The Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Joe Berlinger has long been shining a light on the flaws in the American justice system. His prolific career includes the Paradise Lost documentary trilogy, which covered the story of three teenage boys—who infamously became known as the West Memphis Three—convicted of murder in rural Arkansas and the subsequent legal battles that eventually led to their release. For Berlinger’s new series Wrong Man, which debuts its second season on Starz this Sunday, he tackles cases of wrongful convictions head-on—a topic he felt too passionately about not to explore further.
“There are many projects I’m involved in, and one always says to me, We need to do this—but with this one, I really felt like we needed to do this,” Berlinger tells TV Real. “I felt called to do it and to do it in the manner in which we did it”—one that would hopefully have a more immediate impact.
With Paradise Lost, Berlinger’s work began in June 1993—at the time, thinking he was making a film for HBO about teen killers, until he and the team realized something was amiss about the case—and it wasn’t until August 2011 that the West Memphis Three were finally released from prison. “I learned an amazing lesson because it’s rare for a documentarian to actually see tangible results of their work,” he says. “But we were really inspired by the fact that this actually worked; these guys thankfully got out of prison. It wasn’t just because of us; there was a lot of legal work and activism, but none of that would have happened without the films being a catalyst. I also learned that the wheels of justice grind really slowly.”
So while still being committed to the idea of exposing wrongful convictions, Berlinger wanted to come up with a different approach for Wrong Man. “Paradise Lost is basically the filmmakers doing journalism, reporting on it as journalists, but we’re not forensic experts, we’re not lawyers, we’re not homicide detectives,” he explains. “I wanted to expedite the process; I didn’t want it to take 20 years to come up with a result. So I thought, let’s do a show where we gather the best and the brightest, a strong team of legal and forensic experts, and let’s be much more proactive in a real investigation.”
There’s a fine line between journalistically observing and actually doing the legal and forensic work, he adds. “I wanted to accelerate the process because once you’re convicted in this country, it takes a long time to undo it. That’s one of the deep flaws of our justice system: it takes a very long time to undo a bad conviction.”
He not only believes that there is an epidemic of wrongful convictions in the U.S. today, but that there’s also an issue of over-incarceration. “The mass-incarceration problem in this country is mind-boggling,” Berlinger says. “We have 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population. We have more prisoners in America than Russia and China combined, and yet we like to think of ourselves as a free society. Experts estimate that up to 5 percent of those people may be wrongfully convicted. We have approximately 2 million people in prison on any given day in this country, and if 5 percent are potentially innocent, that’s 100,000 people. Even if you think only 1 percent are wrongfully convicted, that’s 20,000 people. For me, this is a mission.”
To achieve a more immediate and tangible impact, Berlinger wanted a “proactive approach” with Wrong Man, so he assembled a team of experts that includes Ronald L. Kuby, a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer from New York City; retired NCIS agent Joe D. Kennedy; Defense Attorney Sue-Ann Robinson; and Ira Lee Todd Jr., an investigator currently employed by the Detroit Homicide Task Force.
And the approach has worked thus far, he says. “In season one, we had a tremendous impact on all of the cases we covered.” The case of Evaristo Salas featured in the first season, for example, was broken open thanks to the interrogation techniques of Todd (who was able to get the police informant who originally pointed the finger at Salas to admit that he lied and that the police had put him up to it). Salas now has proper legal counsel—someone who saw the show and was outraged by the case—and a new trial is being filed.
The attention that Wrong Man put on the case of Curtis Flowers, also featured in season one, helped to get it to the U.S. Supreme Court, and many positive developments have ensued from there. “When the Supreme Court first announced the reversal of the conviction, the prosecutor said he was going to try [Flowers] for a seventh time,” Berlinger explains. “A lot of the pressure from our show and other outlets has caused him to now recuse himself. So, the good news for Curtis is that the original prosecutor has recused himself from retrying the case, so now the state of Mississippi will have to decide if they’re going to try him a seventh time. That’s an example of our show really having a very profound and tangible effect on the outcome of that case.”
The third person of focus in season one was Christopher Tapp, whose case has since taken a dramatic turn. “Initially, the lawyer for Tapp said that our show played a great role in publicizing his case, which helped him be released from prison,” Berlinger shares. Tapp was initially released under an Alford plea, which is also what the West Memphis Three took (whereby a defendant in a criminal case does not admit to the criminal act and asserts innocence, but accepts a guilty plea). In the intervening months, though, Tapp has been fully exonerated and the real killer has been brought to justice.
There are three all-new cases in the spotlight in season two, two of which feature female inmates. Vonda Smith was convicted of murdering her grandchild’s mother, 21-year-old Jessie Morrison. Morrison was 16-weeks pregnant when her body was found beaten beyond recognition and dumped along a remote country road. Smith claims that she is innocent and that she loved the victim like a daughter.
Patricia Rorrer, who has been in prison since 1998, was convicted of the murder of a young mother, Joann Katrinak, and her 15-week-old son in Catasauqua, Pennsylvania. Rorrer claims the DNA evidence used to send her away is “junk science.”
Kenneth Clair was sentenced to death after being convicted of the brutal torture and murder of a young babysitter named Linda Rodgers in 1984 in Santa Ana, California. The only eyewitness to the murder, a 5-year-old, told police officers that a white man did it. Clair is black, and no forensic evidence ties him to the crime scene.
In each of these, the Wrong Man team will be looking for new evidence and examining the possibility of wrongful convictions.
“I’m so proud that the show is actually having a real impact,” says Berlinger. “I became a documentarian because I believe that films can inspire change—whether it’s one person coming up to me and saying that they became a filmmaker because of Brother’s Keeper, which I’ve heard quite a bit, or whether it’s someone saying that they’ve decided to go into law because they saw Paradise Lost. So whether it’s a small impact or large impact like changing the outcome of a wrongful conviction case, you want to report about the world and try to leave it in a better place and inspire people to take action for change.”