The opening scene of The Innocent Man, a new Netflix true-crime series hitting streaming shelves just in time for the holidays, features a television, a prominently displayed copy of The Innocent Man by John Grisham, and a quote from Anaïs Nin: “We see things as we are, not as they are.”
That Anaïs Nin? The novelist, diarist, and pioneer of female erotica? It’s hard not to feel as if she’s cited a little arbitrarily here, positioned right next to Grisham, the undisputed king of legal thrillers, at the beginning of a true-crime series that seems tailored by algorithm for fans of existing shows about miscarriages of justice. The implication of Nin’s quote, though, is clear: The Innocent Man wants viewers to think about the unique biases—formed through a knotty tangle of life experiences—that each person inevitably brings to a situation, whether watching a TV show or serving on a jury. It’s a setup for a series that suggests it will think deeply about not just crime and punishment, but also circumstance and history.
Which, in the end, it doesn’t. There are a thousand fascinating component threads making up The Innocent Man, a six-episode series based in part on Grisham’s 2006 nonfiction book about two wrongful murder convictions in Ada, Oklahoma. (Grisham, an executive producer for the show, also appears in interviews.) In 1982, a young woman named Debbie Carter was brutally raped and murdered in her home. Two years later, 24-year-old Denice Haraway disappeared while working a shift at a convenience store. In each case, two men were arrested and convicted for the crime. Two of those men, Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz, have since been exonerated by DNA evidence. The other two, Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot, remain in prison, despite a preponderance of evidence suggesting that they’re innocent.
In making the case for Ward and Fontenot’s wrongful conviction, The Innocent Man seems of a piece with some of Netflix’s previous true-crime hits. Like Making a Murderer, it investigates a series of heinous attempts on the part of police to secure convictions. Like Wormwood, it re-creates snippets of the two murders in moody, shadowy footage, imbuing The Innocent Man with a jarring kind of creepiness. It spends significant time with the families of the dead women, as if to preempt criticism that true-crime series can end up obscuring the female victims in favor of the men behind bars. It’s also structured in that familiarly manipulative way, spending generous amounts of time reiterating already known facts before dropping colossal twists at the end of each episode.
The Innocent Man lays out neat timelines, stacks of evidence, an admirable number of in-person interviews, and a compelling argument that police and prosecutors in Ada unlawfully collaborated in getting four men convicted of murder. What it doesn’t explain is why the show’s events came to pass. The superlative true-crime series of the past few years don’t just re-litigate old cases and (very occasionally) produce definitive answers; they investigate the cultural and societal factors at play. Both Ezra Edelman’s Oscar-winning O.J.: Made in America and Ryan Murphy’s The People v. O. J. Simpson used the same obsessively covered crime to reveal sharp insights about race, celebrity, and tabloid culture. Netflix’s own The Keepers framed itself around a murder, but ended up telling a more thoughtful and valuable story about trauma, recovery, and fighting for justice.
Throughout all six episodes of The Innocent Man, elements studded into the story beg to be examined more closely. Not the nitty-gritty facts of the two crimes, which are exhaustively unpacked, but the circumstances that contributed to them. What is it about Ada, otherwise known as the birthplace of Blake Shelton, that made it host to two such horrific acts of violence against women, and two subsequent botched investigations? What is it that compels people to confess to crimes they haven’t committed? As the series nears its end, it throws out a handful of truly shocking allegations involving both habitual arrangements between corrupt police officers and drug dealers and the ongoing sexual assault of women in the prison system that deserve much closer scrutiny than they end up getting.
With Ada, The Innocent Man’s director, Clay Tweel, has the opportunity to examine a place that popular culture virtually never makes time for. Ada is, Grisham explains in the first episode, the kind of close-knit community with a church on every corner, where “everybody goes to the high-school football game on Friday night.” But it’s also the kind of place where, when a woman is murdered, there are a disproportionate number of plausible suspects with a documented history of violence against women. The culture in Ada seems to merit more analysis than it gets. The Innocent Man briefly details one of the most notorious moments in local history, when a vigilante mob in 1909 lynched four citizens suspected of murder. But it doesn’t reveal how a grisly image of the lynching was for years proudly printed on local postcards with the caption, Ada: A Great Place to Hang Out.
None of this is to say that the story of Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot isn’t worth telling. That they remain in prison still seems indefensible at this point, and The Innocent Man makes clear that as many as 90,000 prisoners in the U.S. could be wrongfully imprisoned. It’s to argue that the most interesting elements in the series are the ones left unexplored. Loose threads abound. And together, they hint at a larger story more compelling and less familiar than the one that’s actually being told.
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