Giving a voice to the innocent man

December 18, 2018

Hannah Utain-Evans reviews a new Netflix series that goes much further than previous forays into the “true crime” television formula that has gained some popularity.

PRESUMABLY RIDING on the coattails of the success of Making a Murderer, the second season of which was released just recently, Netflix has taken another step into producing “true crime” television — and into giving a voice to the underdog.

The Innocent Man, based on a nonfiction book by novelist John Grisham, focuses on the town of Ada, Oklahoma, and the murders of two young women in the early 1980s. The cases of Debbie Carter in 1982 and Denice Haraway in 1984 seem unconnected, until the “true crime” formula gives way to a more exploratory documentary, revealing a story of police brutality, corruption and false convictions.

In the Carter case, Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were convicted of homicide based on hearsay, incomplete evidence and the recounting of a dream taken to be a confession. Williamson, who suffers from mental illness, was given the death penalty.

After 11 years of denied appeals, the Innocence Project intervened with new DNA testing and successfully exonerated the two men in 1999. Luckily for the Oklahoma police, another suspect was quickly unearthed and convicted instead.

Dennis Fritz (left) and Ron Williamson are released from Oklahoma prison after their exoneration in 1999
Dennis Fritz (left) and Ron Williamson are released from Oklahoma prison after their exoneration in 1999

The Haraway case is less hopeful. We see the same use of coercion, taking a dream as a confession, and a hyper-focus on the easiest suspects, which shows us that the same level of scrutiny should be paid to the conviction of Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot.

Further details provide other similarities: targeting vulnerable, disliked or isolated individuals from the community; the use of the same jailhouse informant; the lack of any real investigation; the incompetence of state-appointed defense lawyers; and the requirement that defendants admit guilt in order to be considered for parole — all of which reveals that court cases in Oklahoma are really your word against the police.

Without new evidence to submit for a new hearing, Ward and Fontenot remain in prison today, with no way to question the methods used by the cops who built the case against them.

ON ITS face, the series uses the typical formula for a “true crime” series you would expect to find in the sensationalized stories on Dateline, 48 Hours or even some other titles already produced by Netflix.

The timeline is stretched beyond recognition, while screen time is filled with blurry re-enactments and repetitive editing. Thankfully, these aspects aren’t nearly as cheesy as they could be and don’t detract from the real meat of the show.

While Making a Murderer only managed to scratch the surface of its subject, The Innocent Man digs deeper into the systemic issues involved by breaking from the usual crime-of-the-week formula and overlaying the two botched homicide investigations.

What we get begins to tell a convincing story: The shocking levels of abuse of power, the mishandling of investigations, and the brutality toward Steven Avery or Ron Williamson aren’t exceptional mistakes made in the course of normally good police work, but par for the course.

The fantasy that the police actually investigate crimes, seek the ultimate truth and arrest suspects based on evidence quickly dissipates as the show patiently displays the enormity of impunity and power police departments enjoy.

The heroes of the show shine through, thanks to the ample time spent on interviews with those who have been fighting the system. We meet Christie Shepard, Debbie Carter’s cousin, and, ultimately, the caretaker of a family that has been left to struggle with a gross mishandling of justice on their behalf.

Shepard begins to research the criminal justice system on her own, and what she finds brings her to sympathize so much with the falsely convicted men that she joins a state commission to overturn the death penalty in Oklahoma.

Shepard goes on to teach courses on justice reform and organize a support group for exonerees who still deal with the trauma of the system. The anger and misery Shepard carries with her is palpable throughout.

We also meet Cheryl Pilate, Williamson’s civil attorney, who provides some of the best social commentary you may ever hear in the language of “legalese.”

When discussing the false testimony manufactured for the Carter case — given by a woman who was a frequent jail inmate at the time and more frequently abused by the cops in charge of her custody — Pilate makes an important connection to the #MeToo movement, asking: “Why would we not think the very same thing, and even a degree worse, would happen to the most powerless women of all in society?”

WITH THREE novels already written about these cases and the cast of characters continually growing, there is just too much material to cover while committing the usual amount of time to intensely detailed accounts of the crimes themselves.

But by the end of the show, you are able to sense the shadow cast by the justice system and are given an intimate look into the small town of Ada. We hear from residents who describe the terror they live under where cops are able to randomly drag people from their cars, brutalize them and scapegoat them knowing these people lack the resources to fight back.

Those with their own run-ins with the law are too scared to speak up or are forced to collaborate in covering for their abusers. We get a picture of extreme wealth differences and of a police force that preys on the town’s easiest targets — the poor, the uneducated, the mentally disabled, the drug-addicted.

With so many threads to follow, the series becomes pretty jumbled. Scrapping the “true crime” formula altogether would have allowed more time for interrogating the bigger picture.

Anyone familiar with police corruption may be unfazed by these details, but for the casual viewer led here from Making a Murderer, these are important additions to the sensational “true crime” story that more typically focuses on the gore and horror of a murder mystery.

We get firsthand accounts of the way state coercion and incarceration have eaten away at these individuals, stealing the lives of not only the prisoners, but their families and the families of the murder victims — with the police ultimately failing to provide justice for the murdered women or even to prevent further crimes.

The end of the series is somewhat anticlimactic, but poignant. Two of the four convicted men remain in prison, and we are left with a statistic that about 90,000 wrongfully convicted prisoners also sit behind bars to this day.

If you have another hour to spend on your couch, dig up Fight for Justice: David & Me (2014), also available on Netflix.

It is a straightforward documentary, filmed by close friends of the subject, David McCallum, telling the story of a 16-year-old Black youth plucked from the streets of Brooklyn and imprisoned for 30 years, pleading his innocence all the while, with no chance at parole or appeal.

Although the face of this story is very different, the same patterns emerge in Brooklyn as in Oklahoma and Wisconsin: police preying on vulnerable people, interrogating children without the presence of a guardian or attorney, coerced confessions, “replacements” found to obtain swift convictions — and, above all, the presumption of guilt until proven innocent.

Having people who continue to support these prisoners from the outside is their only bid to regaining their freedom.

The Innocent Man series has been billed as “season one” of what we can hope will be an ongoing interrogation of the unjust judicial system. By bringing together the many stories and comparisons, they have the potential, all together, to shed more light on the continued abuse of power by police departments everywhere.

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