Netflix Reclaims Its True Crime Credence with ‘The Innocence Files’

Doc series is a fascinating study of a broken system

17 mins read

Netflix reclaims its true crime credence with The Innocence Files. After the hugely entertaining, but highly flawed and ethically dubious, quarantine sensation of Tiger King comes this nine-part feat of investigative rigour. The Innocence Files admittedly lacks the binge-able sex appeal of Tiger King, yet it easily matches the stripes of its predecessor in terms of wild-but-true jaw-droppers. The doc series opens the files of The Innocence Project, a New York based non-profit organization that works tirelessly to correct wrongful convictions. (Innocence Project founders Peter Neufield and Barry Scheck appear in the series and receive consulting producer credits.) Spearheaded by the powerhouse trio of Liz GarbusAlex Gibney, and Roger Ross Williams as executive producers, with Jed Rothstein, Andy Grieve, and Sarah Dowland joining the list of directors’ credits, there is no shortage of talent available. It shows as The Innocence Files examines systemic injustice at levels both micro and macro.

The series admittedly has some inconsistencies in terms of tone, pacing, and structure with different parties at the helm. Williams, for example, delivers three 50-minute episodes that unpack two related cases, while Rothstein helms two episodes about a gang-related homicide, and the other four directors lead individual episodes devoted to unique cases. Gibney’s 86-minute episode clocks in nearly twenty minutes longer than the rest do, so watch the series definitely requires some planning. However, some cases are simply more complicated than others are, and the team respects the idiosyncrasies of their files. The episodes join under three umbrellas: “The Evidence,” “The Witness,” and “The Prosecution” to unpack key areas in which the justice system routinely fails accused persons and victims of crime alike.

Part 1: The Evidence

The first three episodes, directed by Roger Ross Williams (Life Animated), focus on a peculiar failure to consider the clues. The series begins by opening the casefiles of Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, two residents of Noxubee County, Mississippi, who served many years in prison for raping and murdering young girls in home invasions that investigators assumed to be unrelated incidents. However, as Brooks, Brewer, their family members, and various implicated parties recount the circumstances of the cases, one can’t help but be flabbergasted a failure to connect the dots.

The series explains how, shortly after Brooks was wrongfully convicted for abducting a three-year-old girl from a friend’s home, raping her, murdering her, and covering her body in bite marks, another girl died tragically under similar circumstances. The police and prosecutors explain how they assumed the most logical explanation was a copycat (re: Brewer) rather than a repeat offender who continued to prey upon the children of Noxubee County while Brooks sat in prison for his crimes. The circumstantial evidence that points to Brooks and Brewer is shoddy at best.

However, The Innocence Files introduces a figure worthy of Tiger King when it presents the authority whose testimony damned both men. Enter Dr. Michael West, a larger-than-life forensic odontologist whose analysis of the alleged bite marks on the victims purportedly placed Brooks and Brewer at the respective crime scenes. Dr. West is quite the character. Williams masterfully reveals the subject’s perverse shades as members of the Innocence Project re-open the case. West, dubbed both a “blithering idiot” and “dangerous witness” by parties interviewed for the doc, wears his notoriety with pride. He openly disdains the Innocence Project and sees their investigations as outright attacks on his expertise.

As West tours Williams through Noxubee County, proudly identifying the relics of its Confederate past, he reveals the continuation of deeply rooted systemic racism of which he is a part. He likens himself to the markers of Confederacy that face erasure, but he maintains that it’s his duty to be controversial. The Confederate flags and shot glasses in his home, not to mention the motto of Confederacy he quotes to the camera are equally troubling and colourfully captivating nuggets for true crime.

The Innocence Files, however, doesn’t stir up a colourfully racist bonehead witness merely to entertain. Far more dangerous than Dr. West’s personality is the science he represents. The three episodes of “The Evidence” build a compelling case against the reliability of bite mark evidence. The doc unpacks the challenges of accepting subjective analysis as objective science. (Especially when an “expert” like Dr. West can manipulate the evidence to support a desired conclusion.) The doc offers a balance consideration of bite mark evidence by introducing Dr. Richard Souviron, who brought international attention for bite mark analysis by delivering evidence that connected Ted Bundy to multiple murders. The Innocence Files weighs the merits of forensic evidence, particularly in a post- CSI era in which jurors might be predisposed to afford it absolute authority without understanding its reliability. While Dr. Souviron defends his practice, and perhaps rightly so, the cases of Brooks and Brewer offer persuasive arguments that a single piece of highly subjective—and questionably scientific—material is not enough evidence to meet the burden of proof.

Part 2: The Witness

While Dr. West’s quack science suggests the legal system needs to reconsider its burden of proof, his presence illustrates the impact witnesses can have regardless of their credibility. Episodes four and five of The Innocence Files, directed by Jed Rothstein (The China Hustle) begin the series’ second part “The Witness.” These two episodes unpack the case of a shooting in Lynwood, California during the height of the gang wars in the early 1990s. Rothstein examines the incident in which Franky Carrillo, a member of a predominately Hispanic gang, was wrongfully convicted in a drive-by shooting that claimed the life of a rival gang member’s father—a clear case of wrong place, wrong time as Donald Sarpy simply stepped outside to converse with his son’s friends.

