The show opens with a News Channel 11 news report from Hawkins County, Tennessee. “Bryan Lawson is charged with first-degree murder and reckless engagement in the death of his wife, Beth ‘Chandra’ Lawson,” the anchor explains. “Police say a home surveillance system recorded Lawson shooting his wife. Investigators also said that video showed the pair in an argument before the shooting. The couple’s small child was standing beside Chandra Lawson when she was shot.” We then cut to the office of Lawson’s attorney Larry Boyd, where the pair are gaming out their defense. What follows is ringside seats to Lawson’s torturous six-month route to trial, in which we meet his family, go inside the courtroom and — shockingly — see the CCTV footage referred to in that News Channel 11 report.
Welcome to Accused: Guilty Or Innocent?, the new documentary series from A&E, which producers claim is one of the first shows on U.S. television to follow individuals accused of a serious crime from the point they are charged, to the denouement of their case in a court of law. The series premieres on April 21 at 10PM EST/PST and is made by British production company Brinkworth Films, which originally launched the show as The Accused for ViacomCBS’s UK network Channel 5 in 2017.
Executive producer Malcolm Brinkworth says A+E Networks got in touch asking for the Channel 5 show tapes. Soon after, his company was developing a fully-fledged, eight-part American series. Brinkworth Films invested time and money into compiling a “remarkably big database” of U.S. defense lawyers, through which it was able to identify and track down cases that might make strong stories for the show.
Brinkworth ended up shadowing 35 cases, many of which did not work out for a variety of reasons including the case collapsing. Those that did work out, however, make for a compelling list of human interest stories. Wife-killer Lawson opens the season, but later episodes feature a 23-year-old woman who is arrested for a decade-old malicious robbery after new fingerprint evidence surfaces, and a two-part special on a farmer accused of murdering his mother.
Getting these people to engage when they are going through one of the most traumatic events of their life requires an enormous amount of the work, Brinkworth explains. “Imagine this is you and you had been accused of something that you passionately believe that you are innocent of. Local press has been running stories on you, some of it may have even gone national. Your neighbors don’t talk to you, you probably don’t have a job because you’ve been sacked. Your family and friends are asking, did you really do this? Then you get a phone call from your lawyer saying: ‘Hey, a television program has been in touch.’ That’s the context around which you have to frame the question,” he says.
“The trust that’s involved is huge. You are going to be with them as they go through this entire experience. Some people think about it and don’t think they can do it, some people say ‘yes’ but we or the network might say ‘no.’ But it is an extraordinary thing to agree to. It’s something we take incredibly seriously.”
Lawson’s episode sets the tone for the series. There is no narrator, no fast-cut editing, no sensationalizing of the story. Instead, Lawson, his lawyer and his family do the talking, taking you inside the mind of a man who gunned down his wife in his own living room. And what you find, beyond that News Channel 11 report, is a complex man who had a complicated relationship with an abusive woman and her children. You discover the effort involved in obtaining evidence that is crucial to his defense and the contortions and soul searching he must go through when offered a plea bargain. Along the way, you see first-hand the security footage that vividly captures the moments that led to his crime — and perhaps most surprisingly of all, the shooting itself. It’s a moment no TV crime drama can prepare you for.
“It’s incredibly powerful,” Brinkworth says. “As you would expect, we took a great deal of advice on it from our own counsel and A+E to determine how best we should use it or not. Also bear in mind the family sensitivities, the individual and his lawyer. It has huge ramifications for all involved. If there is a key piece of evidence, which is integral to the case and pivotal in the defense, then it seems absolutely appropriate for us to look at that — properly in that context and in that light — and in Bryan’s case, that CCTV footage was critical to any understanding of what happened that day and the defense he was able to make.”
It all adds up to what Brinkworth says is one of the most extraordinary shows he has been involved with. “If you look at cop dramas, or factual, it’s always the police or the prosecution. Where we think this is different is when you’re accused of a serious crime, your whole life is on the line. The consequences of being found guilt polarize everything around you,” he says. “Each case has got huge stakes for the individual, each case has got huge stakes for the lawyers, the defense, the prosecution. And you are there every step of the way in a way no-one’s ever done before.”
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