The new Netflix true crime series The Innocent Man is an interesting outlier in the genre. While true crime is currently all the rage in the TV world, it of course was first popular in book form, and in 2006, bestselling author John Grisham published his first and only non-fiction true crime book: The Innocent Man. So while the popularity of this particular story precedes the docuseries, but it doesn’t make the show any less worthwhile. Indeed, Grisham is an on-camera participant in the six-episode investigation, which not only recounts a truly stranger-than-fiction tale of two murders and potentially false convictions in a small Oklahoma town, but also offers an insightful, wildly compelling, and infuriating account of the human cost when the U.S. justice system fails.
In December 1982, in the small town of Ada, Oklahoma, a 21-year-old cocktail waitress named Debbie Carter was brutally raped and murdered in her home, with the perpetrator leaving behind a grisly crime scene littered with puzzling messages. Five years later, two poor, notoriously troublemaking men from Ada named Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were arrested, charged, and convicted of the crime with shockingly little evidence.
The case was mishandled from the get-go, with dubious tactics used to elicit false confessions, which put one of these men on death row. Years later, the advent of DNA evidence threw yet another wrench into the case against these two men, but the truth of what really happened was somehow even more disturbing.
In 1984, two years after this initial murder, another young Ada woman was the victim of a heinous crime. Denise Haraway was working the night shift at a convenience store when she went missing. A few months later, police arrested and convicted Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot, two more poor, notoriously troublemaking Ada residents who once again gave false confessions. And yet again, years later new evidence arose that would throw into question everything we thought we knew about this case.
Through its six episodes, The Innocent Man lays out both of these cases carefully and clearly, beginning chronologically with the Debbie Carter murder, then running through the Denise Haraway disappearance, before ultimately tying the two cases together with the tactics used—and mistakes made by—the Ada police department and the District Attorney’s office.
Indeed, while The Innocent Man is a compelling whodunit for a good deal of its runtime as director Clay Tweel (Finders Keepers) threads a compelling murder mystery (I may or may not have watched all six episodes in one sitting), at heart this show is about what happens when the criminal justice system fails us. Advocates for criminal justice reform and members of The Innocence Project play big parts in this series, as they lay out example after example of the imperfections of the system, and the very human cost that mistakes—intentional or not—bring about.
The U.S. justice system is set up so that when it works, it really works. But when there are failings or, even worse, corruption, innocent people pay a horrific, non-refundable price that can sometimes result in death. Even when wrongly convicted people are eventually released, the psychological toll of being locked up for something you didn’t do for years on end is immense. One of the most striking sequences in The Innocent Man shows how one wrongly convicted man’s undiagnosed mental illness declined exponentially once locked up, and side-by-side images of the man just a couple years before being put in prison versus afterwards are absolutely heartbreaking; he quite literally began deteriorating.
While there is a considerable amount of time and investigative work done to prove the innocence of those who are the subjects of this docuseries, The Innoncent Man is not a show concerned with throwing out conspiracy theories just for the heck of it. The show wisely sidesteps making the same mistakes that put its very subjects in prison, and stops short of laying the blame for these crimes on specific individuals without substantial evidence. It does offer some possibilities, but I will warn you that at least one of the mysteries remains somewhat unsolved by the show’s end. So if you’re looking for something with the closure of a Law & Order episode, The Innocent Man proves that real life is far more complicated.
But that’s also what makes this one of the best true crime shows in recent memory. The Innocent Man isn’t concerned with solving a mystery for mystery’s sake. The heart of the series is the story of these individuals who have been locked up for something they didn’t do, as it forces viewers to see the real, human cost of rushing to judgment. It avoids being preachy about issues concerning the death penalty or criminal justice reform, and the entire ordeal is fleshed out by interviews with residents of Ada, with their varying—and sometimes surprising—views on criminal justice. Indeed, The Innocent Man does a terrific job of zeroing in on the town of Ada itself, coloring the setting so that when it starts to dig into the issues involving the police department and authorities, you understand the power dynamics that are at play.
Humans are imperfect by nature, so we must create laws and punish those who break them. But what safeguards are in place to ensure that those punished are actually the ones committing the crimes, and how do we prevent those in power from abusing said power to shuffle the criminal justice system to their liking? These are uneasy questions with uneasy answers, but that The Innoncent Man takes its time in tackling them with tact and thoughtfulness makes it stand apart from the glut of true crime series that have come our way. Yes, it delivers on a visceral level by telling an engrossing story about true and terrible crimes, but it goes above and beyond to take a step back and consider the larger implications of the cases at hand. All of this makes The Innocent Man a must-watch not just for true crime aficionados, but for everyone who calls America home.
The Innocent Man is now streaming on Netflix.