Eight men wrongly convicted tell their stories in this gripping indictment of the American justice system.
Netflix’s new docuseries The Innocence Files pulls the curtain back on just how flawed our justice system really is. A spiritual successor to Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, The Innocence Files follows the stories of eight men from all over the country who were wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit.
With a strong roster of directorial talent like Liz Garbus, Alex Gibney, Roger Ross William, Andy Grieve, Jed Rothstein, and Sarah Dowland, the series is broken down into three parts: The Evidence, The Witness, and The Prosecution. Each episode takes a deep dive into specific defects of these parts, featuring interviews with families of both the victims and the wrongfully accused, attorneys from both the prosecution and defense and scientific experts.
The twin threads of poverty and race run through every part of the series as it follows each case. In one telling moment, interviewees are given photographs of two black men and asked if they look similar. All of the white subjects see them as practically identical, despite differences in facial features, height, and skin tone.
It’s a glaring look at how unconscious bias plays a role in criminal investigation and prosecution. One of the men shown was a serial rapist, and the other an innocent young man who was put away for the other’s crimes. All of the subjects are poor or working-class, without the resources to pay for a good defense. The public defenders in many cases are overburdened or don’t have the means to stand up to an overzealous prosecution.
The holes in the fabric of the system are the most troubling. “Prosecutors were happy to use DNA evidence to convict,” one attorney says. “They were more reluctant to allow DNA to be used as a tool for exoneration.” The Innocence Project was founded on the basis that advances in DNA identification could be used to free wrongly convicted people.
But even with the impartial and objective science between DNA forensics, law enforcement and prosecution still rely on older forensic sciences that are not as accurate or impartial, like in the case of Dr. Michael West. Now largely discredited as a fraud, West is a big part of the first two episodes. A would-be expert on bite mark evidence, West’s testimony helped convict not only the two men featured in the first episode, Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, but worse—West helped eliminate the actual perpetrator in the murder of a three-year-old girl. That man went on to kill another young girl less than two years later.
Even after bite mark evidence lost some of its cachet in the late ’90s, West’s testimony was still being sought after by then-DA Forrest Allgood, who looms over the first part of the series like a lanky cowboy in Clark Kent glasses. When DNA evidence exonerated Brooks and Brewer, Allgood remained steadfast in his defense of West and his reliance on the dubious science of bite mark analysis. Watching West becoming increasingly combative as he begins to unravel would be entertaining if he hadn’t wielded so much power over so many innocent lives. “You’ve seen one dead girl with bite marks, you’ve seen ‘em all,” he says at one of the few times he’s not pointing out Confederate monuments.
It’s a glaring look at how unconscious bias plays a role in criminal investigation and prosecution.
“It’s hard to sanitize all of what happened of Race,” a Virginian journalist says of the case of Thomas Haynesworth, who was sent to prison for the violent rapes of multiple women, all white. The only evidence in Haynesworth’s case was eyewitness testimony from the women who’d been assaulted. Even after Haynesworth began what would be a twenty-seven-year sentence, the assaults continued, and it was easier for the Police and DA to imagine a copycat rapist than it was to admit they may have arrested the wrong man.
It’s a shocking revelation that even when new DNA evidence comes to light, the fight is just beginning, with attorneys from The Innocence Project going up against reluctant or combative Prosecutors. And then there is the emotional toll, shown in all the shell shocked faces of the men who have been set free in a world that is totally unlike the one they left. Parents have died, children have grown, fortunes changed for better or worse while they were locked away.
And then there is the pain of the victim’s families, who have the additional burden of knowing an innocent person was convicted while the guilty party went free. There is the fear instilled in witnesses who want to recant false testimony, or are pressured into false testimony.
There is a legacy of pain and trauma that thrives within the criminal justice system, and even when the innocent go free, the victory is bittersweet. Levon Brooks only got ten years of freedom before passing away. Alfred Brown, whose exculpatory evidence was found in a box in the DA’s garage while he was serving on Death Row, has had compensation for his lost time denied to him by the Texas comptroller’s office. The DA in Brown’s case, Dan Rizzo, was never held accountable for misconduct. There’s more than enough injustice to go around, even after being set free.
The Innocence Files is an absolutely devastating watch—but it’s a hopeful one too. It’s hopeful to see Innocence Project attorneys giving years of their life and time with their families to see the innocent go free. It’s hopeful to see Philadelphia ADA Patricia Cummings, head of the PA Conviction Integrity Unit, publicly apologize to Chester Hollman III, who spent nearly thirty years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.
It’s hopeful to see progressive DAs and tireless volunteers and family members all working to see justice—real justice—prevail. And mostly, it’s hopeful to see these men, human beings who have endured the unimaginable, working as advocates for other people just like them.
The Innocence Files premieres on Netflix on April 15.