From Making a Murderer and The Keepers to The Confession Tapes, Evil Genius and The Staircase, Netflix currently has a virtual monopoly on true-crime television. That situation has been a boon for viewers, who are now inundated on a near-monthly basis with fantastic long-form documentary investigations into cases that are both bizarre and beguiling.
One can imagine the Big Three (CBS, NBC and ABC) feeling a bit irritated by this turn of events, given that they’ve been tilling similar toil—in somewhat more condensed, cursory form—for decades with shows like 48 Hours, Dateline NBC, 20/20 and Primetime Live. Those series have long served as the nation’s favored source for non-fiction stories about grisly murders, horrific abuse and confounding kidnappings. And thus it comes as little surprise that at least one of those networks is now looking to regain its footing in the genre with a new program that resembles one of those aforementioned streaming-service offerings—albeit with a slight twist.
Executive-produced by Viola Davis and Julius Tennon, The Last Defense is a seven-part weekly ABC show (premiering Tuesday, June 12) whose premise is that the justice system, particularly when it comes to capital punishment verdicts, often gets things wrong—an opinion underlined by the claim, made by Davis in opening-credit narration, that an average of five death-penalty convictions are overturned each year. The two sagas that serve as its focus are thus presented, from the outset, as miscarriages of justice in which those sentenced to die are, in fact, victims of a legal process that’s inefficient or simply doesn’t care about playing by the rules. By taking that upfront tack, it embraces an overtly biased stance toward its subject matter, even as it simultaneously attempts to generate the same sort of “Are they guilty?” mystery that’s made Netflix’s efforts such hits.
In trying to have it both ways, however, it stumbles at many of its most crucial moments. And more damaging still, it seems to have chosen the wrong cases to prove its hypothesis.
For its first four episodes, The Last Defense concentrates on Darlie Routier, a bubbly blonde Rowlett, Texas, wife and mother of three who—in her version of events—awoke on her couch in the early morning hours of June 6, 1996, to find a white male standing over her. This intruder had viciously stabbed her two young sons, Devon (6) and Damon (5), and after a confrontation that left her with knife wounds to her arms and throat, she chased him out of the house. As her husband Darin (who’d been asleep upstairs with their infant son) came to her aid, Routier called 911, but to no avail—her boys were dead. After inspecting the residence, responding police officers and crime-scene investigators quickly came to the conclusion that Routier had done this to her own brood, and then given herself self-inflicted injuries to make it look like someone else had committed this heinous deed.
A bloody sock found in a nearby alleyway was the best proof defense lawyers had that Routier was telling the truth, while window-screen fibers and blood spatter were wielded by prosecutor Greg Davis as evidence that she was responsible for this massacre. More problematic for Routier was a video of her throwing a cemetery birthday party for Devon and Damon in which she playfully danced around, and shot silly string at, their graves. That clip didn’t definitively prove anything. But considering that Routier was a woman claiming to be grieving unthinkable losses, it turned out to be the nail in her coffin, as jurors—who watched it more than nine times during deliberations—found her guilty and sentenced her to death.
The Last Defense provides the district attorney’s office with considerable time to make its case against Routier, which goes some way toward offsetting the show’s partiality in her favor. And by the end of its first four episodes, directed by Jeremiah Crowell, it succeeds—via interviews with defenders, relatives and Routier herself—in creating the impression that she may not have gotten a fair shake, thanks to a trial that was more interested in assassinating her character than providing a believable motive or version of events. Reasonable doubt, in the final tally, probably exists.
Unfortunately, what the series doesn’t do is conclusively convince one that Routier is innocent—a shortcoming that also plagues its second case, tackled in the last three episodes by director Amani Martin. That concerns the 2002 conviction of 21-year-old African-American Julius Jones, a kid attending the University of Oklahoma on an academic scholarship, for murdering Caucasian father of two Paul Howell in a carjacking-gone-awry in the suburb of Edmond. In that incident, it’s apparent that Jones’ lawyers didn’t provide him with an adequate defense (because they outright admit they didn’t). And furthermore, it appears likely that one of the informants who helped land Jones on death row—his casual friend Chris “Woodside” Jordan—was actually the individual responsible for the crime, and escaped death row by cutting a deal.
As with Routier, Jones’ defenders routinely proclaim that he’s being railroaded. Yet The Last Defense (which, in Jones’ segments, offers no counterbalancing prosecutorial voices) often makes its case by doing the very things it accuses prosecutors of perpetrating: forwarding circumstantial theories and character-besmirching innuendo (in the absence of concrete evidence that might absolve their clients) to create doubt. Moreover, the series routinely informs viewers at key dramatic moments about certain players’ refusal to participate on-camera, as a way of suggesting their villainy/culpability and, by extension, Routier and Jones’ blamelessness—a device that reeks of manipulation. All the while, its dramatic recreations are of an unnecessary sort. And especially during the Jones-related chapters—which eventually fall back on racism as the cause for his conviction, this despite the fact that Jordan is also African-American, and one of them almost surely did it—specious theorizing and repetition soon take precedence over airtight argumentation.
Both Routier and Jones’ guilt seems open for debate—as does, in the end, their innocence. In surer hands, that ambiguity might have enlivened the series. Between its calculating tactics and unpersuasive reasoning, however, The Last Defense proves guided by activist intentions that interfere with its objectivity to the point of clouding its judgment.