“The Innocence Files” is Netflix’s latest true crime offering and, according to executive producers — and documentary powerhouses — Liz Garbus, Alex Gibney and Roger Ross Williams, it could change how Americans view a wildly unequal criminal justice system.
The nine-episode series premieres on April 15 and focuses on the work of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization, founded by lawyers Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, that uses DNA evidence to exonerate the wrongfully convicted — many of them men of color.
The show focuses on eight such cases, each of which serve to illustrate one of the three primary reasons that lead to false convictions in the first place: flawed scientific evidence, eyewitness misidentification and prosecutorial misconduct.
“The systems that we’re told to trust — [these] systems are deeply flawed, and I think that the series can challenge our assumptions about the way we think things are supposed to work by seeing these human stories that show how things can go so terribly awry,” Garbus, who also directs, tells Variety.
And viewers can elect to watch the series out of order, as episodes are organized by theme rather than by timeline.
“It’s not serialized, but remember the serialization of documentaries is a fairly recent invention,” says Garbus. “I think people are still used to watching series that have some closed-ended stories in them.”
The cast of innocents includes a man who served 16 years for rape and murder and another who served 20 years for a shooting murder in which witnesses later confessed that they had no clear view of the perpetrator and were, instead, influenced by police officers in their testimonies.
For Gibney, who oversaw the episodes focused on prosecutorial misconduct, there is some hope in rectifying the many systemic issues of the criminal justice system, including through the use of conviction integrity units, as featured in the series. Such units have prosecutors and defense attorneys working in tandem to remedy false convictions.
“It’s the prosecutor and defense attorney working together to discover the truth, as opposed to trying to tell a kind of convincing lie, which is sometimes how our adversarial system of justice devolves,” says Gibney.
This is a system with which Williams is very familiar.
“The issue of mass incarceration is very personal to me. It’s where many members of my family and my community have all been destroyed by this crisis happening in America that’s going on for what seems like since the beginning of the creation of this country,” says Williams.
Williams’ episodes take a critical eye specifically to the flawed science of so-called “bite mark” evidence, which is still admissible in 49 states.
“The words ‘science’ [and] ‘forensics’ make people believe, ‘Oh, this has to be true,’ but it’s not. It’s completely fake,” says Williams.
Williams adds that despite the grim subject matter, the series offers hope.
“There are organizations like Innocence Project that are doing incredible work. They exist in all 50 states. The lawyers that work on these cases are heroes,” he says. “And there’s nothing that prepares you for the moment when someone is exonerated.”
Garbus echoes the same: “In each case, there are procedures you can follow and things that can be done to stop [wrongful convictions] from happening. So, there is hope,” says Garbus.
If anything, the filmmakers say viewers who are one day called to be jurors in a criminal trial will, hopefully, be more critical of the cases and evidence presented to them.
“These stories are key pieces of evidence that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle at the end of the day to give you a broader systemic notion of what’s wrong with the justice system,” says Gibney. And they give “you a glimmer of how it could be fixed.”