TV Review: The Innocent Man

 
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THE INNOCENT MAN

True Crime Docuseries

Based on the book by John Grisham

Netflix

 

Netflix’s The Innocent Man is an 8-part true crime docuseries that focuses on two murders that took place in the small city of Ada, Oklahoma in 1982 and 1984. Based on John Grisham’s only non-fiction book, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, the series takes it time establishing the initial facts of the murders, the investigations that were conducted, its results, and the men who were convicted for these two murders. Then the pace switches as the narrative starts to introduce several pieces of information that will make you question everything you have just seen. By the end, you realise that this wasn’t a show about the murders after all. Or at least, not primarily about them.

In 1982, Debbie Carter was found murdered in her apartment in Ada, and years later the police investigation arrested Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz, based on their videotaped confessions to the murder. In 1984, Donna Denice Haraway was reported missing after customers at the gas station/convenience store she was supposed to be working called the police when they realised the store was entirely empty. A witness reported seeing her exiting the store with two men, and the investigation led to the arrests of Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot, again based on their videotaped confessions to murder. The key element that led to the arrests, since Haraway’s body was not found, were both men mentioning Denice Haraway wearing the same shirt, white with blue flowers on it. Based on these confessions, the crucial parts of which are shown in the series, Ron Williamson, Tommy Ward, and Karl Fontenot were sentenced to death, while Dennis Fritz was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

What is later revealed, and this technically counts as a spoiler so, you have been warned, is that these confessions were false. The information was at times fed to the suspects by the police, or, as in the cases of both Ron Williamson and Tommy Ward, the confessions were in fact descriptions of dreams they had. A number of other elements from both investigations and the trials that followed are brought to light during the series, and they all indicate that these convictions were obtained through illegal tactics like incentivised false testimony and breaking the Brady rule. Without going any further into the details of the cases and how they are represented in the series, it’s sufficient to say that this is not a narrative driven by the actual crimes and their victims, but by the incarcerated suspects and their victimhood.

Tommy Ward at the R.B.  Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy, Oklahoma.

Tommy Ward at the R.B.  Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy, Oklahoma.

In a recent letter to The Ada News, Debbie Carter’s cousin, Chrissy Sheppard, perfectly encapsulates the docuseries both on face value, and on a meta level:

My cousin, Debbie Carter, was brutally raped and murdered more than 35 years ago. In the passing years, it is always the accused, the convicted and the courts who are center stage. Debbie is rarely if ever mentioned while bantering egos go back and forth. Debbie has become lost in her own story and forgotten by those tasked with seeking justice in her name. [...]
It is an insult to my family and Debbie’s memory to continue to read statements that Williamson and Fritz were simply convicted by the evidence.
— Chrissy Sheppard (The Ada News)

The structure of the series in terms of how it tells the story is very close to the formula set by Errol Morris’ groundbreaking 1988 true crime documentary The Thin Blue Line. It features segments of interviews with the families of Debbie Carter and Denice Haraway, lawyers involved in the trials, John Grisham, as well as the team of lawyers, including people from the Innocence Project, who have and are still fighting to exonerate the wrongfully convicted. These are interspersed with original scripted footage of the docuseries recreating key moments, such as Denice Haraway being led away from the convenience store or Debbie Carter leaving the Coachlight bar the night she was murdered. There is additional footage of the confession tapes, videos of Ron Williamson in prison, his retrial and eventual release due to exculpatory DNA evidence 5 days before he was set to be executed.

While the shifting focus of The Innocent Man, overtly indicated by the title, is a crucial element that ultimately works for the ultimate goal of the series, Chrissy Sheppard’s point about the attention often focusing on Williamson et al. and eventually forgetting about Debbie Carter and Denice Haraway makes a compelling case for the real victims of these horrendous crimes. Though on a much smaller scale and to a much different effect, this portrayal of the 80s Ada murders resembles the OJ Simpson trial and innocence verdict, which became a crucial point in the recent history of American racial discourse at the cost of overshadowing the tragedy of the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. The opening episodes are a slight of hand which end up being all too transparent, and it’s important to note that The Innocent Man is ultimately a series with a goal and a message, albeit a very noble one: exposing the problem of wrongful convictions, and using the awareness to help solve the problem.


 
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PLATON POULAS

BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.

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