Netflix series ‘The Innocence Files’ plans to set the record straight on those wrongfully convicted
The Innocence Files exposes difficult truths about the state of America’s deeply flawed criminal justice system.(Netflix)
When “Serial” and “Making a Murderer” became hits, producers began looking everywhere for ideas on how to create the next big true crime series.
They reached out to The Innocence Project — who has exonerated nearly 200 wrongful convictions — for guidance.
The one call that mattered came from Hollywood super-agent Ari Emmanuel, says Barry Scheck, who co-founded the New York-based group with Peter Neufeld in 1992. Scheck says Emmanuel told them, “I think you should get your own series,” then negotiated a deal with Netflix that transformed the idea into a high-profile event.
“The Innocence Files”, premiering April 15, is a nine-episode series with three executive producers — Roger Ross Williams, Liz Garbus and Alex Gibney — who have two Oscars and six nominations between them.
“When Netflix approached me, I couldn't believe no one had done this before,” says Williams, who directed the first three episodes. “Shockingly, a lot of Americans don't know about these issues. I want people's eyes opened to what is going on in this country. As an African-American this is a very personal issue for me.”
“They had me at Innocence Project,” adds Gibney, who directed the seventh episode. “I've always admired their work. So much of the justice system devolves into getting a notch in a belt, it's a game being played at the expense of the truth, and of the poor, especially black and brown people. Barry and Peter are trying to steer the justice system in a different direction.”
The eight individual stories from Innocence Project files revolve around three issues — bite marks and junk science, eyewitness misidentification and prosecutorial misconduct.
Scheck says that these are top policy agenda items — they’ve already helped to pass more than 200 legislative bills on criminal justice reform. Additionally, he wants to show how wrongful convictions create a “circle of pain with secondary trauma that ripples out” to the victim and families on both sides.
Scheck hopes “Innocence Files” gets picked up for more seasons. “There are plenty of other issues. And, of course, race remains the most intractable and important problem in almost all of them.”
The bite marks and junk science episodes were “an eye-opening experience,” says Williams. “I've watched ‘CSI’ and I believe in science so if someone tells me this is scientific evidence, I'd believe it. Yet it's completely disproven.”
After exploring prosecutorial misconduct in last year’s HBO documentary “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?”, Garbus was drawn to the eyewitness segments by the inherent drama of those courtroom moments and how problematic they can be. “Eyewitness testimony is seen as incontrovertible evidence and is so deeply embedded in the criminal justice and our culture, but it is so often wrong,” she says. Garbus also directed the sixth episode.
Gibney, who produced the section on prosecutorial misconduct, says the system has long been rigged to make prosecutors invulnerable. “They are very difficult to hold to account,” he says. “I know Barry feels very strongly about prosecuting the prosecutors so there's a reckoning for what they do.”
Viewers are prospective jurors for Franky Carrillo, who spent two decades in jail because of corrupt police work and false eyewitness testimony. His saga is told in the fourth and fifth episodes.
“The opportunity to shine the light on these stories is what’s driving me,” he says. While entrenched powers within the criminal justice landscape often seem resistant to acknowledging, much less fix their mistakes, Carillo believes ordinary people are more open to seeing prosecutors and police as fallible. “The climate has changed. And since I’ve been exonerated people hang on my words so I can be an ambassador for fixing the system.”
Gibney says the series focuses on telling riveting stories that uncover systemic wrongdoing instead of lecturing audiences about policy papers; Garbus adds that there are best practices defined on all these issues. “We know how to fix the problems and maybe this Netflix series can have an impact and keep the conversation going in a way it hasn’t before.”