The Innocence Files – the Netflix documentary about the Innocence Project – is not an easy watch. Much like When They See Us before it, however, it’s a necessary watch, and one we wholeheartedly recommend.
For the uninitiated, The Innocence Project looks to “free the staggering number of innocent people who remain incarcerated, and to bring reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment.”
The Innocence Files “shines a light on the untold personal stories behind eight cases of wrongful conviction that the nonprofit organization the Innocence Project and organizations within the Innocence Network have uncovered and worked tirelessly to overturn. The nine-episode series is composed of three compelling parts – The Evidence, The Witness and The Prosecution. These stories expose difficult truths about the state of America’s deeply flawed criminal justice system, while showing when the innocent are convicted, it is not just one life that is irreparably damaged forever: families, victims of crime and trust in the system are also broken in the process. The Innocence Files is executive produced and directed by Academy Award® nominee Liz Garbus, Academy Award® winner Alex Gibney, Academy Award® winner Roger Ross Williams; with episodes also directed by Academy Award® nominee Jed Rothstein, Emmy Award® winner Andy Grieve and Sarah Dowland.”
We had a chance to talk to Sarah Dowland, who directed the final episode of the documentary series, about the process, what she hopes people get out of it, and how to strike a balance between telling a story and being respectful to your subject. We do a lot of interviews here at Fangirlish, and very rarely do we come out of those interviews inspired to do something in such a large scale as we did out of this interview with Sarah, so we hope her words resonate with your as much as they resonated with us.
It all started when we discussed to quarantine, and Sarah confessed that she’s been “struggling to get into a routine. I seem to be getting up later, staying up later. I thought I was a morning person, but I’m starting to review this.”
Talk about relatable. Quarantine is making us all re-evaluate who we thought we were.
And maybe, for that reason, it’s the perfect time to dive into something like the Innocence Files, something that will not just transform the way we look at the justice system, but likely upend all our ideas about what justice really is.
For Dowland, this was a difficult process, not just as a director, but in regards to her subject – Ken Wyniemko, who was sentenced to 40 to 60 years in prison for the rape of a woman in suburban Michigan. Wyniemko’s legal team discovered that an item of the victim’s clothing was withheld from evidence. DNA testing of evidence excluded Wyniemko from the crime scene, proving Wyniemko innocent, and pointing to a known pedophile. Wyniemko was eventually released from prison, but his prosecutor went on to become a judge, despite the fact that he had been known to coach witnesses and helped to conceal evidence.
“There is a – I don’t know if PTSD is the right term to use” she shared, “it’s definitely stressful for them, and you can see the emotion that comes from the story. I checked in with Ken about this constantly, and his desire for people to learn about the criminal justice system really overrode the stress of telling his story.”
Which inevitably, for me, and for Dowland too, “makes you wonder how many more innocent people are potentially languishing in jail right now.” If you add to that the effect the coronavirus pandemic is having in incarcerated populations, it seems like there’s no better time for us to be paying attention to this documentary.
Looking at Ken’s case, specifically, Sarah shared that “the thing that really stood out to me in Ken’s case is that they built the case on circumstantial evidence alone,” which shouldn’t take an attorney – though I am in fact one – to point out the problems with this approach.
“I feel like, in terms of our examinations of the fact, it felt more like a case of confirmation bias. They went around proving a theory that they came up with, instead of looking at the facts.”
Think about it for a moment, and see how much this sounds like the entire storyline around When They See Us. And then pause and consider how many more people this has happened too, and how many of them are in jail right now.
For Dowland then, and for the people behind the Innocence Files, the idea was to “educate everyone who might be called out to serve on a jury,” for example, “educate them about the process.” Because the problem of the justice system, as it exists right now is that “the pressure to get a conviction makes it all black and white.”
And in life – things rarely are.
Episode Nine focused specifically on the prosecutors, and on the role they play in convictions. To that effect, Dowland pointed out, insightfully, that “the purpose of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not to win. Those are two distinct things.” And yet, that idea seems to be obscured by the politics of …well, winning.
How to win by getting justice, then? Especially when “the role of justice is to seek truth?” Dowland theorized that “one thing that could be looked at is the shield that protects prosecutors,” a subject that When They See Us first raised. How is it possible that these egregious “mistakes” can just be waved away?
“We’d all be greatly served if there was accountability for prosecutors,” Dowland concluded, and I wholeheartedly agree. If this is the only thing you – and anyone watching – gets from the documentary, I think most people who worked on it would be happy.
But in general, what Dowland would hope you take away from The Innocence Files “in terms of how the justice system works is: who it serves and who it doesn’t serve,” as well as maybe an understanding that “the process requires constant review and oversight.”
As for Ken – and the other men featured in this documentary – Dowland was clear that “this never leaves them” and the best way to honor them is to make sure we work so that there are less and less stories like theirs.
The Innocence Files is available to stream on Netflix.