Netflix has released the trailer for The Innocence Files, the new limited documentary series launching on the streaming service on April 15. The Innocence Files shines a light on the untold personal stories behind eight cases of wrongful conviction that the nonprofit organization the Innocence Project and organizations within the Innocence Network have uncovered and worked tirelessly to overturn.
The nine-episode series is composed of three compelling parts – The Evidence, The Witness and The Prosecution. These stories expose difficult truths about the state of America’s deeply flawed criminal justice system, while showing when the innocent are convicted, it is not just one life that is irreparably damaged forever: families, victims of crime and trust in the system are also broken in the process.
The Innocence Files is executive produced and directed by Academy Award nominee Liz Garbus, Academy Award winner Alex Gibney, Academy Award winner Roger Ross Williams; with episodes also directed by Academy Award nominee Jed Rothstein, Emmy Award winner Andy Grieve and Sarah Dowland.
“When we started having serious conversations about this series, I was fascinated most by the opportunity to talk about eyewitness testimony, which is the single most convincing thing a juror can hear,” said Liz Garbus. “There’s always that moment in the old Hollywood courtroom drama where the witness points their finger at the accused saying, ‘He did it, he’s the one.’ That powerful clinching moment. How can you go against that? How can that go wrong? But the truth is that people often do get it wrong and tragically there is no longer one victim in the case, but two.”
She added: “Most people will sit on a jury at some point in their lives. That’s what’s exciting about working on a project like this — showing viewers that there are so many ways they can prevent it from going wrong. For filmmakers, sometimes it’s just about calling attention to a problem and getting a discussion going about it. Sometimes it’s about presenting ways that things can be fixed, and sometimes it’s about showing people worlds that they’ve never seen before and making us more connected in that way. And I think these episodes of The Innocence Files will do all of those things.”
Alex Gibney said: “In our legal system, no one has more power than the prosecutor, who can use the resources of the state to marshall evidence, protect witnesses, and use the threat of long prison terms to pressure malefactors and their accomplices to confess. But what happens when prosecutors abuse that power? What happens when, convinced of their own rectitude or fueled by ambition, they tinker with evidence, muscle witnesses to lie and use the power of sentencing to coerce defendants to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit? We end up putting innocents in prison while letting the guilty roam free to commit more crimes.
“I was moved to become involved in this series in order to examine prosecutorial misconduct and our failure to hold prosecutors to account. What surprised me, as part of the process, was the idealism of those who sought to change the justice system from something disfigured by ambition and a need for revenge, to a truth-seeking engine. In one conviction integrity unit in Philadelphia, I saw prosecutors and defense attorneys riding in the same van looking for evidence.
“Instead of trying to beat each other in some abstract legal game, they were working together to uncover what really happened, in order to punish the guilty and protect the innocent. Imagine that!”
Roger Ross Williams said: “It’s one thing to know about injustice. It’s another to see it in person. Sitting in the living room of a wrongfully convicted man and his family… learning how all of their lives have been affected… was a profoundly disturbing experience for me; particularly when so many of the people affected are poor and black.
“My films tend to be about underdogs of one kind or another. There are no greater underdogs than the wrongfully convicted. My hope is that viewers will remember the cases in this series the next time they sit on a jury: will remember not to be dazzled by faulty science, will remember the potential perils of eye-witness mis-identification, will remember the consequences of what might happen if an overzealous prosecutor loses his/her way.”
The Innocence Files Episode Descriptions
THE EVIDENCE (Episodes 1-3)
Episode 1: INDEED AND WITHOUT DOUBT
Directed by: Roger Ross Williams
Subjects: Levon Brooks & Kennedy Brewer
In 1990, Levon Brooks was accused of sexually assaulting and murdering a 3-year-old girl in Mississippi. Despite having a strong alibi, Brooks was sentenced to life in prison, predominantly on the basis of a forensic discipline called bite mark analysis (or forensic odontology) that linked his teeth to what forensic examiners said was a human bite mark on the girl. A few months after his trial, another 3-year-old girl from the same town was found raped, murdered and covered in what experts claimed were bite marks but ultimately weren’t. Would police realize they had convicted the wrong man—and that the person committing the crimes was still out there?
