Wrongful convictions are so persistent in the US justice system — by some counts, over 2,600 innocent criminal defendants have been exonerated since 1989 — that at times they seem more like a feature than a bug. The Innocence Project, founded in 1992 by law professors Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, and organizations within the Innocence Network are devoted to not only overturning wrongful convictions through DNA testing but also advocating for reform in the criminal justice system.
All of those numbers can feel pretty abstract, however. The new Netflix series The Innocence Files aims to translate the abstractions by showcasing the stories of real humans, people who went to jail for years or even decades based on evidence that fell apart when it was put under a microscope. In nine documentary episodes — some as long as a feature film — The Innocence Files draws on the same intriguing stories that often become the subjects of true crime series, while aiming to make a bigger point.
The nine episodes are grouped into three sections, each of which focuses on a broad aspect of America’s due process laws that might lead to wrongful convictions: evidence, witnesses, and prosecution. Each section uses real stories to illustrate the breakdown of supposedly just systems and the unreliability of allegedly unimpeachable evidence. For instance, the first three episodes, directed by Oscar-winning documentarian Roger Ross Williams, focus on two men who were wrongfully convicted of sexually assaulting and murdering young girls based on the largely disproven science of “bite-mark evidence.” The men, their families, jurors, members of law enforcement, and one particularly salty forensic odontologist who served as an expert witness all appear in the gripping story.
On the whole, The Innocence Files is among the strongest documentary series about criminal justice I’ve ever seen — both for its depth of research and the almost unbelievable nature of what it reveals about the American justice system’s intransigence in reversing wrongful convictions, even when it’s plainly obvious that something went awry.
The series harnesses the talents of a number of filmmakers, including three powerhouses in the documentary world: Williams, Oscar winner Alex Gibney, and Oscar nominee Liz Garbus. I recently spoke to all three by phone about their involvement in the project, the strangely optimistic nature of the series, and what they hope audiences will take away from The Innocence Files. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Was there something in particular that drew each of you to this project?
Roger Ross Williams
Netflix approached me, and I had known about the work of the Innocence Project, obviously. I was a huge admirer of their work. I said yes right away. The reason is that I come from a community that is devastated by the mass incarceration crisis. I’m an African American man and I have family and friends behind bars, or who have been behind bars. This is very personal for me. The characters in my story come from a community that is poor, and a community that lives in fear that they’re going to end up in prison. And since one in every three black men at some point in their life end up incarcerated, that’s understandable. So this is very personal for me.
Netflix had done this overall agreement with the Innocence Project to open up their case files to filmmakers, and Netflix assembled us. I think all of us were immediately in because we’ve all, in different ways, been circling around themes around the criminal justice system for years in our careers.
The first film I made was in a prison — The Farm. I went in there knowing that I didn’t actually want to make a film about people who might be innocent there. I wanted to tell the stories of those who were not innocent, and grapple with the questions about incarceration: How much is too much, even if you have done the crime? That seemed to me a harder question in some ways, because, you know, you had people serving life and death sentences with no chance of ever stepping foot on free ground again, and dying in the prison hospital and being buried 10 feet from there and never leaving.
Inevitably, it turned out in The Farm there was a story of somebody who said they were innocent. But there was no DNA.
I was intellectually very satisfied with that approach to The Farm. But during my time filming in prison, I did get to meet several inmates who claimed they were railroaded, and that they were sitting there behind bars for 20 or 30 years and more for something that they didn’t do. The pain of that is so enormous. I made that film some two decades ago, and the questions are still hanging over all of us.
This project takes such a big swing. It’s able to address the systemic failures of a system that can rob people of their freedom and their lives. We don’t just look at it as if it’s one case that’s a miscarriage of justice. We look at it in a larger context. That felt really exciting to me, like an opportunity that I had not had before in any of the other films I had done on criminal justice, which were really always kind of story- and person-oriented. Here, we get to know the people and all of their stories. But working together, we get to talk about a whole system and its failures. That’s a really great opportunity.
I knew Peter [Neufeld] and Barry [Scheck] both, and was a huge admirer of them. So of course, they had me at “Innocence Project.” I’ve done a lot of films about power and abuses of power, and the idea of tackling prosecutorial misconduct seemed right.
But also, weirdly, having done a lot of films about pretty dark subject matter, I was interested in the injustice of it all, but also the whole idea of the Innocence Project working to get people released — I was looking for, even in a grim place, a kind of a happy ending.
I latched onto a story where the ending was uncertain. [Editor’s note: The focus of Gibney’s episode, Chester Hollman, was wrongfully convicted of second-degree murder based on faulty eyewitness testimony.] That was kind of a challenge. But at the same time, I wanted to follow along that path in a pale reflection of the man himself, who was hoping for some release. A kind of a happy ending that was important for me. The idea that these guys are really doing the job of getting people wrongly convicted released. That was a big boon for me.
