Arts & Culture
The Innocence Files Review
22nd July 2020
True crime documentaries are never particularly tasteful. Go on YouTube or Netflix or late-night television and you can enjoy an array of other people’s personal tragedies: documentaries that serve no purpose other than to indulge a desire for horror and tales of human suffering.
Netflix documentary series, The Innocence Files, is a whodunnit with a cause. Repetitive and over-indulgent, the series brings many interesting things to light – only to leave them hanging.
The producers of The Innocence Files must have seen an opportunity to increase the popularity of what might otherwise have been a serious documentary about the flaws in the US legal system, inherent racial bias and progress of DNA science, by putting an emphasis on ‘trashy’ mystery elements and gruesome details. It spends most of its time describing murders to the sound of eerie music, in the style of true crime documentaries found at the shameful end of a late-night YouTube spree.
The series of nine episodes follows eight cases of wrongful convictions. This is to say that it focuses on eight men who were put in prison for crimes they did not commit. Each episode establishes why these men were sentenced in the first place, how to get them out, and who actually committed the crimes.
The documentary successfully humanises these eight prisoners by spending time with their relatives. A lawyer for The Innocence Project, a legal organisation specialising in getting innocent people out of prison, explains that “it’s only when you see the families and communities that you really understand the prisoner.”
I think the series here is making the point that the police should have spent longer getting to know these families and communities before they incarcerated innocent men, but it fails to show in what way the families and communities of the real perpetrators were any different.
The series touches on the US’ problem of putting retribution before accuracy or rehabilitation and the way in which racial elements play into this problem. The Innocence Files draws a comparison between the overarchingly black population of prisons and a sort of modern-day slavery: in the second episode, the camera pans to a shocking landscape. Working the cotton fields of a Mississippi prison is a vast, imprisoned, black community, and the series suggests that a number of them are innocent. This is the same prison that, in the years after the abolition of the slave trade, continued to rent out its black inmates to work on plantations.
“The series touches on the US’ problem of putting retribution before accuracy or rehabilitation and the way in which racial elements play into this problem.”
The series has a number of villains but, unlike most crime dramas, the villains are not the murderers: they are the lawyers, the police and the justice system. The series’ first three episodes feature an evil dentist. Often being brought in on trials as an expert witness, and having made numerous mistakes resulting in the incarceration of innocent (black) people, he aligns criticism of his former methods with criticism of Confederate statues.
The dentist argues that it is as anachronistic to criticise the statues (‘part of history’) as it is anachronistic to blame him for putting innocent people in jail. His argument is that, as DNA testing was not advanced when he gave his expertise, his use of flawed ‘bite mark evidence’ as certain proof of guilt was entirely justified. “I will not be erased” are his parting words to the camera.
The series is about the ways in which the justice system has failed innocent people. Bite mark evidence is its first target, witness identification its second, and corruption and misconduct within the justice system its third. It is clear after an episode that the first two constitute unreliable evidence – but this message is drummed in for over six hours. Admittedly, the series also depicts unsuccessful attempts at changing the laws – where people refuse to discredit evidence that is pretty much proven not to be accurate. But the viewer is on The Innocence Project’s side sooner than the series seems to anticipate.
The most interesting aspect of the series lies in its discussion of misconduct within the justice system. We watch police and DAs fight to keep innocent men in prison, more afraid to admit their mistakes than to do the right thing. The relationship between the police and the DAs described as symbiotic, ‘almost invit[ing] misconduct’. We watch detectives manipulate witness testimonies, hide and ignore evidence and even blackmail witnesses into giving false statements in order to support their unproven and often racially biased ideas. A memorable line is the comparison of witness testimonies being moulded into shape like sausages in a factory. This legal system, coupled with its racial bias, leaves minorities powerless and weak, with the idea that if a black or Hispanic person ‘didn’t do it this time, it’ll be them next time’.
This documentary is weak, but it advocates for change. In a system where we see defence lawyers turn to reporters to set people free, there needs to be a change. The laws need to change. Politics need to change. But most of all the problem is with a racial bias so profound that the series’ many villains simply can’t see their own mistakes.
Featured photo Barbara Rosner