Thirty years ago, Levon Brooks was accused of sexually assaulting and murdering a three-year old girl in Mississippi. Despite having an alibi, he was sentenced to life in prison based on bite mark analysis. A few months, later a second young girl was raped and murdered and Kennedy Brewer, the boyfriend of the victim’s mother was arrested and sentenced death for the crime, based on similar bite mark analysis.
Brewer subsequently wrote to The Innocence Project, which was able to get the pair exonerated and freed after having DNA evidence at the crime scene tested.
These cases form the first three episodes of Netflix’s The Innocence Files and were directed by American Jail director Roger Ross Williams, who told Deadline that he was presented with a huge amount of “compelling” material from The Innocence Project.
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“Because race played such a big part in all of these, I was drawn to this Mississippi town and could tell the story through a place that was so intense and people felt so disenfranchised,” he said.
Williams added that a colorful and controversial character, a dentist named Michael West, was a “goldmine” to his story. “I had a dentist that was a bigger than life character, when we first met him put his gun on the table surrounded by confederate flags and compared himself to a Confederate statue with people trying to erase his legacy and who hated The Innocence project. He’s quite a character and quite dramatic and fascinating so it all fell into place with him,” he said.
Williams is one of three acclaimed directors involved in The Innocence Files alongside Who Killed Garrett Phillips? director Liz Garbus and Citizen K director Alex Gibney. The nine-part series launches on the streamer on April 15.
The trio spoke to Deadline ahead of the launch of the series about the collaboration, their individual episodes and their thoughts on the timing of the series, coming in the midst of a global pandemic.
The unusual project began after the streamer struck an overall deal with The Innocence Project, set up in 1992 by Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, which then opened up its case files to a number of filmmakers.
Williams’ episodes are designed to cover ‘The Evidence’, while Garbus is overseeing ‘The Witness’ and Gibney looking after ‘The Prosecution’. Garbus directed episode six, which tells the story of Thomas Haynesworth and Gibney directs episode seven about Chester Hollman. Other directors include Jed Rothstein (Enemies: The President, Justice & The FBI), Andy Grieve, editor of The Inventor, and Sarah Dowland, producer of American Jihad.
Gibney said, “We were each responsible for our own group of films, our own thematic buckets and knew that we were working in tandem, which was exciting because we all respect each other but also energizing because we’re all intensely competitive. We were serving a higher goal, which was to celebrate The Innocence Project. It felt like everyone was in the boat and everyone has a row but we were all rowing in different parts of the boat until the end.”
Gibney’s story revolves around abuse of power, a regular topic in his films. His episode tells the case of Chester Hollman, who was wrongfully convicted of homicide in 1991 after being arrested driving a vehicle matching the description of a getaway car that had similar plates to one the police were looking for. However, following the election of District Attorney Larry Krasner in 2017, the city of Philadelphia chose to review cases like Hollman’s in which there was compelling evidence of innocence, and in the process uncovered that the prosecutor and police withheld evidence that could have proven Hollman’s innocence. In 2019, Hollman was released from prison after 28 years behind bars for a crime that someone else committed.
Garbus, meanwhile, looked into the case of Thomas Haynesworth, who was arrested for the sexual assaults or attempted sexual assaults of five women in Richmond, Virginia in 1984. Haynesworth was sentenced to 74 years in prison. In 2009, he was proven innocent by DNA evidence in two of the cases, and in 2011 he was absolved on the others based on mistaken identity. He was fully exonerated. Haynesworth had spent 27 years in prison for crimes he did not commit. Ultimately, it came to light that the man who actually committed the crimes was a neighbor who the victims thought resembled Haynesworth.
Garbus said, “You’ve seen courtroom scenes in movies where the witness points across the courtroom and says ‘he did it’ and everybody goes ‘woah’ and that’s the moment where the person is jailed. Could that person be wrong? They can be wrong. I wanted to understand the psychology and how memories are made.”
She admitted that it was tricky to find victims who would speak publicly. “In the story of Thomas Haynesworth, even to do this day, there are remaining victims, who despite all of the evidence will go to their graves believing that he is the man who raped them. The power of that original belief is so strong,” she added.
While each of these filmmakers have made films about crime and the criminal justice system before, it was unusual to bring them together under a banner.
“One of things that I find refreshing about this series is that it’s focused in a similar direction but all of these films have a slightly different character and playbook and yet they have a unanimity of purpose,” said Gibney.
Garbus added the collective experience was one of the things that excited her about the project. “Often time we work on films which tell extraordinary stories of people who were wronged or framed. It’s possible to write it off, but the power of doing something like this is you get the power of that individual story to make you care, but you see the systemic problem, it’s not a bad apple or an isolated incident.”
Williams added that this is just the “tip of the iceberg”. “The Innocence Project receives thousands of letters and have got hundreds of people exonerated. They have a seemingly endless supply of these stories, the mass incarceration crisis problem in America is massive,” he said. “It could be ten series because there’s material and I think it was brilliant of Netflix to bring together the three of us, who each have our own distinct style. I feel like Netflix is one of the only places that could pull this off and pull it all together because it makes it so much strong, so much more powerful and garners so much more attention.”
Netflix has had success with docuseries during the COVID-19 pandemic, most notably Tiger King. How do the filmmakers believe quarantine will impact this series?
“The virus will pass, it’s going to be hard to get to the other end but we will. But these issues of criminal justice will be there for us and I think that it’s a peculiar advantage to have so many people with so much time on their hands to be able to focus on this, but there couldn’t be something more important to tell stories that highlight how much wrong there is in the criminal justice system,” said Gibney. “One of the things that COVID-19 has done is focused us on a lot of structural inequality, structural racism in our society, in ways that become so apparent now. It’s all connected. In that sense, it gives me some hope, in that focusing on this now, there will be perhaps more of an impact than there otherwise will be.
Williams added that the outbreak has shown the amount of racial inequality in the U.S. “This is a problem and issue that will not go away any time soon. So now people are sitting in their homes and focused on ways to get a greater understanding of the world and the situation that we find ourselves in, this is the perfect time for this series and perfect time for people to reflect how we can begin to change injustice like the mass incarnation system in America. I hope a lot of people watch and demand change.”
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