stephen believes Ron’s temper led to him killing Jennifer, which he covered up with Margie’s help. It is easy to assume that the kids and the wife were victims of Ron’s constant emotional and physical abuse, and that had a huge impact on Stephen while growing up. Kids growing up in an abusive environment either choose to abuse others or step away from it; Stephen chose to be the latter. He believes his mother was emotionally manipulated by his father to not speak up, even years after their divorce.
It was depressing to watch such scenes unfold in front of the audience because everyone here has their own version of what happened, and this time, it is hard to choose a side because of the family dynamics. This is the classic case of a dysfunctional family that has chosen not to speak about the pain of losing a family member but only indulges in seeking questions and answers.
Jennifer’s Note And The Polygraph Test
Stephen’s investigating team was surprised to know the last note left by Jennifer for her parents was still in possession of Margie and not the police, and the original case file has been missing since 1987. The presence of such crucial evidence with the suspect proves that two decades ago, either the filing system was erratic, or there was somebody in the department trying to keep Ron and Margie away from getting convicted. It only further helps Stephen implicate his parents.
The footage of Margie being interrogated in 2007 in the presence of Stephen is the most painful thing to watch because one can see how Stephen is frustrated at his mother, and Margie is trying hard to convince the police and her son repeatedly that she did not help her husband. The audience is not here to take sides, but no mother should go through what Margie went through in the name of interrogation.
Stephen cannot be in the same room as his father, but he wants to help his mother. Though the method he chose might come across as harsh, Stephen’s pain of losing a sibling has been overwhelming to watch on screen. The polygraph tests not coming out in favor of Margie and Ron is an addition to the theory of his ‘parents being the prime suspect’. A polygraph test might not be the right way to nab the culprit, but an inconclusive response from the test can be an indicator of something.
Burden of Proof Ending: Who Was Responsible For Jennifer’s Disappearance?
Jake Rice, the investigative officer from James City County, Virginia, finally found Jennifer Pandos’ original case file. This comes as a relief and surprise because Stephen, Wendi, and everyone related to this case had lost any hope of finding it. This file could take the police towards many leads that were not touched upon in 1987. Stephen is filled with nervousness and excitement because just like the police, he is equally eager to find out what and who was mentioned in this file. Only time will tell how long the police will take because this case has been officially reopened.
The note left by Jennifer is also brought back to the investigation team’s attention, helping them narrow down the suspects: the parents, an elderly gentleman who was a fatherly figure to Jennifer as per the letter, Tony Tobler, her schoolmate and ex-boyfriend, and an ex-felon named Hendrix. It becomes difficult for Jake Rice to share details of this ongoing investigation with Stephen because they are on the verge of finding a breakthrough. The word ‘breakthrough’ allows the audience to increase their anticipation and be hopeful about the many possible answers to the questions related to Jennifer’s disappearance. Stephen, too, is expecting good news because, for years, he has been looking for leads, and finally, the police are on the verge of cracking the case. He can only hope nothing goes wrong.
Stephen also got in touch with his father through this documentary because he had no choice but to speak to him about Ron’s abusive behavior towards him and Jennifer. His childhood trauma paved the way for him to persistently look for what happened to Jennifer and be a good father to his daughters. With no clear-cut evidence in hand against Margie and Ron, Stephen and his team of investigators will have to wait for Jake Rice’s probe to conclude the case. Jake’s team got access to letters exchanged between Tony and Jennifer thanks to Stephen and his mother. Tony and Jennifer had a history of dating, followed by an abortion. The letters were brought to the forefront to establish that maybe Tony was the culprit and not Ron. This was the new path the police took, as there was no evidence to prove Ron killed his daughter. The letters were also used to cross-check the handwriting on the last note left by Jennifer because Jake Rice’s team wanted to build on the Tony Tobler theory. The boy and the girl were young and in love, and that must have led to disappointments and disagreements. It can only be assumed that Tony killed Jennifer by luring her out of her house. Kids at that age tend to follow the attention they receive, and it is just pure hormones that lead them to do that. All this is just a theory assumed by the audience and the police in the documentary, but there is no evidence to back it up.
With the adult Tony Tobler brought in for more questioning after the statement of Charlie May, who was mentioned several times in Jennifer and Tony’s letters, the case against him is slowly picking up. This leads to Stephen going through a crisis. He spent the last two decades blaming his parents. He came up with so much circumstantial evidence against them, but the police and Stephen’s team confirmed his parents’ innocence, making him rethink everything he had done so far. The man is ridden with guilt, especially towards his mother, because his pain and hatred led him to keep her away from her granddaughters and have no relationship with them. But he knows there is still time for him to make things right. He is ready to apologize, and the audience can spot the redemption the man is seeking.
Margie, on the other hand, is also willing to forgive her son for putting her through the trauma of making her feel guilty for not being a perfect mother. Margie comes across as being filled with nothing but love for her son and the grief of losing a daughter. Her daughter disappeared under her roof, and that is the guilt she has to live with. The only way to get over the grief of losing Jennifer is for Margie and Stephen to reconnect and bond again as a family.
In the last sequence in Burden of Proof, Tony Tobler is acquitted from the case because of lack of evidence. Audiences get to see from Stephen’s perspective what happened in his home on that dreadful night in 1987. That one sequence puts a lot of things in perspective for Stephen, who probably feels that if only he was at home at that time to understand his sister’s state of mind, speak to her, and help her process her concerns. But alas, there is nothing Stephen can do right now. Stephen and Margie can only hope to get the closure they are still seeking.