‘The Innocence Files’ Is Netflix’s Latest True-Crime Must-See
The nine-episode docuseries from Alex Gibney, Liz Garbus, and Roger Ross Williams explores The Innocence Project—an organization that frees the wrongfully convicted.
DNA testing was arguably the greatest revolutionary development in the history of modern criminal justice, and not only because it allowed law enforcement and district attorneys to accurately link suspects to crimes. As The Innocence Files illustrates, it also led to the exoneration of numerous people who’d been put behind bars for offenses they hadn’t committed; and in doing so, it shined a spotlight on many of the failings—be it bad science or bad-faith cops and prosecutors—that continue to plague our investigative and judicial systems.
Debuting on Netflix on April 15, The Innocence Files is a docuseries from directors and executive producers Alex Gibney, Liz Garbus and Roger Ross Williams that focuses on the work of The Innocence Project, a legal organization founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld that aims to use DNA to free wrongfully-convicted men and women and, through that process, to push for criminal justice reform. Because Scheck and Neufeld are key participants in this nine-installment effort, their endeavor is predictably vindicated by the stories presented here. Yet bias aside, this non-fiction expose takes a uniquely structured look at three flawed components of our institutions, resulting in an overarching portrait of the ignorance, mistakes and deliberate duplicity that often beget unwarranted guilty verdicts.
The Innocence Files recounts eight stories over the course of nine episodes, which are themselves grouped into three categories: “The Evidence,” “The Witness” and “The Prosecution.” That first group is the most eye-opening, and also the most relevant to the Innocence Project itself, given that half of all its cases involve misapplied or flawed forensic science. Central to “The Evidence”’s trio of stories is the practice of bite-mark analysis conducted by forensic odontologists, who claim it’s possible to match teeth marks found on victims (living or dead) with dental molds of potential suspects, in a manner not unlike fingerprints. All 50 states still currently treat bite-mark analysis as admissible court evidence, and it factored crucially into the 1990s arrests and trials of Mississippi residents Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, both of whom were pinned for the abduction, rape and murder of separate 3-year-old girls based almost solely on expert bite-mark testimony.
As events unfold, what emerges is a somewhat startling revelation: bite-mark analysis appears to be junk science, no matter the extremely vocal (and often profane) protestations of one of its main practitioners, Dr. Michael West, who when not conveying his fandom for the Confederacy, loudly defends his life’s work and rails against The Innocence Project. No matter his commentary, however, The Innocence Files makes it clear via Brooks and Brewer’s ultimately related stories—as well as the even more egregious tale of former Naval officer Keith Harward—that bite-mark analysis is wholly unreliable. In all three of these instances, such analysis was the primary reason for convictions, and yet later DNA analysis conclusively proved that it had been incorrect, and that the men in question were innocent. Having first gained national recognition courtesy of Dr. Richard Souviron during the Ted Bundy trial, and then popularized by CSI and its TV ilk, bite-mark science is quite persuasively revealed to be a sham.
It’s not the only judicial practice taken to task by The Innocence Files, since in its “The Witness” episodes, eyewitness testimony gets put under a critical microscope. The results aren’t pretty, as this set of stories underline that, in heightened moments of stress or duress, individuals’ memories of people—and faces—simply can’t be trusted. That comes most stunningly to the fore in episode six, “Making Memory,” which details Thomas Haynesworth’s convictions for raping five white women. With no physical evidence tying him to these offenses, prosecutors had to rely on the testimony of the victims themselves. And all five—including a woman here identified as Janet—picked Haynesworth out of a collection of suspect photos, stating they were 100% positive he was their assailant.
Amazingly, though, they were wrong: despite Janet saying that she’d taken great care to remember her attacker’s face and build, Haynesworth wasn’t her rapist, a fact proven by DNA (which did lead authorities to the right suspect). That’s a remarkable turn of events, as is the notion—corroborated by multiple talking-head subjects’ appraisals of photos of Haynesworth and the real rapist—that people are less capable of differentiating facial features of those in other races than they are of those who share their own race.
In its concluding chapters, The Innocence Files relays examples of shady prosecutorial misconduct, most of it involving witness intimidation and coercion, and the suppression of evidence that defense teams have a legal obligation to receive. While these tales are more common than their predecessors, they highlight the various means by which evidence is presented as rock-solid when, instead, it’s the byproduct of manipulations by forces intent on putting people away, either to assuage communities or to further careers. Often running upwards of 83 minutes long, each episode also spends considerable time on the toll these wrongful convictions take on the accused themselves, forced to spend years—if not decades—in state penitentiaries, fighting to clear their names via a system that’s (understandably) skeptical of such claims.
Helmed by a group of directors, The Innocence Files isn’t a consistent formal affair; whereas “The Evidence” employs sharp graphical timelines and editorial juxtapositions to streamline and strengthen its material, “The Witness” and “The Prosecution” sometimes resort to using that most unnecessary of non-fiction devices—the dramatic recreation—to ratchet up suspense and pathos. Moreover, a couple of its lengthiest installments are padded out with digressions or explanations that aren’t wholly vital, and could have been excised simply for the sake of storytelling efficiency and impact.
Still, even when it occasionally feels as if it’s spinning its wheels rather than barreling forward (an impression that, one might say, reflects its subjects’ own ordeals), The Innocence Files lays bare a handful of significant areas in which our judicial apparatus is prone to making mistakes, or to being exploited by unethical players. It’s a series with its heart in the right place, and arguments that are worth hearing—and heeding—in the interest of creating a more just system for all.