The Innocence Files - Latest Netflix documentary series showcases the evil that men do

The Innocence Files offer a tour-de-force inquisition of prosecutorial conduct with a blend of true crime ripened.

With hundreds of people on the ground, their hands on the back, repeating „I can`t breathe“, under the beaming sunlight of June, the recent US protests triggered by George Floyd´s horrendous murder remind us once again of our fallibility as a species in the face of true crime. Our guilt becomes hell when met with a swift hand of a blade that delivers the fatal blow of judgement. No victims are to be seen, only the ones needed to blame. With more bloodthirst than pity, it is our own game of survival we need to heed to, to invest, to renounce the cruelty consistent only with ourselves.


No beasts are thus cruel to mark the other member with blame. No less evil prevails in the ambiguous judiciary system we turn to in search of justice. Those terms, “justice”, “freedom”, “guilt” might seem like a luxury- truths in abstraction do that often. However, it is in the uplifting examples we must place our trust for the future. This is one of the series that showcases evil that men do and the absolution which follows it.


So what are Netflix's Innocence Files about?


“For some of them things, I had to axed my mum what it meant, like what’s the definition?” says Thomas Haynesworth, looking benevolently into the camera’s lenses, cleanly shaven in a denim shirt. Almost jokingly he shakes off the memories of the way he was handled as a suspect and later a wrongly convicted multiple rapist, abductor and robber, serving full 27 years before meeting the justice face to face with freedom.


In 1984. Janet Burke, a young white female was raped at knifepoint by an African-American male of indeterminable age in Richmond, Virginia. In six months four white women were raped by a dubbed Black Ninja Rapist, but by that time  Haynesworth has been put behind bars after Burke chose his photo from the list shown after being told by the local force they already had a suspect in. Not filing through several pages of suspect’s photographs, Burke chose an 18-year-old Haynesworth who has accidentally gone shopping in the nearby store. One of the other victims screamed at recognizing him, being sure he was her attacker. Janet Burke steadied herself too during the rape by making sure she remembered even the slightest deviations in her attackers look. But, both of the witnesses were wrong. The rape kits were accidentally saved by one of the laboratory nurses who thought it well to store the collected DNA, should the opportunity present itself in the future to test it.





Three men robbed a store in Houston, Texas, murdering the shopkeeper. Alfred Dewayne Brown was accused of the said murder after two remaining complices identified him as the killer. Though his alibi could have been confirmed by his girlfriend at the time, after threatening done by the investigators in charge (including physical assault on her) siding with prosecution, Brown was convicted for capital punishment and served ten years awaiting the death penalty. He was unaware of the threats made.


Newport in Virginia woke to a horrific crime in 1982. A man broke into Teresa Perron´s house, murdered her husband and then proceed to rape her for several hours. “I kept quiet because of the children”, she says. With no DNA tests available at the time, Keith Allen Howard served 33 years for murder and sexual assault he did not commit, based solely on forensic bite marks, later completely overruled, and a witness claiming Howard, at the time a marine, returned to the base with some bloodstains on the uniform.


Aforementioned innocents, along with five others with similar stories to tell, have more than one thing in common. Apart from being a part of low-income, poverty-stricken African- American, Hispanic or Eastern European community, prone to presuppositions of volatility and crime demeanour, they have all been represented by an NYC Based Innocence Project, now faithfully acclaimed by Netflix in their limited true-crime documentary.


How did the files begin?


Founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufield, famed as the attorneys in the O.J. Simpson case (which saw a sports legend accused of the murder of his girlfriend at the time and her friend), The Innocence Project focuses on re-investigation of cases brought to them by the convicts alone, to help shed a light on the court proceedings in criminal law. Each day they revise hundreds of letters beginning with a eulogy “As God is my witness I am innocent.”


In a criminal justice system, the prosecution will follow up a suspect detained by the police with the sufficient amount of doubt he or she is amounting in guilt for a deed committed. During the initial process, the weight of proving guilt falls entirely on the prosecutorial side, having the whole array of pieces of evidence at hand; in the middle and late 80s somewhat limited to mostly questioning circumstantial shreds of evidence, eyewitnesses presented with a lineup or, more often, a number of photos collected by the local police station whereupon they would place an additional image of a person suspected. Little no use of DNA evidence, that would end up ruling almost every conviction presented in the series, has found the place.


The Innocence Project splits the episodes according to the predominant material evidence that led to the wrongful convictions. Opening with what is still a somewhat important asset is the misinterpretation of dubiously forensic bite marks as evidence. First two episodes deal with the wrongful conviction for murder and sexual assault of a three-years-old Courtney Smith, who was abducted from her family home with only her five-year-old sister as an eye witness. Levon Brook was swiftly apprehended and convicted on the base of a five-year-old testimony and, even more accurate, bitemarks. A self-proclaimed forensic dental expert Dr. Michael West, who borders on white-supremacist viewings, has ever since been adamant Brook was the guilty part. Kennedy Brewer was another one wrongly convicted in a similar case, due to similarity to Smith´s case. In the 2000s both were exonerated due to DNA evidence. The bitemarks who put both men in prison for a little over a decade each were made by wildlife animals.


 The misinterpretations or lies? 


Apart from the dubiousness of bite-marks usage ( though CSI Miami made a good story for popular culture exploiting the real-life accuracy of forensic material), The Innocence Files pose the difficulty met by reopening a criminal case and the long way to freedom in a renewed fight for innocence.


Foremostly, upon the reopening and ultimately winning an appeal for a second trial, the entire weight of proving falls on defence. In these cases that meant reapplying a fresh eye and scrutinizing the details of decades-old cases, re-visiting the case evidence boxes that have meanwhile never been dusted away or have, in turn, been stored somewhere. Furthermore, the “Habeas Corpus”, a term oft used in court by defence defines a new, possibly deciding evidence, not previously known to either of the sides, making it a turning motion in justifying the entire motion for exoneration.


Following again Haynesworth´s false accuse for multiple rapes, his victim Janet Burke proved an important fact for a trauma survivor. It is more likely that the victim will be involuntarily be focused on the type of weapon immediately applicable for use threatening the life instead of any physical fact attribute usable in the future for identifying. Alongside, when a victim is called to identify a possible assailant from a photo array, knowing that they have a mere suspect in custody, she or he will immediately think they have a guilty person at hand. Another exonerated fellow Franky Carrilo has been identified as a murdered in a gang shootout. One of the witnesses has been coerced by the deputy officer Craig Ditch to pick Carillo´s photo from the others.



Thorough, The Innocence Files offer a tour-de-force inquisition of prosecutorial conduct with a blend of true crime ripened. Directed to present the fullness of the journey from the crime´s commitment to the rejoicing families meeting their sons, brothers, fathers and husbands with their names cleared. Criminal justice is neither truth nor consistency; it is an art of interpretation put through an oratory exercise. The objectification, the facts become obscured through prosecutorial errs and coercion made by people on the force. Resting altogether on the fallible eyewitness testimonials, psychologically trained by time and pressure alike, Netflix series here mention have had an exemplary notion of demystification when it comes to the credibility of both.