Imagine best-selling author Stephen King took a hiatus from writing spooky stories to head down south and investigate alleged hauntings. And what if he returned, after having done the research, claiming what he discovered was stranger than anything he could have thought up? Swap Stephen King with John Grisham and swap out ghost stories for criminal investigation, and you’re left with the basis for his 2006 book, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town.
Grisham works in the fiction genre but describes the investigation at the heart of his book as too unbelievable for fiction readers to accept. Twelve years after The Innocent Man’s publication, the series has been adapted into a six-part true crime miniseries set to run on Netflix on December 14, 2018. If you’re a true crime fan, then this series hits all the beats you want from the genre. It’s shocking, lurid, and filled with surprises, and makes for the most binge-worthy watch. But if you find true crime’s procedural rhythms induce couch-snoozing, or you can’t sit through graphic descriptions of violent acts, you’ll want to give this series a hard pass.
The Innocent Man focuses on a pair of murders that happened in the small town of Ada, Oklahoma during the early 1980s. Ada used to be the type of blue-collar town where residents gathered for high school football games, everyone went to church on Sundays, and nobody locked their front doors. But the deaths of 21-year-old Debbie Carter and 24-year-old Denice Haraway changed everything. News of their brutal murders shook the town to its core, and no one felt safe until the killers were behind bars. It’s the citizens’ demand for swift justice where the story gets dicey.
Two men were charged and found guilty in each murder investigation in what looked like open and shut cases. While there wasn’t a lot of evidence for prosecutors to hang their hats on (not even a body in the Haraway trial), all four men recorded videotaped confessions where they described their crimes in graphic detail. It’s difficult to say more without giving away major spoilers – as much as one can spoil a docu-series titled The Innocent Man.
If you enjoy the true crime genre, you won’t have any trouble getting into The Innocent Man. The series begins with a gruesome act of violence and then slowly paints a larger portrait of the victim, her family, and life in Ada. The big hook here is best-selling author John Grisham who makes appearances throughout each episode giving his insights on what stands out about the investigation. Before becoming a world-famous author, Grisham pursued a successful law career. He’s still an activist who works with The Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organization that aims to exonerate wrongfully convicted people. His book and now the series are a case of his personal interests and considerable skill-set overlapping.
The rest of the series is as by-the-numbers as it gets. Director Clay Tweel includes interviews with the victims’ family members, journalists, and people who worked on the case. There is plenty of grainy old video, and static-filled voice recordings from the investigation and the episodes are padded out with re-enactments that provide added context. Nicola Marsh’s cinematography does an excellent job setting the mood, alternating between idyllic small-town life and a haunting True Detective-like vibe.
The series uses two small-town murder investigations to question issues plaguing the entire criminal justice system, and the answers it arrives at are tough to swallow. The Innocent Man’s story has all the twists and turns you can ask for from a real-life investigation. Right when you think you have all the facts, Tweel reveals how little you know. And every episode ends with a wild revelation that begs you to sit through one more chapter. If true crime stories like Making a Murderer, The Jinx, and Serial are your thing, expect to tear through the entire series in a single night.