This The Innocence Files review contains no spoilers.
The Innocence Files opens with attorney Peter Neufeld explaining how The Innocence Project gets thousands of letters pleading for an attempt at new pleas. The “court of last resort” has exonerated nearly 200 wrongfully convicted prisoners since it was founded in 1992. The Innocence Project uses DNA to free the wrongfully-convicted and pushes for stronger science in the criminal justice system.
The goal of the project sets this apart from Netflix’s other justice projects, like Making a Murderer, The Keepers and Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist. While the project is integral to the telling, it is the soul of the story, the documentary focuses on the cases. The episodes present the cases in three phases. After the crime itself is established, they sift through The Evidence, The Witness and The Prosecution. Then they tear apart what is fundamentally wrong in each phase.
The very first investigation begins letting the family of the first victim set the scene. And a dark scene it is. Courtney Smith, a 3-year-old child goes missing. The disappearance comes as each link in her last moments break individually. The growing sorrow being bitten down behind the words is set against a gradually building suspense visually. There are photographs, happy ones, shot in broad daylight. But the tale ends in the darkness of a police search, ultimately futile, cut off from the world of the living by unconcerned yellow tape. It comes out the girl was abducted from the bedroom she shared with her two sisters, ages six and one. Her 26-year-old uncle was asleep in the next room.
Color plays a big part in documentaries about judicial mismanagement. This is mainly because the courts have managed to maintain separate justice systems. Pastor R.H. Brown, who is a local newscaster where the disappearance happens, tells us he likes tornadoes. They are the only thing that brings people together in his state. There is a white Mississippi and a black Mississippi. While not everyone believes that goes all the way up to the county courts, it is common knowledge in daily life going back decades. Overall, it looks like many suspects face ignorance and intentional duplicity. Things are too abruptly sorted. As one of a convicted subject’s family casually observes, “White folks make the damn rules.”
Earnest Eichelberger, an investigator from the Noxubee County Sheriff’s Department, brings the audience to the community and the scene of the killing as the official police presence marks its territory. Forensics interprets the bad news like a bad dream. Courtney’s body is found two days later in a pond 80 yards from her house. She had been sexually assaulted and murdered. There are bite-marks on the wrists and other places.
The documentary makers put us in the head frame of the officers on the scene. Eichelberger had never been on a homicide case, much less one with bite mark evidence. It is assuring to see these professionals affected by the crime, taking it into their experience. It doesn’t excuse faulty or weighted evidence, but explains how these things can occur beyond the institutional racism the trial is bound to face. But we see how human emotions push a rush to close a case on all sides.
Between bite marks and a child being taken right out of her own bed, the case becomes more frightening by the details. The only person who saw the man lead the little girl out of the bedroom was her sister Ashley, and she’s only 10 years old.
“Uncle” Bunky Williams is a fascinating character. He has a kiddy show where he draws animals part by part, and is an expert crime scene illustrator for the Lowndes County Sherriff’s department. He is the perfect person to talk to kids about such horrible realities and render them anatomically correct. An earring leads to a photographic lineup and everything seems perfectly reasonable to the viewer by the time a suspect is brought in, questioned and charged. The documentary sets this up as a viable arrest, based purely on witness testimony. Of course, the witness is a little girl, and as much as Uncle Bunky tries to ensure she’s not being influenced, we don’t know how impressionable Ashley’s memories can be. When she looks at the transcripts years later, she gives no sign of false or misremembered testimony, so the case appears balanced. The Innocence Files plays it close to the vest while dealing the details.
Our introduction to Levon Brooks is presented neutrally. He’s wearing regular street clothes, not a prison uniform. He tends animals and sets traps. He looks like he’s telling the truth. The prosecution was led by a very passionate and competent attorney who presented the case in a grisly no nonsense narrative which made complete sense. The dental expert who testified about the bite marks was adamant, confident and absolutely convinced he was telling the truth. The defense was outclassed. The foreman of the jury knew Levon all his life and even he bought the case without a reasonable doubt. Seven black jurors and five whites found Brooks guilty. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.
The case presented looks fair, except for the irritating question asked by one of Brooks’ character witnesses. Did they look at only one suspect? When Brooks says he was railroaded, it comes as a surprise even though we know by the very title of the show he is innocent. The structure perfectly balances the scales. The speedy brush to justice leaves gaps. The testimony is opaque. Does that speedy rush to get things closed mean the person who committed the crimes is still out there?
Another 3-year-old girl from the same town, Christine Jackson, is found raped, murdered and apparently covered with bite marks in 1992. The police conclude it is the work of a copycat killer and limit their search to one man, Kennedy Brewer. Brooks had a strong alibi, for the most part, when the first crime happened. Brewer was accounted for at the time of the second. The cops do not explore possibilities both crimes were related and each man separately was innocent.
The Innocence Files takes a different approach because it wants to show how wrongful convictions impact science itself. Most of the cases The Innocence Project revisits, forensic science is misused or flawed. Forensic odontologists claim it’s possible to match teeth marks found on victims to dental molds from suspects. 50 states treat bite-mark analysis as admissible evidence in court. The bite marks at the center of the conviction come under quite a bit of scrutiny. Dr. Michael West, forensic odontologist, is a rabid defender of his science. He even gets bitten for it. His declarations of “indeed and without doubt” matches fire up the prosecution and scare the shit out of the defense.
Dr. Richard Souviron, the forensic odontologist who made bitemark evidence famous at the Ted Bundy trials, presents a very different take on his science. The interesting thing the documentary brings out is how the fervency of the performance in court rings with the jury. The attorney Forrest Allgood is a part time preacher, and can bring fire and brimstone into the courtroom. West has a glint of madness in his eyes, probably from taking all those bites.
The first episode, “Indeed And Without Doubt,” was directed by Roger Ross Williams. The series also includes episodes directed by Sarah Dowland, Jed Rothstein and Andy Grieve. The next eight episodes will focus on the wrongful convictions of Chester Hollman III, Kenneth Wyniemko, Alfred Dewayne Brown, Thomas Haynesworth, Franky Carrillo, Levon Brooks, Kennedy Brewer, and Keith Harward.
The series will ultimately debunk unreliable or unvalidated forensic science. The project has been at the forefront of a movement to reform the justice system and minimize wrongful conviction. There is justice and there is closure, and bad science provides neither. DNA testing accurately links suspects to crimes. The bite marks leave a trail of drool. Bad science plagues both the judicial system and the investigative units. The HBO series Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children talks about filthy conditions in crime labs. Almost all of the series uncovers quick justice, a case which just needs to be closed. Whether it is to move on from tragedy or just because of expedience, quick justice is sloppy justice and The Innocence Files is a prime contender for the cleanup crew.
The Innocence Files will be available on Netflix starting April 15.