The episodes seem like they’d obviously appeal to people who are into true crime stories. But they’re also inspiring — not cheaply, but deservedly. We learn a lot about how hard the work of reversing wrongful convictions can be. Where did you find yourself inspired, or unexpectedly encouraged?
I’m inspired by watching the lawyers work. They are dedicated to trying to battle the legal system against all odds, because the legal system is rigged, in a way, against admitting mistakes. It’s a Sisyphean task for these lawyers to go up against the system that wants so desperately to attain some kind of certainty, even if that’s wrong. I was inspired by them and their dogged determination. In a number of the cases I dealt with, not only did you have the people in the Innocence Project, not only did you have defense attorneys, but you had volunteers who were giving tremendous amounts of their time to try to get this done over a period of sometimes five or 10 years. That was hugely inspiring.
It’s so important for people to understand what Alex was just saying. Once you spend time in a prison, you hear these stories about a public defender who slept through the trial, or didn’t show up. You say, “Couldn’t you get a new trial, or couldn’t you bring that up on appeal?” You hear these stories over and over.
But once there’s that original conviction, that decision on the record, it is so hard. Your presumption of innocence is gone. It is so hard to turn over. The system just clamps down and sucks you in. Think about the way poverty and race play into that. Who has decent representation to start with? Overcoming that original sin, that original error, is nearly impossible, and [the Innocence Project lawyers] know it. They’re really, truly heroic. They’re looking for that needle in the haystack — some judge, somewhere, who will grant some mercy — because it really is walking into a tsunami of energy directed toward keeping that conviction on the books.
Roger Ross Williams
What’s also amazing about someone like [Innocence Project attorneys] Peter [Neufeld] and Vanessa [Potkin]: They actually went to Mississippi, spent an incredible amount of time investigating this crime on the ground, and have an incredible bond with the exonerated individuals. I went back there to Mississippi with Peter to interview [exonerated former inmate] Levon Brooks. And their connection, their personal connection, was just so beautiful to see. Peter and Vanessa were not only in the courtroom; they were in the swamp. They performed a test on a pig to test the bite-mark evidence that was used in Levon’s case, to see if crawfish actually made the bite marks. They went to the window where the crime happened. They were active and engaged with these communities in a very deep and powerful and profound way.
It seems like there’s a special challenge in telling these stories via documentaries. You have to help the audience first understand why the juries were convinced by the case brought by prosecutors, and then you have to help them get past their biases to see why the wrongful conviction occurred. As storytellers, how do you construct narratives so they’ll grab viewers’ attention and keep it?
To some extent, I approached it as a crime story — except it’s a crime in reverse. We actually discover who was responsible, who committed the crime, or likely committed the crime, even as we begin to find Chester Hollman innocent.
But we also started the film with images of a prison and a disembodied voice of a man who’s talking on a prison phone to people on my team from the outside, slowly but surely telling his story. In that sense, he’s anonymous. He’s a number. He’s a disembodied voice at the end of the line. The structure of the film is really discovering his humanity. At the very end, you see him released, in the flesh, for the first time. That, I felt, was a powerful emotional structure for a film like this, that discovery of humanity in the course of understanding and revealing his story, and the fact that he’s actually free.
You want to set up a feeling of stakes and suspense, and have the story unfold with some of the mystery that viewers have come to know and love through true crime.
But what I love watching is something that helps me understand the underbelly of the system. How does it work? How do you get five teenagers to point the finger at this one guy who they didn’t really ever see at the scene of the crime? What is the process by which that happens?
The forensics of interactions between the psychology and police and potential witnesses. The manipulation and how that works. Yes, there’s the mystery: Did this guy do it? And if not, who did it, and what will happen to him? But there’s also just the forensics of these interactions and relationships. You see them like a slow-motion car wreck, a slow-motion accident, going off the rails, and you want to just scream and make it stop. I think that’s the drama of this as well.
Roger Ross Williams
While we interviewed all the lawyers and the experts, for me it was about placing the viewer in this community. The storytellers are only the characters who lived that moment. [My episodes] take you to a southern town in Mississippi, the birthplace of the Klan and the racial divide, and bring that to life and let the people of that community take you through what happened in real time. You’re totally immersed in a world that many viewers would never get to see — this world of poor, black, southern, rural America — and because our crew was all black, we allowed the subjects to be really honest and open about the struggle they were facing, and the reality of racism in their communities.
The Innocence Files is streaming on Netflix.