The death of George Floyd under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis has triggered nationwide reflection on systemic racism in America. While the focus since Floyd’s killing has been on policing, the Netflix documentary series The Innocence Files widens the lens to interrogate bias and misconduct in the criminal justice system as a whole—encompassing police, prosecutors, trials and evidence, and mass incarceration.
The Emmy-contending series, which features episodes directed by Oscar winners Alex Gibney and Roger Ross Williams, and Oscar nominee and Emmy winner Liz Garbus, grew out of the work of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit with a mission to “free the staggering number of innocent people who remain incarcerated, and to bring reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment.”
“The objective [of the series], as far as I was concerned, was to honor the Innocence Project and what they have done and what they continue to do,” Gibney tells Deadline, explaining his motivation for coming on board. “One of the things I learned in doing this series, which was so great, was how their work has made them understand fundamental flaws in our justice system that we do have to correct. So for all those reasons, I thought, ‘Great, I’m in.’”
Gibney directed Episode 7 of The Innocence Files, examining the case of Chester Hollman III, a young African-American man accused in the 1991 killing of a foreign exchange student in Philadelphia. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison on the basis of a police investigation and prosecution riddled with wrongdoing.
For instance, detectives coerced two witnesses to finger Hollman, threatening them with jail if they didn’t—this, despite an array of eyewitnesses who had said Hollman wasn’t the man responsible. Detectives (one of whom allegedly punched Hollman in the face during questioning) also had him sign a statement that they had secretly doctored to add an incriminating comment.
“They actually write in some extra stuff that they don’t show him,” Gibney recounts, “but [Hollman] signs.”
The episode shows how the lead prosecutor suppressed exculpatory evidence, including a police interview with a woman unconnected to Hollman who appeared implicated in the crime. That unethical assistant district attorney, ironically, was also African-American.
“A Black prosecutor,” Gibney notes, “who was routinely put forward as the prosecutor of choice for black defendants, so that nobody could say that there was prejudice in the system. It was the most cruelly cynical kind of M.O.”
Gibney says there’s a structural issue involved, concerning the way criminal trials are conducted.
“It’s dominated by a sense of competition [between prosecution and defense] that often values winning and losing over a search for the truth,” he observes. “So much in the system has become about winning, particularly for the prosecution. It’s like, if you can win, it’s a badge of honor. You get promoted. You do better, and better, and better. And so you start taking shortcuts.”
Hollman spent more than 25 years behind bars, his appeals repeatedly denied. The two witnesses against him recanted, but that left appellate judges unmoved.
“The court system’s lazy. They don’t want to go back and go to the trouble of finding out who actually committed the crime because they have somebody they can hang for it who’s in prison already,” Gibney asserts. “They even have a term for it, which is ‘testilying,’ as opposed to testifying. If you get somebody to ‘testilie’ on the stand then you’re home free, because the judge is not going to be inclined to listen to recantations because it means unraveling everything. That’s such a hassle.”
The Innocence Files looks at other problematic questions in the criminal justice system, like what constitutes reliable evidence. Episode 1, directed by Roger Ross Williams, takes on the case of an African-American man wrongly convicted of murder in the death of a three-year-old child, after an impression taken of his teeth supposedly matched bite marks on the victim. The case underscores “the shortcomings of bite mark comparison evidence,” the Innocence Project states laconically. Gibney is more pointed, calling the bite mark evidence “junk science.”
Episode 6, directed by Liz Garbus, centers on the case of Thomas Haynesworth, an African-American teenager arrested in Richmond, Virginia in 1984 for the rapes of several white women. The key evidence against him: positive identifications by the victims. But, as the episode reveals, eyewitness ID’s are not as reliable as many people think.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about eyewitness memory is that when an event is extremely stressful or traumatic, that an individual is much more likely to be accurate in their recollection and in their identifications that follows,” witness ID expert Jennifer Dysart observes in the episode. “But the research suggests that they are more likely to make errors.”
Haynesworth spent 27 years in prison before he was cleared by sophisticated analysis of DNA evidence, techniques unavailable when he was first tried.
“Mistaken eyewitness identifications contributed to approximately 71% of the more than 360 wrongful convictions in the United States overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence,” the Innocence Project notes on its website. “Cross-racial identifications,” where witnesses are asked to identify someone of another race, are particularly suspect.
“Own-race bias suggests that ‘witnesses are more accurate at recognizing same-race perpetrators than other-race perpetrators,’” according to a Michigan Journal of Race and Law report. “The mainstream scientific community has accepted own-race bias as fact.”
Not every case explored in The Innocence Files involves wrongly convicted African-American people, or deliberate misconduct by law enforcement or prosecutors. But of all the DNA exonerations cited by the Innocence Project, 61% involved African Americans imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. This is what speaks to a systemic problem.
“It’s easier for prosecutors to get convictions and to uphold those convictions when the defendants are poor and Black,” Gibney states. “I mean, it’s a portrait of the system and the system at its core, it’s all about race.”
With mass incarceration, which disproportionately affects African Americans, one is left to wonder how many people in prison are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted.
“The prison system in America is the monument to racism, because it is where you see the fundamental inequality borne out of the legacy of slavery manifest,” argues Gibney. “Percentages [of African-American incarceration] are way too high for anything else to explain [it], except for racism.”
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