innocence files

Netflix is taking a deep dive into the criminal justice system in its upcoming docuseries, The Innocence Files.

The nine-episode documentary series examines the work of The Innocence Project, the nonprofit legal organization that is committed to exonerating wrongly convicted people through the use of DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.

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The series will focus on eight actual cases the organization worked to overturn. Subjects include Chester Hollman III, Kenneth Wyniemko, Alfred Dewayne Brown, Thomas Haynesworth, Franky Carrillo, Levon Brooks, Kennedy Brewer, and Keith Harward.

The Innocence Files (Credit: Roger Ross Williams

TheGrio spoke with one of the series’ directors, Roger Ross Williams, to find out what prompted him to pursue this particular project.

As the first Black man to ever win an Oscar for directing (Music by Prudence), Williams certainly knows how to find compelling stories. Blackface, Tutu: The Essence of Being Human, and Gospel of Intolerance are just a few films on his long list of must-sees.

“I always love tackling something I don’t know about because I’m going on a journey along with the audience. The other thing that really drew me to the stories of Levon brooks, Kennedy Brewer, and Keith Howard was the role that race plays in all of this. Being a Black man from a community that has been devastated by mass incarceration, it was really personal,” he explains.

“My family is from the south. When I went down the Mississippi and I saw these families that had been torn apart and living in pretty extreme poverty, it was devastating to me.  When on my first day, someone said to me, ‘You know, white people make the law. We’re just trying to steer clear of the man.’ That was devastating to me.”

Roger Ross Williams (Credit: Roger Ross Williams)

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One particularly troubling revelation in The Innocence Files is how unjust the use of bite-mark evidence is. The practice of using people’s dental impressions to identify bite-marks on victims had been widely debunked as junk science, but it’s still a prevalent tool used to wrongly convict suspects.

“Dr. West is someone who put a gun on the table and was surrounded by Confederate flags when we first went to his office,” Williams recalls.

“This is a frightening and scary world. It was interesting how he used this debunked science of bite-mark evidence to put away countless Black men. When you start to understand the scope of it and understand how widespread bite mark evidence is in this country; and how even though it is debunked, 49 states still accept this science in courts, it’s shocking. States won’t throw it out because they may have a duty to correct and that would be a problem and a strain on their system.”

The Innocence Files is streaming on Netflix now.