The Innocent Man, Netflix's latest true crime series and based on the only nonfiction book John Grisham ever wrote, has a halo of hopelessness than we're not used to seeing in most true crime docs. The series spotlights two gruesome and baffling murders in the small town of Ada, Oklahoma, for which four men went to prison. The life sentencing of those men, and the subsequent fallout that hit their families and town might not seem like a wake of ruin, especially when compared to the scale of destruction in docs like Wild Wild Country, but out of all the Netflix offerings, this one offers the least catharsis for the viewer.
[Discussion of the case follows, and could be considered spoilers for the show if you haven't followed the case.]
The first murder, of Debbie Carter in 1982, is a gruesome scene. Brutally raped and murdered in her own home after a late shift at her local bar, her body and home were found with threatening messages for the authorities. The second murder occurred two years later in 1984; Denice Haraway was forcibly kidnapped from a local gas station. In both cases, Ada police bafflingly used "dream evidence" to convict the four men accused.
Investigators used dreams as evidence to convict Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot in Haraway's case before using the same method to zero in on Williamson for Carter's murder. Ward confessed to a dream-memory of raping and stabbing Haraway to death, and Fontenot's statement was eventually manipulated to match Ward's after multiple rounds of interrogations. Despite the fact that her body hadn't been found and there was no physical evidence to corroborate these events, Ward and Fontenot were sentenced to life in prison.
After five years with no break in Carter's case, police zeroed in on Ron Williamson, a former minor league baseball player struggling with undiagnosed schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression, and his only friend Dennis Fritz, who was trying to care for a young daughter after his wife was murdered a few years before. Williamson, aggressively adamant in the interrogation tapes that he hadn't killed anyone, recounted a dream in which he killed Carter. For Ada investigators, that, combined with a tenuous eye-witness testimony of a former classmate who claimed to have seen Williamson with Carter the night of her death, was enough to convict him. Because the crime scene was too big for just one man to have caused it, they concluded that Fritz had helped him.
The failures of the justice system only mount exponentially from there, but I won't detail them here. Suffice it to say that by the time The Innocence Project gets involved (which Grisham sits on the board of), it's already too late for three of the four men. Williamson and Fritz were exonerated, but tragedy befell both of them after leaving the prison system. After decades of untreated mental illness compounded by the harsh realities of prison, Williamson drank himself to death just five years after release. The one bright spot of his years post-release was his unexpected friendship with Carter's mother. Dennis Fritz was finally reunited with his daughter after serving 12 years and returned to teaching, only to survive a nearly lethal car crash years later. He now suffers from Alzheimer's that doctors say was brought on by a brain injury suffered from the crash. He's alive and seemingly well, living with his daughter and her family. But Fritz's story is the happiest ending we get out of The Innocent Man.
Ward and Fontenot are still serving life in prison and have had every appeal denied, even with the help of The Innocence Project. The two men, finding hope after watching Williamson and Fritz walk free, began actively looking for ways to repeal their sentences. But unlike the Carter case, there's no DNA evidence in the Haraway case for either of them to hang an appeal on. When Haraway's body was finally found, a gunshot wound to the head proved without a doubt that Ward and Fontenot's confessions did not line up with the physical evidence. But because the physical evidence was so old, there was nothing to compare DNA samples to.
Ward in particular is the tragic figure of this tale. A devout and mild-mannered man, his appeals haven't even been heard by the committee board because he refuses to show remorse for a crime he's adamant he didn't commit. He's keeping his faith, and hopefully with the release of this docu-series, renewed interest in the story (which has been the subject of two books) will force the Ada justice system to look at his case and the mismanagement of evidence by the authority figures who were supposed to protect him. But it seems unlikely that after decades, the criminal justice system that imprisoned him will scrutinize themselves or the outdated technicalities the people who prosecuted Ward's case hid behind.
In Ward (and by proxy Fontenot, who does not appear in the documentary per his counsel's advice), The Innocent Man finds itself stuck. The docuseries hits all the right beats of a good true crime offering: sensational crime, unimaginable fallout, wild abuse of power, and of course, the heroic figures still fighting for the truth to come out. And like most true crime docs, there's no neat bowtie of a resolution; the patterns of real life will always complicate the narrative. But the ending of The Innocent Man feels hopeless in way that most entries of the genre don't. The people who can actually make a difference have turned over the case repeatedly in the six episodes screened for critics, and present no new way for Ward's case to move forward.
Perhaps more importantly in an era of Netflix bloat, Ward and his team can't count on the American people's continued interest to push the case forward. Unlike Adnan Syed or Steven Avery, who dominated pop culture when their stories were produced via Serial and Making a Murderer, Ward's tale comes at a time of national fatigue, both within the narrow confines of its genre and also life in general. While I hope I'm wrong, I can't imagine the same kind of sustained show of support for a man who was overshadowed in the original story by Williamson (and his subsequent death) and already has the support and resources of an organization as revered as The Innocence Project, whose attempts at appeal have gone nowhere.
Ward himself retains hope at the end of the documentary. But faced with sensational tales of abuse of power by the government every single day in the news, it'll be hard viewers to find the same kind of strength and resolve.
The Innocent Man premieres Friday Dec. 14 on Netflix.