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This weekend we’re watching: Injustice in a world of...

Maverick Life

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This weekend we’re watching: Injustice in a world of racist and classist brutality

Police brutality, institutionalised racism, casual disregard for the poor – foul relics of an oppressive past. We’re not talking about South Africa, but we might as well be. This weekend we’re taking a look at America’s merciless criminal justice system and the innocent people caught in its clutches.

The Innocence Files:

Letters. Piles of them. Thousands upon thousands neatly stacked and filed, the desperate pleas of bitter and broken men and women discarded by society.

Imagine being the recipient of these letters. Imagine the immense weight of knowing that any of these thousands of people may be innocent, and whether they get to see freedom or not will depend on you because they have no one left to fight for them.

That is the burden which was taken on by the founders of The Innocence Project.

1986 was probably the most important year in the history of forensics. It was the year when DNA profiling was used to aid a criminal investigation for the first time. It was this feat of science which, six years later, birthed The Innocence Project, an organisation which uses DNA testing to exonerate wrongly convicted individuals, with the ultimate goal of reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustices.

The Innocence Files is a Netflix docuseries directed by Roger Ross Williams, which unearths the inadequacy of the American criminal justice system and its use of inaccurate forensic pseudoscience as evidence. Each episode deals with a prominent case in which The Innocence Project used DNA evidence to clear the names of wrongfully imprisoned men.

In the late 70s, serial killer Ted Bundy was convicted using bite marks as evidence in a highly publicised and televised trial. Suddenly bite mark evidence was in vogue, and the following years saw an explosion of dental experts in American courtrooms. Men were sentenced to lifetimes in prison based on bruises on a murder victim’s leg or arm.

The villain of this series is the American criminal justice system itself, but if it had a face, it would be the pudgy bespectacled mug of Dr Michael West. This confederate fundamentalist quack is a disgraced forensic odontologist responsible for numerous wrongful convictions based on the capricious field of bite mark analysis.

But it’s not just about teeth. Peter Neufeld, cofounder of The Innocence Project, talks about “The CSI Effect”. The public see some goodlooking young forensic scientist go off to a crime scene and solve a murder based on a minor detail like the shape of a shoe print, or the handwriting in a note, and assume that these are exact sciences. 

“People in the crime lab say: the tyre prints match, the shoe prints match, the hair matches, the bite marks match. Because of these unreliable methods, innocent people are going to prison.” 

Dramatised crime television is hugely detrimental to the justice system in a country where the fate of peoples’ lives depend on the ability of impressionable Joes and Janes on a jury to discern science from smoke and mirrors. 

“By the time unreliable forensic evidence is in front of a jury, it’s really too late”. 

The Innocence Files does not rush you through the mystery like an action thriller. It takes its time, giving each case space to breath. Some may find this slow moving, but others will find it transports them into a story. There’s no skimping on the details – that’s what started this mess in the first place. We’re dealing with people’s lives so it’s crucial to understand the context of their convictions, and to get to know them as people, to hear their story and give them a voice.

Early on in the series, Dr West smiles and waves his hand perfunctorily, saying: “If somewhere down the road, some new scientific method becomes available showing that this man is innocent, we can open the door and let him out.”

He is not the only one with this ‘shoot now, ask questions later’ attitude. This is the superiority sickness which spreads its tendrils deep beneath the very foundation of the United States, a sickness South Africans are woefully familiar with. The dismissal of decades of peoples’ lives spent rotting in a cell as merely little whoopsies – just bad luck.

Addressing this elitist, classist and more often than not racist attitude is extremely important right now, given the recent sadistic brutalisation and murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. This is not just about how criminals are treated. More importantly, it is about who we see as a criminal. What does a criminal look like in the big ol’ US of A, home of Donald Trump, the Big Mac and the Fourth Amendment?

The Innocence Project, and the protests against the hateful killing of George Floyd, are responses to institutionalised racism dating back to the abolition of slavery. When slavery was abolished, the powerful sought out other means to control the powerless, just as was done in South Africa. 

Indentured labor. The criminalisation of minority groups through minor offences like loitering. Does it really matter how ludicrous a trumped-up charge is when the suspect can’t afford legal representation and the jury wants him locked up regardless?

These mechanisms of control dehumanised entire communities and their presence can still be felt today in a very real way. In April, Collins Khoza was beaten by soldiers for an alleged lockdown violation, ultimately leading to his death. SANDF leadership took no measures to suspend the culprits, never mind try them for murder. What’s more, the SANDF doesn’t even have a code of conduct or guidelines for the use of minimum force! Why aren’t our police stations being burned in fury as they are in Minnesota? Are we just more accustomed to police brutality?

The Innocence Files is a true-crime documentary, but the fundamental difference between The Innocence Files and the dramatised TV you can watch late at night on the crime channel, is that the purpose of exploring these horrifying stories is not to entertain a morbid fascination with the cruelty of sick criminals. Instead, the purpose is to explore the systems which divert accountability and blame from those tasked with upholding justice, and oppress the powerless to maintain control.

Despite its heavy subject matter, The Innocence Files sports some truly moving moments. In those scenes where convicted men are absolved of their “crimes” after decades, the bittersweet euphoria on their faces, at finally being vindicated, is quite unlike any experience most people will ever have, and anyone with true empathy will be reduced to tears. 

The Innocence Files is moving, well-produced and very relevant to South Africa and many other countries. It is absolutely worth watching. DM/ ML

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