Netflix’s The Innocence Files powerfully flips the true crime genre on its head

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“These stories expose difficult truths about the state of America’s deeply flawed criminal justice system,” a release for Netflix’s The Innocence Project reads.

It may make us feel grubby – as if we’re rifling through someone else’s dirty laundry – but our fascination with true crime doesn’t seem to be ebbing whatsoever. Indeed, Netflix’s Tiger King was one of the streaming platform’s biggest releases in March, and armchair detectives will be pleased to know that there will be plenty more to sink their teeth into throughout the coronavirus lockdown, with a handful of exciting true crime documentaries slated for release in April.

The most exciting of these, though, is one that feels incredibly different to others in the genre.

We’re talking, of course, about Netflix’s The Innocence Files.

Rather than demand viewers pore over footage and scandalous revelations to uncover a villain, The Innocence Files (as the name suggests) shines a light on the untold personal stories behind eight cases of wrongful conviction.

Essentially, it asks that we interrogate our own preconceived beliefs about people. That we don’t go in looking for ‘the bad guy’, but that we seek out the good in people. That we calmly and coolly examine the evidence put before us to make an informed decision, entirely unclouded by emotion, or discriminatory beliefs, or tabloid rumours.

“I think the best thing that a lawyer can do with their license is get an innocent guy out of prison,” lawyer Ellen Eggers explains in the trailer.

In helping exonerate those who have done no wrong, the docuseries 100% scratches that itch so many true crime fans have – even if they aren’t aware of it. Because, as Hanna Jameson previously theorised, our fascination for true crime dangles on “the promise of catharsis; a real sense that maybe justice will, or has been, served”. 

Warning: this article contains some spoilers for Netflix’s The Innocence Files.

What is The Innocence Files about?

A press release from Netflix reads: “The nine-episode series is composed of three compelling parts – The Evidence, The Witness and The Prosecution. These stories expose difficult truths about the state of America’s deeply flawed criminal justice system, while showing when the innocent are convicted, it is not just one life that is irreparably damaged forever: families, victims of crime and trust in the system are also broken in the process.”

Which cases will The Innocence Files examine?

The docuseries will look at the cases of Chester Hollman III, Kenneth Wyniemko, Alfred Dewayne Brown, Thomas Haynesworth, Franky Carrillo, Levon Brooks, Kennedy Brewer, and Keith Harward – all of whom are all believed to be products of a miscarriage of justice.

Here’s a little more detail about each of these eight men:

Chester Hollman III

Hollman was accused of being one of two men in the botched robbery-turned-murder of Tae-Jung Ho, a University of Pennsylvania student, on 20 August 1991.

Hollman, who had no criminal record, was arrested just moments from the crime scene driving a white SUV that matched the description of the killer’s getaway vehicle, down to the first three letters of the license plate, YZA. 

On the advice of his lawyer, Hollman didn’t testify at the 1993 trial. The jury found him guilty of second-degree murder, which in Pennsylvania carries a mandatory life term. 

Kenneth Wyniemko

On 30 April 1994, a man broke into a woman’s home in Michigan while she was sleeping. He had a nylon stocking tied off at the top of his head. 

The intruder handcuffed the victim, blindfolded her with her underwear, and raped her. 

Wyniemko was informed that he matched a police composite sketch of a sexual assault case, and was identified by the victim as her attacker – although she later said she had not seen her attacker well.

Wyniemko was convicted and sentenced to 40-60 years in prison.

Alfred Dewayne Brown

In 2005, a jury indicted Brown for the capital murder of Houston Police Officer Charles Clark during a November 2003 botched robbery. 

Brown was convicted and sentenced to death. 

Thomas Haynesworth

Haynesworth was arrested at the age of 18 in 1984 after a woman identified him as her attacker. He was convicted of four violent rapes in the East End of the city, and sentenced to a total of 84 years in prison. 

Haynesworth maintained his innocence throughout the years of incarceration.

Franky Carrillo

Franky Carrillo was at home with his father when Donald Sarpy was killed in a drive-by shooting in Lynwood, California.

Carrillo was convicted of the 1991 murder, despite the fact that he was in a different city at the time, as no less than six eyewitnesses told police they had seen him pull the trigger.

Levon Brooks

Brooks was accused of sexually assaulting and murdering a 3-year-old girl in Mississippi in the early 90s. He was sentenced to life in prison on the strength of bite marks on the girl that seemingly match his, despite the fact he had a strong alibi. 

Soon after his trial, yet another girl from the same town is found murdered in a similar fashion — opening up the possibility he could prove they had the wrong man.

The Innocence Files exposes difficult truths about the state of America’s deeply flawed criminal justice system
The Innocence Files exposes difficult truths about the state of America’s deeply flawed criminal justice system

Kennedy Brewer

In 1992, Brewer was arrested in Mississippi and accused of killing his girlfriend’s three-year-old daughter. 

After waiting in jail for three years for a trial to begin, Brewer was convicted of capital murder and sent to Mississippi’s death row.

Keith Harward 

In 1982, an unknown assailant broke into the home of a couple in Virginia, killing a man and raping his wife. During the course of the attack, the assailant bit the wife’s legs repeatedly. 

Harward became a suspect six months later – despite the fact a dentist said his teeth didn’t match the bite marks in the forensics report – after his then-girlfriend reported to police that he had bitten her in a dispute.

He was later convicted of the 1982 rape and murder.

Who made The Innocence Files?

The Innocence Files was produced and directed by an absolutely stellar team, all of whom have a bevy of awards and accolades to their name. There’s Academy Award nominee Liz Garbus, Academy Award winner Alex Gibney, and Academy Award winner Roger Ross Williams – not to mention Academy Award nominee Jed Rothstein, Emmy Award winner Andy Grieve and Sarah Dowland.

Phew!

And how is The Innocence Files connected to The Innocence Project?

The Innocence Files chronicles the work of the Innocence Project and other organisations in the Innocence Network fighting to overturn wrongful convictions.

The Innocence Project is a nonprofit legal organisation that is committed to exonerating wrongly convicted people through the use of DNA testing. And Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, who founded the project, play a huge role within Netflix’s new docuseries, providing legal representation for some of the men mentioned.

“We get flooded with letters from all over the country,” Neufeld says in the trailer. “They’re human beings who are claiming to be wrongly convicted.”

“We realised that there were so many things wrong with this system,” Scheck adds. “So we started the Innocence Project.”

Speaking about their involvement in the docuseries, Scheck and Neufeld added: “We are thrilled to be part of the groundbreaking Netflix series, The Innocence Files.

“This is truly important television. Each episode reveals-step by step-how the American criminal justice system gets it wrong. These stories feature people whose freedom was stolen because of governments’ reliance on junk science, discredited and suggestive eyewitness identification procedures, and prosecutors who engage in misconduct to win at any cost.

“We hope these stories motivate people to take action. There are tried and tested reforms that will improve the system to make it more fair and just. Countless innocent people endure unspeakable suffering in maximum security prisons and death row for crimes they didn’t commit.

“These miscarriages of justice extend a circle of pain and trauma that embraces families, communities, and even victims of crime. We must do better.”

The Innocence Files feels very different to any Netflix true crime docuseries before it.
The Innocence Files feels very different to any Netflix true crime docuseries before it.

How many episodes are there in The Innocence Files?

The Innocence Files is a nine-part series.

When will The Innocence Files land on Netflix?

The docuseries will drop on 15 April 2020.

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Images: Netflix

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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