The Innocent Man
For their latest longform true crime project, Netflix partners up with author John Grisham to adapt one of his few non-fiction books, The Innocent Man, into an effortlessly binge-worthy series that maintains the writer’s status as one of America’s preeminent purveyors of pageturners. Like most true crime series, The Innocent Man, directed by documentary veteran Clay Tweel (Gleason, Finders Keepers), centres around a case – two of them, actually – where the truth isn’t as cut and dry as it seems to be. Netflix has made a few similar series along the same lines already, but the input of Tweel and Grisham helps to make this one considerably more interesting and purposefully incendiary.
In December of 1982 in the city of Ada, Oklahoma, a 21-year old cocktail waitress named Debra Sue Carter was raped and murdered shortly after returning home from her shift. The case languished with no leads for several years before Ron Williamson, a down on his luck former baseball prospect with mental health issues, and his only real friend, Dennis Fritz, were arrested and charged with Carter’s murder. In an eerily similar crime a few years later in the same city, convenience store clerk Denice Haraway would go suddenly missing in the middle of her shift. Presumed dead, with no body turning up for the longest time, police arrested and charged local residents Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot on the basis of their confessions. What makes both cases so similar is the forced nature of the confessions, outright contradictions between what was heard in court and what was actually true, and the near total lack of even pre-DNA era evidence that could link the charged suspects to the crimes and place them either on death row or with life sentences. All of the men charged would spend years trying to get their convictions overturned upon appeals, uncovering rampant corruption and outright shoddy police work by Ada authorities in the process.
When published in 2006, The Innocent Man focused primarily on the Williamson and Fritz case, and tangentially on ones involving Ward and Fontenot and a separate and similar incident in Ada. Tweel’s take on The Innocent Man, where Grisham (a board member for The Innocence Project, an organization devoted to helping overturn unjust convictions) readily participates, focuses mainly on Ward, who remains in prison to this day, while looking at the Williamson case for necessary historical context. It’s the right decision when one considers how ludicrous it is in hindsight that Ward was convicted, let alone that he remains incarcerated.
In a fact that The Innocent Man readily admits to, Grisham wasn’t the only person who wrote the book on Ada’s misguided policing practices. In 1987, almost twenty years prior to The Innocent Man’s publication and before Williamson’s trials ended, journalist Robert Mayer was the first to break that something was rotten in Ada, and in the same year Grisham published his version of events, wrongfully accused murderer Dennis Fritz recounted the everything in his own book. While Fritz is currently suffering from the onset of dementia as a result of an auto accident several years ago, Tweel carefully employs the work of everyone involved to create the most detailed retelling of the events possible. It’s also noteworthy that, perhaps unsurprisingly, these cases had their own requisite Dateline episodes, which remains the only time Pontotoc County District Attorney Bill Peterson ever defensively went on the record about false convictions that he refuses to apologize for.
Blending talking head interviews, damning archival footage, hard evidence, and Errol Morris styled recreations, The Innocent Man brings Grisham’s work into sharper journalistic and legal light. Grisham produced this documentary, but Tweel is a careful and considerate filmmaker capable of drawing his own connections and conclusions with each case. Willing to sit down with anyone that wants to talk – including Carter’s mother, who shines with warmth and strength throughout – Tweel paints a complex picture of how small town police forces face more pressure to close major cases than their big city counterparts, and how less reputable lawmakers will stop at nothing to ensure convictions and create legacies for themselves. It’s frightening and infuriating, to be sure, but Tweel also shows how such a culture of silence can be created in the first place, and why for some people it’s easier to admit to something they didn’t do instead of fighting people with more power than they’ll ever hope to possess.
Across six, roughly forty-five minute episodes, Tweel weaves back and forth between the past and present of both cases and produces one of the most unbiased and carefully woven true crime miniseries of the year. Grisham honestly hasn’t had many great adaptations of his works in recent years, and The Innocent Man series suggests that maybe he should dip his toe back into the nonfiction waters for a bit.
The Innocent Man begins streaming on Netflix on Friday, December 14, 2018.
Check out the trailer for The Innocent Man: