Joe Berlinger’s Starz series Wrong Man continues its tradition of documentary justice. Season 1 led to two overturned murder convictions: for Curtis Flowers, who was tried six times by nearly all-white juries, and Christopher Tapp, exonerated from rape and murder charges after serving 20 years of a 30-year sentence. It also helped Evaristo Salas win a new trial where he will be represented by a pro bono lawyer. Wrong Man season 2 focuses on wronged women.
The long-form documentary journalism series messes with the formula set in the first season in a few ways. The obvious one is that this season focuses on wrongfully accused women. Beginning with “The Case Against Grandma,” Vonda Smith, who was convicted of beating 21-year-old Jessie Morrison, the mother of her grandchild, beyond recognition. The less obvious change is the show pulls the rug out from us with a stronger sense of ambiguity in what they uncover. And the team uncovers a lot on their own.
Berlinger, who also directed the documentary Paradise Lost, and the Starz Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, put together a group of seasoned professionals from all sides of the criminal justice system to keep it in check. Renowned civil rights attorney Ron Kuby leads most of the sessions, conducts phone interviews and has good enough handwriting for the green board. Former prosecutor Sue-Ann Robinson digs into the cases and finds discrepancies defense attorneys might not see. She questions procedure, and fills in major pieces to the puzzles.
Retired NCIS investigator Joe Kennedy and Ira Todd of Detroit’s elite Homicide Task Force take it to the streets, fields, dilapidated bridges and prison visiting rooms. They go in there armed with only a camera and a doubt. Between their cajoling interview style and their wry “why are your hands shaking” observances, they rarely come out empty-handed.
Morrison was pregnant with her third child when she was killed. Her body was found by a man walking his dog along a rural, one-lane road on the night of Aug. 12, 2016. Smith was 52 in March 2017 when she was charged with two counts of first-degree murder in connection with the death.
When the investigators first hit the case, it appears a clear cut example of conviction tunnel vision. The suspect didn’t react the way normal mothers and grandmothers are supposed to act when she was told the news about the murder. Morrison was 16 weeks pregnant when she was found beaten beyond recognition. Smith was the grandmother of Morrison’s oldest child. Once the cops noted Vonda’s reaction, they didn’t have to look much further.
There was blood in Vonda’s car, which had been bleached since the crime because of some cat pee incident. But Vonda swears she didn’t see it. A nine-year-old daughter of a friend, who was a passenger in the car during the timeline, also didn’t see blood in it. The police also discount how Vonda, who was 4 feet 10 inches tall, could overtake Jessie, who was 5 feet 6 inches and much younger, without being bruised.
The team also investigate suspect Gary Ealey, who cracked a former girlfriend’s skull and local drug users. Greenville, Tenn., is in the grip of an addiction epidemic. Jessie Morrison was dumped along a remote country road in an area where meth addicts throw people off bridges. There is even a little True Detective season 1 aura in the conspiratorial undertones as Vonda drives off looking for the real killers. An action-packed recollection sees her get psychologically and physically sideswiped, but there is no corroborating evidence. There is corroborating evidence of a white van which Vonda reported to the police.
For me the episode slows a little when the team brings in the blood spatter expert, with his secret sprays and trajectory theories. When he says blood bubbles pop only certain ways I, as an viewer, get distracted by how to get around that. Would a balloon or plastic filled with blood do the same thing? I wonder if anyone who wants to plant evidence on someone would ever bother. The team also conducts their own forensics work.
The most effective part of the series is the captured-on-tape admissions. The two ex-cops even put a suspect through a humiliating parental situation. They ruffle feathers, throw a little guilt around, make note of facial tics and body language and present the whole thing, unfiltered, back to the New York investigative hub.
Wrong Man will also look into the case of Patricia Rorrer, who was convicted of killing a young mother, Joann Katrinak, and her 16-week old son, in Catasauqua, Pa. Rorrer claims the DNA evidence used at her trial is “junk science.” She has been in prison since 1998. The series ends with African-American death row inmate Kenneth Clair. Convicted of torturing and killing a young babysitter named Linda Rodgers in 1984, the only eyewitness to the crime was a five-year-old child. The witness told the police “a white man did it.” No forensic evidence ties Clair to the incident.
Full season long-form journalism projects have been growing in popularity, especially since Netflix‘s Making a Murderer series. Most of them have developed into an overriding formula. It is to the Wrong Man‘s advantage the team casts doubt on the very subject they are trying to exonerate. The gotcha-questioning of ambush interviews keeps the emotional flow raw. We believe the investigators are truly working their hardest to get real answers because they sometimes doubt where they’re going.
Wrong Man premieres on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020, at 9:45 p.m. on Starz.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.