Directors behind Netflix's latest true crimes series discuss America's flawed legal system

By Chris Harris
April 15, 2020 10:59 AM
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The Innocence Files
Credit: Courtesy Netflix

In 2015, Netflix released Making a Murderer, an eye-opening docuseries — about the 2006 murder convictions of Steven Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey — that exposed glaring flaws within Wisconsin’s criminal justice system and ignited a firestorm of outrage that spread across the globe.

Today, a new series starts streaming on Netflix called The Innocence Files. However, the three directors behind this nine-episode series want to inspire more than just anger and disgust.

Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?), Roger Ross Williams (Life, Animated), and Alex Gibney (Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief) tell PEOPLE they hope that viewers will be inspired to take decisive action towards criminal justice reform.

“It’s about having a justice system that is actually seeking the truth,” Gibney says. “Prosecutors always hide behind this idea that they are protecting the public, but they’re not protecting the public if they are putting innocent people in jail and letting the guilty ones who’re still going to commit those crimes go free.”

The Innocence Files is a riveting series that explores the efforts of the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization that works to vindicate the wrongly convicted. The Netflix show centers on the exonerations of eight men (Chester Hollman III, Kenneth Wyniemko, Alfred Dewayne Brown, Thomas Haynesworth, Franky Carrillo, Levon Brooks, Kennedy Brewer and Keith Harward), all of whom spent years — sometimes decades – in prison for crimes they had nothing to do with, while also highlighting the inexact sciences, antiquated investigatory methodologies, and overzealous prosecutions used to secure their convictions.

The program is divided into three sections of three episodes — each one focusing on an unreliable yet popular mechanism used to put citizens behind bars: “The Evidence,” “The Eyewitness” and “The Prosecution.”

The episodes directed by Williams denounce junk science like forensic odontology, and the work of the disgraced Dr. Michael West, who, for years, testified about bite-mark evidence in Mississippi murder trials.

“He could razzle and dazzle a jury and trick them into believing this is science when it isn’t science at all,” Williams explains. “He has been discredited and barred from the organization of odontologists, but he continues to believe what he did was right — he actually believed the evidence he was presenting to jurors.”

The Innocence Files
Kennedy Brewer, who wrongly spent 13 years in prison for murder, is featured in “The Innocence Files”
| Credit: Courtesy Netflix

The unreliability of eyewitness testimony is tackled in the episodes directed by Garbus.

“It is one of the major contributing causes to innocent people going to prison,” Garbus tells PEOPLE. “We need to start understanding the way this process works, that if a police officer shows you eight photos and says, ‘Yeah, the guy’s in there — which one is he?,’ the witness will pick out a person even though they’re not sure. And as time goes on, they will become more and more sure about that choice. Once there is that original sin of suggestion, it is so impossible to peel back the onion.”

Gibney, who helmed the episodes about unscrupulous prosecutions, walked away from the experience convinced that the U.S. needs “some sort of federal system” overseeing state prosecutors, so they don’t overstep their bounds and realize “they will be held to account and winning isn’t enough.” He also believes the system needs to be overhauled “so that there are fewer incentives for prosecutors to essentially create compelling lies.”

Peter Neufeld, who co-founded the Innocence Project in 1992 with Barry Scheck, says he thinks The Innocence Files will provoke widespread discussion about “these criminal justice issues,” and hopes it will get people “thinking about ways we can reform it.” Neufeld also says the series is about redemption.

The Innocence Files
A promotional poster for the series
| Credit: Courtesy Netflix

“You have the redemption of the individual, if you will, who comes through this tunnel and is eventually exonerated, and everybody agrees the person is innocent, but you also have the additional redemption – a kind of societal redemption – in that we show what is systemically wrong with these different problems, whether its junk science or eyewitness identification, or even prosecutorial misconduct,” Neufeld explains. “The Innocence Project offers sort of no-nonsense, largely-agreed-upon remedies to reduce the adverse impact of misidentifications, to get rid of junk science and to make prosecutors more responsible in the way they handle these cases. So, there’s a double redemption, which is a good thing.”

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The Innocence Project is working with about 250 clients at any given time, he says, adding that one of the best ways people can help change the criminal justice system is by voting.

“More recently, there have been a whole group of people running for the office of district attorney who really care about these reforms – who don’t have a position that is simply, ‘Lock ’em up, and ‘It’s my job to defend a conviction, no matter how unjust it may be,'” Neufeld says. “It becomes incumbent in all of us to try and support those candidates who really want to do something to change the system.”