Review: "The Innocent Man" focuses on criminal justice reform

John Grisham has crafted some great stores throughout his illustrious career. The novelist — responsible for hits like The Rainmaker, The Client and Runaway Jury— knows how to engage his readers with entertaining fictional stories that explore different elements of the law.

He didn’t need such an active imagination though when he wrote The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, his first non-fiction book. That 2006 book, which focused on the criminal justice system in a small Oklahoma community, has now been adapted into a six-part documentary series.

Available now on Netflix, the series invites viewers into Ada, Oklahoma. Ada is a small town that was home to several disturbing crimes in the early 1980s. In 1982, a young woman named Debbie Sue Carter was raped and murdered in her own apartment. Two men were convicted of the crime and started serving time.

Two years later, Denice Haraway — another young woman — was abducted from a convenience store and disappeared. Two other men were convicted of the murder and started serving time

These two crimes set the stage for this series, which focuses on the crimes themselves and the four convicted perpetrators. John Grisham, one of the executive producers of the show who serves on the Innocence Project Board of Directors, appears on camera throughout this series, offering his take on the two crimes.

The program clearly has a point of view about the convictions and it develops it well. The crimes are well-established early on and then there’s a focus on the men serving time for these atrocities. When some of the suspects seem suspicious and two of them even confess, the show lulls the viewer into a false sense of complacency. Could these men truly be guilty?

It’s only then that major questions about the convictions — and the two confessions — are raised. The series slowly brings up unresolved issues about the convicts and the police and legal work that went into these cases.

Videotaped confessions from two young men who talk about the attack on Haraway suggest that the case is simple. It’s not.  As the show reveals, questionable details from the confessions — from the blouse Haraway was wearing to the conditions of the crime itself — don’t match up with the facts.

The program’s strength though is hampered by its narrative, which sometimes switches from one crime to the other. It’s only towards the end of the show that the threads connecting the two crimes are fully realized. The show seemingly knows where it’s headed from early on but the journey to that conclusion is sometimes muddled.

One of the program’s greatest strengths though are the interview subjects, whose perspectives really give this show a deeper purpose. One such subject is Peggy Carter, Debbie Sue Carter’s mother.  Peggy, who is featured throughout the show, keeps the show from getting lost in the details of the crimes. It’s her personal accounts — her painful connection to the murder weapons, her grief, and her frustrations with a flawed justice system — that really stand out and helps keep the focus on the victims.

Another story that really stands out are the details behind the reunion between one of the convicts — who is cleared of his crime five days before he’s scheduled to receive the death penalty — and his daughter. That man’s life was painfully changed, when he was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.

In the final episode, the program’s biggest questions about the two cases are laid out. There are no easy answers here but there are easily-spotted issues with the two cases that are methodically laid out.

The Innocent Man succeeds in raising big and tough issues about the criminal justice system — noting how simple mistakes and oversights can lead to wrongful convictions. It also raises issues about poverty (“You grow up poor here and you’re done,” says the son of one of the convicted criminals). The program never fully succeeds in developing these themes completely but it does a great service by raising them.

On-Air & Up next

See the Full Program Guide