Primetimer editor-at-large Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. She founded the true crime site The Blotter, and is the host of its weekly podcast, The Blotter Presents. Her new weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime on TV.
Netflix's latest true-crime series, The Innocence Files, has a flawless pedigree. Tackling eight cases of wrongful conviction that The Innocence Project and related organizations have worked on, the docuseries gets what many shows and series with the same topic can't — the participation of big name co-founders Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck. The behind the camera filmmaking talent isn't too shabby either, with American Jail director Roger Ross Williams directing the first episode, and Liz Garbus (Lost Girls) and Alex Gibney (Going Clear) executive producing. The topic is a winner, at least in theory — who doesn't love a journey to justice? — and The Innocence Files has a unique structure, dividing itself into three parts: "The Evidence," "The Witness," and "The Prosecution."
So why didn't I like it more?
To be clear, I did like it. The Innocence Files isn't dull, or poorly made. The series' access to those on either side of a given case, from Neufeld and Scheck and their colleagues, to the defendants, to the victims and their families — even embattled prosecutors and expert witnesses — is really impressive. One particular crane shot over a pond, captioned a few days after the disappearance of a three-year-old, sent a chill up my spine, and another that showed Mississippi inmates trudging through a field wearing "Property Of MDOC Convict" sweatshirts said a lot; visually, it's effective. (Note: The visuals may prove too effective for some viewers; several scenes involve forensic testing on cadavers — using a bite-mark exemplar cast from Ted Bundy's teeth, no less — and aren't for the squeamish.) And the series is smart about using cases that true-crime culture hasn't already worn threadbare with two-hour specials or investigative podcasts, although the sheer number of such cases that remain obscure — as bleakly illustrated by a huge heap of letters an Innocence Project employee is shown working through — is depressing.
At the same time, The Innocence Files often seems like it's trying to do too much, trying to fit too many aspects of these cases into its allotted screentime, and a couple of structural tweaks might have made the series utterly compelling instead of solidly interesting. Take the first set of episodes, "The Evidence." The three episodes look at a pair of related cases from the early '90s that hinged in no small part on forensic odontology findings — the study of the aforementioned bite-marks. The Innocence Project's approach to these cases is, first, to debunk the idea that forensic odontology is more science than art, and then to dismantle the rest of the case that surrounds the suspect forensics, but the episodes spend a fair bit of time on B-roll shots of rusting tractors, slumped abandoned buildings, or freed prisoners feeding their birds pigeons... and that's another thing. The wrongfully convicted are onscreen, frequently, so the suspense in The Innocence Files comes not from finding out whether justice was finally served for them, but rather, how it was served. The time spent on their childhoods or at church services with their moms isn't uninteresting or irrelevant, but it does slow the episodes down. What I'd hoped to see in "The Evidence" was an interrogation of forensic odontology's broader role in criminal convictions over the last few decades; whether we should consider experts in it reliable; a mention of the incorrect conclusions drawn about bite marks in other famous cases (the West Memphis Three, for example); and other fields of forensics that the CSI-watching public might assume are undisputed, but whose bona fides are far from proven. Recent research strongly suggests that we should probably forget most of what we thought we knew about blood spatter and fire investigation, but those fields aren't covered by "The Evidence."
Instead, The Innocence Files gives the viewer more local flavor, as when notorious forensic-odontology expert Dr. Michael West hoists himself upon his own bitterly defensive petard. While smoking cigarettes in a dive bar, West compares The Innocence Project's questioning of his methods and results to the "erasure" of history when Confederate statuary is removed, which is a telling parallel for him to draw. It's a pertinent parallel, given the role race and bias play in the cases under discussion — but the series is also trying to get its arms around race and bias on both sides of Mississippi law enforcement, and possibly improper jury selection, and the reluctance of prosecutors to reverse themselves, while the prosecution is also the focus of the final set of episodes. It's literally impossible to talk about wrongful convictions and not mention structural racism, and I'm not suggesting The Innocence Files should try. I do think stricter attention to the titular evidence — how it's used, how experts are trained (or not) in their fields, how certification standards might work for some defendants and against others — would have resulted in a better-paced series. The assertion by one interviewee that forensics "started as creative ideas by detectives" is the headline, and the throughline, here — that literal death sentences are handed out based on "science" that practitioners can qualify to practice with a six-hour class or a course by mail.
With that focus, The Innocence Files could move into multiple captivating seasons: on false confessions, bad lineups, untested rape kits, faulty memory, misconduct, overwhelmed public defenders, perjury, on and on. The justice system, made up as it is of humans, will not stop getting things wrong, and The Innocence Project will not run out of cases to work on, but unless the series zooms in tighter, which will let it move faster, I'm not sure I'll follow it for another season.
The Innocence Files drops on Netflix Wednesday, April 15th.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.