Ada, Oklahoma is a town of around 15,000 people. It's known for it's concrete plant, it's pecan farms, and two brutal murders that rocked the community in the 1980s. Its citizens never recovered from the deaths of 21-year-old waitress Debbie Carter and 24-year-old grocery clerk Denice Haraway. In Netflix's new true crime docuseries, The Innocent Man, Carter's cousin Christy Sheppard compares the transformation to a tsunami. "You don’t even recognize it was coming," she said. "It just takes everything away.”
The murders in The Innocent Man are far and away more brutal than similar true crime series like Making a Murderer and Serial, as are the following miscarriages of justice. In 1982, someone broke into Carter's home, raped her, and strangled her to death with the cord of her electric blanket. An investigation brewed for five years before failed minor league baseball player Ron Williamson and widower Dennis Fritz were convicted of the crime. In 1988, Fritz got life in prison, and Williamson was sentenced to death.
Unlike Carter, Haraway disappeared without a trace in 1984. The body was still missing when cops charged local miscreants Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot for her murder two years later. Both were sentenced to life in prison.
The details of these murders seem wildly different at a glance, but director Clay Tweel weaves their eerie similarities together into a compelling web of injustice in his new six-part series based on John Grisham's 2006 non-fiction book. All four men initially insisted they were innocent, and maintained their innocence after the trial. All four were charged with little evidence besides admittedly spine-chilling taped confessions of the crimes. Both Ward and Williamson recounted dreams about killing the victims, which were used as proof of their guilt. And both later claimed that their confessions were coerced by the cops.
Williamson was five days away from death when The Innocence Project, an organization that uses modern technology to rescue wrongfully convicted prisoners, got his execution stayed in 1994 and helped free him and Fritz in 1999. Ward and Fontenot are still rotting in prison.
The Innocence Project reports that over 25 percent of defendants they've exonerated using DNA evidence made a false confession. Cases like those of Ron Williamson and Tommy Ward shine a spotlight on that cold statistic, and help reformers, journalists, and the public better understand how and why the American justice system breaks down for some people. We spoke to Tweel about the complex cocktail of factors that led to Williamson and Ward's incarceration, and how coerced confessions happen. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: What is your goal as a director when you make a series like The Innocent Man that puts forward a narrative about an open case?
Clay Tweel: Many times people said to me, "All a trial is, is a set of competing narratives." And I found it to be fascinating that it kept coming up over and over again. The goal of the series is to help the audience be aware of the different biases within the flaws of the criminal justice system. Individual people's biases can pervert and manipulate the process, whether that's a prosecutor or a defense attorney, or a police officer, or a juror. In a world of fake news and alternate facts, I hope we're thinking critically and taking into proper context what motive people might have.
Do you feel being in the dark headspace of this case has taken a toll on you?
Being around this case and around these people who've had to experience has certainly changed me. But I was worried about having Debbie’s family having to relive it again, honestly. With having to talk to me on camera and then having to let the show come out at all. But they said to me that they think Debbie's legacy is to be a sort of beacon for criminal justice reform, because her case shows so clearly what can go wrong. They just think it had to have happened for a reason.
What have you learned about how false confessions work psychologically?
What happens frequently is there's a long process of breaking down somebody in an interrogation room. Oftentimes when false confessions happened, they had been in there for a very long time. In Tommy's case it was ten hours before they turned the camera on. Police will be subliminally feeding you the narrative that they want and when you say right answers, they reward you or they promise you things. I don't think a lot of people know that. And I think that, in and of itself, would be terrifying. You hear that over and over again. And you just get tired.
What was Ada like before the murders, and how did these cases change the town?
There was some factory work and it was a blue collar, rural town. And then, after the murders, people started to lock the doors and and have curfews for the kids. It really scared people because these are two young girls in the prime of their life and all of a sudden they were dead or presumed dead. They put a lot of pressure on the authorities to find somebody to quiet the terror of the town.
What does it look like when police have that kind of pressure from the community to solve a case?
The lead investigator, Dennis Smith's daughter was good friends with Debbie Carter, so I'm sure he was getting pressure from even within his own family. It's a small town. Everybody knows everybody. Some of Debbie's family went to the same church as Bill Peterson, the prosecutor. It's got to be sort of ever present in the authorities' lives. Their jobs are to to solve crimes and to keep people safe. And if people aren't feeling safe, I'm sure that it weighs on them.
After Fritz and Williamson were found innocent, did that change how Ada felt about itself and about its criminal justice system?
I don't know if it did. You'll still find a few people who think that they might have done it, even though the DNA evidence was so clear cut. The town for the most part feels bad for for Ron and Dennis. But I also think that they still want to believe that the authorities had the best intentions at heart. If you go back to Ada today you'll get a bunch of different answers.
What's the most shocking thing you uncovered in reporting these stories?
There's a detail that I can't get over in one of the last episodes. I'm hesitant to give it away because it's such a spoiler. It's a pretty clear marker that the police were covering up for someone. It just stinks to high heaven to me, and I haven't gotten anybody to explain it. It has rubbed me the wrong way the entire time and has made me think that there are other shady practices that are happening amongst the authorities. I can only see so much smoke before I assume there's fire somewhere.
Has that changed how you interact with the law?
I will never ever go and talk to a police officer without a lawyer present. That's our constitutional right. A lot of wrongful convictions can stem from people talking to authorities without their lawyers. So like, rule number one. And it further supports a somewhat skeptical view that I have of people in power. I battle all the time not to be too cynical; I want to believe the best of people. But when you see things like that, it's hard to forget.
How did the police in Ada respond to you guys are digging up the cases?
There was a little bit of tension. We talked to a couple police officers who were great, but we did have a couple random scenarios where we're just like out shooting b-roll at night, and then we have cop cars roll up on us because somebody thinks that we're doing something. I think that there was apprehension from the town and probably from some of the police, but at the same time, there were the few guys who were all about it.
How do you hope this story will change the conversation about wrongful convictions?
Decades of false confessions are only one part of the problem here. I want people aware of the ways in which prosecutorial misconduct, faulty scientific evidence, eye witness testimony, and coerced confessions can all work in concert with each other to put someone away for something that they didn't do. The confessions are just one component of it.
The Innocent Man will be available on Netflix on December 14, 2018.
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