The Innocence Project is a nonprofit organization founded in 1992 by attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, with the goal of exonerating wrongfully imprisoned people primarily through the use of DNA evidence and working for widespread criminal justice reform. In the 28 years since the project’s inception, it has worked on nearly 200 cases in which a conviction was overturned and an innocent person was set free. Netflix’s new docuseries The Innocence Files details the Innocence Project’s work, covering both specific cases and the organization’s larger goals of addressing specific areas of abuse and corruption in the justice system. This first season batch of 9 episodes delivers a captivating and powerful exposé that balances frustration and outrage alongside triumph and hope. In short, it’s some of the best nonfiction television Netflix has ever produced.
The Innocence Files covers 8 cases, with episodes divided into sections dealing with specific areas of the justice system the Innocence Project is trying to reform – The Evidence, The Witness, and The Prosecution. The Evidence covers the dubious nature of forensic science, a dangerously crowded field full of bad-faith actors making spurious claims based on subjective research. The show focuses specifically on forensic odontology, the study of bite marks on victims made famous by the trial of Ted Bundy. The Witness chunk of episodes deal with the seemingly incongruous fact that eyewitness testimony is involved in roughly ¾ of wrongful convictions, and that eyewitness accounts are frequently unreliable if not coached or otherwise coerced by the prosecution. That last sentence leads directly into the final chunk of episodes – The Prosecution covers cases in which flagrant prosecutorial misconduct placed innocent people behind bars.
The docuseries uses a combination of current interviews, reenactments, and archival footage to tell the stories of 8 different cases, all of which involve men who were wrongfully imprisoned and later exonerated thanks to the work of the Innocence Project. The first three cases center on three men, Levon Brooks, Kennedy Brewer, and Keith Harward, who were convicted based on bite mark analysis conducted by forensic odontologists, in particular Dr. Michael West. West is angry, defensive, and combative, and he makes no secret of how he feels about the Innocence Project. But we’re able to see for ourselves that the field of forensic odontology is loosely defined. There’s no real training for it, and much like other areas of forensic science, such as handwriting analysis, the determinations are highly subjective. In an internally conducted study among forensic odontologists, in which the participants were given photographs of wounds and asked to identify whether they were definitely a human bite, possibly a human bite, or not a human bite, they were unable to unanimously agree on a single one. That is, nobody in the field could even agree on what a human bite looked like.
Folks, I could spend the next 1,000 words talking about Dr. Michael West. He’s a celebrity odontologist so in love with his fame that he hates the very idea of the Innocence Project because it stands to overturn a huge number of convictions that were achieved based on his expert testimony. Even when faced with DNA evidence exonerating Brooks and Brewer alongside a full confession from a man admitting to both murders, West is still indignant and refuses to admit he was wrong. He actually argues, “Did I testify that they raped those girls? No! I just said they bit them!” (Those aren’t his precise words, but they aren’t far off.) He simply will not admit that his determination was in error, and even goes as far as insisting that Brooks and Brewer were absolutely involved with the crimes. He also spends a chunk of time defending Confederate monuments and proudly tells a story about how he refused to shake Innocence Project co-founder Peter Neufeld’s hand and told him to go fuck himself. West actually thinks he’s the good guy in that story.
One of the most important revelations of The Innocence Files is just how many people involved in the criminal justice system are just like Dr. West. We’re presented with police officers who intimidate witnesses into giving false testimonies, prosecutors who suppress exculpatory evidence, and grand juries loaded with personal friends and colleagues of the prosecution. And when faced with the irrefutable evidence that they’ve put an innocent person in prison (most of the subjects in the series have been incarcerated for over two decades), they at best take no responsibility and at worst are wholly unrepentant and refuse to acknowledge the person’s innocence.
What’s worse, not a single one of these criminally reckless officials is held accountable – one prosecutor who suppressed multiple pieces of evidence, including nearly half a dozen sources of testable DNA, is now a judge. The rest of the prosecutors and officers are either still working or comfortably retired or passed away, with zero chance of any meaningful punishment for their grossly criminal abuses and misdeeds. It’s infuriating, but it’s a feeling every person in this country needs to experience if we’re ever going to see the extreme reform the justice system so glaringly needs.
The Innocence Files is the first true crime docuseries I’ve seen that doesn’t feel exploitative or sensationalized in any way. Rather than reveling in the gruesome details of a specific crime or glorifying a serial killer, it’s actually focused on the victims – both the victims of the initial crimes and the victims of the abuse and corruption rampant in the justice system that values securing a conviction over actually doing justice. It will likely be a shocking eye-opener for many viewers, but it’s a vitally important watch, and one that is ultimately both heartbreaking and hopeful.