As Carrillo and the eyewitnesses, including Sarpy’s son, set the scene along with Carrillo’s lawyers and the participants from the Innocence Project, the doc paints a murky setting for a reliable sighting. (The time of the shooting is at night.) However, The Innocence Files introduces a third gang, the Vikings, which ruled Los Angeles with more notoriety than the Crips or the Bloods did. The Vikings, as the doc explains, were members of a gang within the police force and were known as “neo-Nazi white supremacists” by their own colleagues. Violence, intimidation, and all-around unethical police work would let the Vikings “clean the streets” of rival gang members—most of whom were men of colour.

As the trial sees Carrillo sent to the slammer when the men at the scene identify him as the shooter, the evidence seems as faulty as the bite marks that brought wrongful convictions for Brooks and Brewer. The Innocence Files likens the act of preparing a witness to that of making a sausage: one rarely sees the amount of processing that goes into making it appeal to the palette. Flawed processes of identifying perpetrators through line-ups, photo calls, and prosecutorial coaching are akin to slaughtering, grinding, casing, and grilling.

The sixth episode examines the story of Janet, a rape survivor who though she recalled her assailant with absolute certainty—and arguably arrived at her testimony via a run through the sausage mill. This episode, directed by Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?) builds on the preceding cases of the series and offers the strongest segment of The Innocence Files. Through some emotionally absorbing interviews that brilliantly convey the dynamics of victimization and re-victimization, Janet shares her story of finding strength by identifying her assailant and putting him behind bars through her testimony. However, she reveals that she was mistaken. The revelation shatters her confidence and it victimizes Janet again when she realizes that she harmed someone—in this case, the wrongfully convicted man Thomas Haynesworth—by incorrectly matching his profile with her perception of the assailant.

Janet, who is white, and Haynesworth, who is Black, represent the tension of race that underlies The Innocence Files. Garbus assembles several key talking heads who speak to the element of racial perception bias, which prevents a person of one race from accurately distinguishing members of another. The bias relates back to representation, as whites rarely see Black experiences individualized in popular culture and society more broadly. This disparity plays quite effectively into systemic biases that disproportionately victimise Black men through the judicial system. Haynesworth’s case follows a similar trajectory as those of Brooks and Brewer as forensic evidence—in this case, the benefits of DNA testing—shed new light on an individual that investigators failed to consider while taking a witness’s word as gospel truth. No single piece of malleable evidence should outweigh an individual’s life.

Part 3: The Prosecutors

The concluding three chapters of The Innocence Files offer unique cases in which the justice system failed because of prosecutorial misconduct. These episodes may doubtlessly inspire episodes of Law & Order in the manner that the early episodes could rewrite the book for CSI. These three case studies, while individual stories of wrongdoing, combine to a larger portrait of imbalanced scales in a rigged system. The three cases feature prosecutors withholding evidence, through both negligence and malice.

Alex Gibney (Zero Days) directs “Right Place, Wrong Time,” which offers a damning account of a witness coerced into providing false testimony against subject Chester Hollman. Hollman recounts his experience being picked up for being the alleged driver of a getaway car used in a homicide—even though the basic circumstances of the case—such as the time, number of people in his car, and direction of travel—all presumably point elsewhere. This episode, the longest of the series by a margin, emphasizes information, context, facts, times, locations, and details where the preceding episodes generally favour character. There is a tonal shift between episodes one through six and number seven, but while the caseload may be overwhelming, Gibney’s info-dump puts one in the position of the prosecutor. They see a case, not an individual, and stitch together the pieces drawn from a mountain of information.

The final episodes, directed by Andy Grieve and Sarah Dowland, respectively, similarly confront the adversarial relationship between prosecutors and defense attorneys. This dynamic is evident in all the cases within The Innocence Files. While the obvious—and deliciously dramatic—cases of malpractice by the prosecutors in the final three cases will make one’s blood boil hottest, the abuses of power are not unique. They are products of the flawed processes outlined in parts one through six.

The participants, including wrongfully convicted subjects Alfred Dewayne Brown and Ken Wyniemko, offer powerful accounts of the tragedies that occur when the two legal teams in a courtroom don’t share a common goal. One hopes that a viewer of The Innocence Files recognizes that justice does not necessarily reside in an acquittal or a conviction, but in seeing the proper individuals held accountable for their crimes. Fudging a case to force a conviction simply yields more victims.

The Verdict

While the nine episodes of The Innocence Files centre on the experiences of individuals wrongfully convicted, the doc conveys the magnitude of the victimization that results from an unjust legal system. In true crime fashion, the filmmakers unpack the juicy details of each story that make the cases fascinating examples with which to interrogate the system. (Part 1: “The Evidence,” for example, features a children’s TV star named Uncle Bunky who doubles a sketch artist for young witnesses—and potentially skews the case.) Rigorously researched, balanced, and provocatively opinionated without losing sight of its objectivity, The Innocence Files builds a far more considered case than those the prosecutors assembled in the stories seen here.

There are difficult, grim, and emotional accounts alongside grisly evidence that force one to recognize the respective weaknesses and strengths of elements of a case. More significantly, the stories of The Innocence Files weave compelling portraits of wrongfully accused individuals alongside the voices of their family members, friends, and the victims of the crimes for which they served. It implores a viewer to see the subjects as people and not the perpetrators as they’ve been defined as for the better parts of their adult lives.

The Innocence Files delivers human portraits that blow open true crime horrors with empathy and care. Moreover, the episodes combine to create a convincing case against a broken legal system that needs an overhaul. It’s gripping stuff—and a refreshing reminder that one need not put ethics on the backburner for the sake of story or character.

The Innocence Files is now streaming on Netflix.


Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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