The Innocent Man review: Netflix, John Grisham end 2018 with an addictive treat for true crime fans
The Innocent Man
Director - Clay Tweel
Rating - 4/5
Ada, Oklahoma, is the sort of small town that has ‘a church on every corner’, a woman who lives there says in the first episode of Netflix’s latest true crime series, The Innocent Man. It is also, as we will see a couple of minutes later, the sort of small town whose pastors preach the Gospel of Christ with a loaded gun on their person. “Five in the clip, none in the chamber,” says one of them, glowing with pride. Only God should have the power to take a life, he offers as an explanation; but in Ada, Oklahoma, some men have robbed God of this power.
Shows such as The Innocent Man, based on best-selling author John Grisham’s first (and only) non-fiction book, are a window into an America that we rarely see, an America that is rarely projected. It is fitting then, that this side of America - a rotten, crime-infested land of rampant corruption and backward beliefs - is brought to our attention by the same people that the country is trying to hide.
Watch the Innocent Man trailer here
Grisham came across this incredible story because of his association with the Innocence Project - a heroic group of lawyers who’ve made it their mission to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners. Grisham was presented the case of one Ron Williamson, a mentally ill man who in the mid-80s was arrested for and convicted of killing a young woman. Williamson was sentenced to death - he spent 11 years on death row - and came within five days of being executed on one occasion. He was released when new DNA evidence cleared his name, in an appeal effort lead by the Innocence Project. But more than a decade spent on death row, untreated for mental illnesses that were visibly taking over his body, had an irreparable effect on Williamson, who could not adjust to life as a free man.
“It took Ron four years to drink himself to death,” Grisham says plainly. In offering justice for the death of one person, the system took the life of another. “If I were to write this story as a novel,” says Grisham, also credited as one of the show’s producers, “no one would believe it.”
But it gets stranger. A few years before the Ada police picked up Williamson, they’d arrested two young men for the rape and murder of another young woman. Both Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot are still in prison, serving life sentences on the basis of what they claim were false confessions, coerced out of them by law enforcement officers covering their own tracks.
What unfolds is a story that is all too familiar but just as difficult to believe as the several other times we’ve seen similar cases on screen, in The Thin Blue Line, the Paradise Lost trilogy, and more recently, in Netflix’s own Making a Murderer. It’s a story about greed and corruption, about systemic malpractice, but it is also a story about human perseverance, and decency.
As someone who has, like millions of others, lapped up every new true crime series that we’re given, The Innocent Man is in many ways a reminder of just how overwhelming certain injustices truly are. It’s so heartbreaking that simply based on the broadest outlines of certain cases, an experienced viewer can accurately predict how the story will play out.
More often than not, it begins with a dead woman (it’s always a woman), a false confession - usually extracted from the most vulnerable they can prey upon - and ends in a wrongful conviction. What follows is an indictment of the American justice system - it is estimated that over 90,000 wrongfully convicted prisoners are incarcerated in its overpopulated (and privatised) prisons - and a story of the many lives that are affected by such deliberate wrongdoing. In what is perhaps the most tragic example of this case’s fallout, the victim’s mother, now an ageing lady who needs a wheelchair to move around, recalls how her life disintegrated after her daughter’s death. “I have been on antidepressants for 35 years,” she says, plagued by the guilt of knowing that it was a belt that she’d gifted her daughter that was used as the murder weapon.
Ada, Oklahoma is the sort of nondescript Bible Belt town that we’ve seen so often in shows like The Innocent Man - a town where class distinctions are a life sentence in themselves. All the power in Ada is concentrated among a few at the top of the ivory tower, while the poor are systematically ignored and oppressed. Their lives and their memories are being washed away by alcohol and drugs and violence. And the criminal justice system is taking care of whatever’s left.
But stories such as this aren’t restricted to Ada or America; something similar happened in our own backyard. The recent documentary film, The Karma Killings, told a version of this story s- about the rich and the poor and the murder of innocent girls - that made headlines a few years ago, and through its own tale of class conflict and cruel injustice, suggested that perhaps Nithari in Uttar Pradesh and Ada, Oklahoma aren’t too different after all.