Episode 2: THE TRUTH WILL DEFEND ME
Directed by: Roger Ross Williams
Subjects: Levon Brooks & Kennedy Brewer
A second little girl had now been raped and murdered, but police did not link the two crimes. Kennedy Brewer, the 19-year-old boyfriend of the second victim’s mother, was arrested and later sentenced to death for that crime, based on testimony that Brewer’s teeth left the bite marks on the victim. Five years later, Brewer heard about the Innocence Project, and wrote them a letter. The Innocence Project took on Brewer’s case, and along the way discovered Brooks’ case as well. They were able to get DNA left at the crime scene tested, which ultimately exonerated and freed both Brewer and Brooks, and identified the man who killed the two girls. Realizing that bite mark evidence was completely unreliable, the Innocence Project set out to see if they could find other wrongful convictions based on faulty scientific evidence.
Episode 3: THE DUTY TO CORRECT
Directed by Roger Ross Williams
Subject: Keith Harward
In Virginia in 1983, a young Navy sailor, Keith Harward, had been convicted of rape and murder almost entirely based on bite mark evidence. The Innocence Project took on his case, tested DNA preserved from the crime scene, proving Harward’s innocence and getting him exonerated in 2016 — 33 years after he was wrongfully convicted. He now travels the country in his RV, advocating for forensics reform in the criminal justice system. Back in Mississippi, Brewer and Brooks struggle to make up for the years they lost.
THE WITNESS (Episodes 4-6)
Episode 4: THE MURDER OF DONALD SARPY
Episode 5: THE TRIALS OF FRANKY CARRILLO
Directed by: Jed Rothstein
Subject: Franky Carrillo
In 1991, Donald Sarpy was killed outside of his home. Six witnesses to the crime were unable to give specifics about the shooter. Under pressure from the Lynwood Sheriff’s Department, one witness identified 16-year-old Franky Carrillo in a photo lineup and others followed suit. Carrillo was sentenced to life in prison based solely on eyewitness identifications. In 2011, with help from the Northern California Innocence Project, Franky successfully petitioned the State of California to have his convictions overturned.
Episode 6: MAKING MEMORY
Directed by: Liz Garbus
Subject: Thomas Haynesworth
In 1984, five women were the victims of sexual assaults or attempted sexual assaults in Richmond, Virginia. One of the victims identified Thomas Haynesworth as he was walking to the store to buy sweet potatoes for his mother. He was arrested on the spot, and later identified by other victims in a photo lineup. 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.
THE PROSECUTION (Episodes 7-9)
Episode 7: WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME
Directed by Alex Gibney
Subject: Chester Hollman
Chester Hollman 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. Since the election of District Attorney Larry Krasner in 2017, the city of Philadelphia has chosen 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.
Episode 8: HIDDEN ALIBI
Directed by Andy Grieve
Subject: Alfred Dewayne Brown
In 2005, Alfred Dewayne Brown was sentenced to death for the murder of a Houston police officer. After ten years on Texas’s death row, Brown was exonerated after telephone records proving his alibi were discovered hidden in the garage of an officer who worked on the case. It was later proven that the prosecutor in Brown’s case knew of these records, concealed them, and proceeded to obtain a death sentence.
Episode 9: THE MILLION DOLLAR MAN
Directed by Sarah Dowland
Subject: Ken Wyniemko
Ken Wyniemko was sentenced to 40 to 60 years in prison for the rape of a woman in suburban Michigan. Wyniemko’s legal team, including The Cooley Innocence Project at the Thomas M. Cooley School of Law at Western Michigan University, discovered that an item of the victim’s clothing was withheld from evidence. DNA testing of evidence excluded Wyniemko from the crime scene, proving Wyniemko innocent, and pointing to a known pedophile. Wyniemko was eventually released from prison, but his prosecutor went on to become a judge, despite the fact that he had been known to coach witnesses and helped to conceal evidence.