The Innocent Man is an American true-crime documentary television series based on John Grisham‘s 2006 book The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town which debuted on Netflix in December 2018. The series follows the true story of a small-town justice gone terribly awry, revolving around the conviction of former major league star Ron Williamson from Ada, Oklahoma for the murder of a 21-year-old cocktail waitress named Debra Sue Carter in 1982. The crime wasn’t solved for five years, when Ron Williamson and his friend Dennis Fritz were finally arrested and charged with capital murder. Ron Williamson was sent to death row. But the reasons why were never clear. With no physical evidence, the prosecution’s case was built on junk science and the testimony of jailhouse snitches and convicts. The book details the facts around the case up until 1999 when, after serving 11 years on death row, Ron was exonerated by DNA evidence by the Innocence Project and released from prison.
The following post is a review of the TV series only. You can read my review of the book here.
Like Grisham’s nonfiction book, the six-episode Netflix series follows two murder cases in Ada, Oklahoma between 1982 and 1984 and examines the false confessions of Ron Williamson, Dennis Fritz, Tommy Ward, and Karl Fontenot.
Whilst the series sticks closely to the details of the book, it tells the story in an almost backwards way. Because of this, it’s difficult to see the innocence of Fritz and Williamson in the beginning. For the first two episodes, at least, the story is told as the police made it out to be, setting these men up to falsely admit to a crime that they ultimately did not commit. As the series goes on, however, it more than justifies this slightly confusing narrative used at the beginning, expanding on the story even further to show how these men were wrongly imprisoned and their efforts to get set free.
Released 12 years after Grisham’s 2006 book, the 2018 series gives more up to date information on the case and also focuses more on Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot, who are still in prison despite their innocent pleas. Even more so, the story works so well on-screen because it puts faces and voices to the names of those involved. The book is quite difficult to get into because there are so many names to try and place that it does get confusing, so it is the perfect book to be adapted. This allows the audience to get to know the men that Grisham detailed in his book much more personally, and as you start to realise that there is no real case or any evidence against them, you can’t help but sympathise with the men involved.
As a nation, we have come to love true-crime series like this. Just as Making A Murderer became so popular and how we are completely intrigued by series like The Confession Tapes, The Innocent Man tells a similar story about the flaws in the justice system, about how the police can convince innocent people to admit to crimes that they know nothing about just because they need to somebody to prosecute, and how projects like The Innocence Project are working to free those wrongly imprisoned.
Because of the nature of the true story, series and documentaries like this one are incredibly mind-blowing. It’s always difficult to know how much to trust a person who has been imprisoned for such a disturbing crime, especially when they are pleading their innocence because these are people who are known for lying through their teeth. But there are so many cases like this one with zero evidence which are now being re-examined, that it’s hard not to be emotionally engaged by a human’s plea for their life back.
If you like true-crime documentaries, then this is definitely a series worth watching. The book came long before the genre became so popular so it is also a brilliant read if you want to get your hands on it beforehand, but the series goes beyond Grisham’s book so this is a must-watch if you either don’t like reading or you need to be caught up on the case.