“If I wrote The Innocent Man as a novel, fiction, folks probably wouldn’t believe it,” says John Grisham at the outset of Netflix’s new six-part documentary series based on his bestselling 2006 non-fiction book. Those who’ve watched Making a Murderer, The Confession Tapes or any number of other recent true-crime offerings, however, will immediately recognize it as a familiar example of a criminal justice system gone awry—and, specifically, the difficulty of exposing false confessions and overturning unjust convictions.
Executive-produced by Grisham and directed by Clay Tweel (Gleason), and premiering on Dec. 14, The Innocent Man concerns Ada, Oklahoma, a rural enclave best known for pecans and two notorious murders that took place more than 30 years ago. The first of those involved Debra Sue Carter, a young woman who, on the night of Dec. 8, 1982, left her job at the Coachlight (a “boot-scootin’ bar”) and returned to her apartment, where she was brutally raped and killed, her body and furniture scrawled with misspelled messages. Then, on April 28, 1984, young Denice Haraway disappeared while working at McAnally’s gas station convenience store, the apparent victim—according to eyewitnesses—of an abduction.
In both cases, a pair of men was suspected of murdering the victims. Three of them were eventually sentenced to life in prison, with the fourth receiving the death penalty. But as The Innocent Man contends, none of them were guilty; rather, they were railroaded by law enforcement and the district attorney’s office, who cared more about providing the community with resolution (and, perhaps, with covering up their own misdeeds) than with unearthing the truth.
The Innocent Man tackles its intertwined tales with an occasionally ungainly hand, flip-flopping between its narratives—and their various points of focus, including the accused’s friends and family members—in a manner that leaves the proceedings feeling a bit jumbled. That fortunately doesn’t undercut its cogent contentions about Ada’s lead police investigator Dennis Smith, Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation’s Gary Rogers, and D.A. Bill Peterson. Those men built their cases on the backs of dubious confessions, which were vital given that there was little physical evidence linking their would-be killers to the slain women. And alongside those admissions, they employed dubious scientific findings as well as testimony from a prison snitch who just happened to possess key information about both trials.
With regards to Carter, police took five years before truly targeting Ron Williamson—a once-promising baseball phenom with mental illness issues whose life had fallen apart after his athletic career flamed out—and his best friend Bill Fritz, who’d been on the skids since his wife was murdered in front of their young daughter. Primarily on the basis of testimony supplied by Carter’s school friend Glen Gore, who said he saw Williamson arguing with Carter at the Coachlight, and also a forensic report about a hair sample found at the crime scene, Williamson was sentenced to death, while Fritz just narrowly escaped that fate, instead getting life.
Not helping either man’s defense was a May 8, 1987, interrogation with Williamson (recorded five years after Carter’s death), during which he recounted a dream about killing Carter. That this account wasn’t real didn’t seem important to police or the D.A., who used it against him at trial. And they did so, to a large extent, because they knew it was a tactic that would sway a jury—because it already had, in the earlier case of Denice Haraway.
In September 1985, Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot were given life sentences for the murder of Haraway—despite her body having not been found—thanks to matching confessions in which they claimed to have abducted, raped and stabbed her to death along with a third accomplice. As it turned out, Ward’s damning statement (which was given first) was at least partly the byproduct of a dream he’d had in-between his first and second interrogations. Moreover, as happened with Williamson and Fritz, D.A. Peterson—in lieu of physical evidence, which didn’t exist—used testimony from prison informant Terri Holland as part of his courtroom argument.
As grippingly recounted by The Innocent Man, subsequent revelations in both cases shined a suspicious spotlight on those who put these individuals behind bars. In 1999, twelve years after their conviction, Williamson and Fritz were exonerated by DNA evidence, which proved that Carter had in fact been killed by the prosecution’s star witness, Glen Gore. And even before that, on January 20, 1986, Haraway’s body was found—in a location different from where Ward and Fontenot had confessed to disposing it; in a blouse that didn’t match their descriptions of it; and with a single gunshot to the head, rather than stab wounds. Which raised the obvious questions: Had Ward and Fontenot’s (wholly erroneous) confessions been coerced by police? And if so, why?
Marrying new on-the-ground footage (with lawyers and journalists) to interrogation videos, dramatic recreations and archival interviews, photos and home movies, The Innocent Man thoroughly dissects its related cases as well as the ongoing attempts to appeal Ward and Fontenot’s convictions. In doing so, it reveals a systematic attempt to not only coerce false confessions, but to cover up potentially exculpatory evidence, to ignore other leads, and—according to a theory promoted by numerous speakers—to protect possible killers because they might have damaging info on law enforcement. Like Making a Murderer, it suggests that reliable witnesses are often the real culprits, and that vacating first-degree murder convictions is an uphill battle, especially in the absence of a clear alternative hypothesis about what took place.
Most of all, though, Tweel and Grisham’s series is another stinging censure of a legal machine compelled to find answers to mysterious crimes at all costs (regardless of whether those answers are accurate), and then to stand by those findings, no matter how thoroughly they’re debunked by new evidence and analysis. As Grisham himself puts it, “In small towns like Ada, the prosecutors and the police are under enormous pressure. Winning means justice. Winning means everything. And along the way, if the truth gets blurred, or forgotten, or twisted, or manipulated, that’s too bad... It’s all about winning.”