When FRONTLINE first broadcast "The Case for Innocence" in January 2000, the documentary cast a national spotlight on the cases of three longtime inmates who had been fighting for years for the right to undergo DNA tests that might exonerate them. Thirteen months after that first
broadcast, all three of the prisoners had been freed.
FRONTLINE's updated version of "The Case for Innocence," incorporates new footage and interviews on the cases of Earl Washington, Jr., and Roy Criner, two of the prisoners whose cases received national attention as a result of FRONTLINE's investigation. Washington--sentenced to death in 1984 for the rape and murder of Rebecca Lynn Williams--was pardoned October 2,2000 by Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore III, who stated that new DNA tests found no trace of Washington's DNA on evidence found at the crime scene. Earl
Washington was finally freed from prison February 12, 2001, after 18 years of imprisonment.
Washington is the third prisoner whose freedom can be attributed in part to FRONTLINE's investigation for "The Case for Innocence." Roy Criner was pardoned in August by Texas Gov. George W. Bush after DNA tests proved he could not have committed the rape and murder for which he had served nearly ten years in prison.
"Both [documentary producer] Ofra Bikel and FRONTLINE deserve an extreme amount of credit towards Roy's release," says Criner's aunt, Brenda Verron. "Without [FRONTLINE's] involvement, this probably would never have happened."
Criner's attorney agrees. "If it hadn't been for FRONTLINE," Mike Charlton says, "Roy Criner's case would not be where it is right now."
Criner's case drew national attention when the Texas Court of Appeals refused to grant him a new trial despite the fact that two separate DNA tests confirmed that the semen found in the victim was not his.
"It was surprising to me to learn that prisoners--some on death row--have great difficulty convincing the state to release new evidence that can prove their innocence," Bikel says. "But I was stunned to find that in cases where DNA tests are conducted, and the results clearly support claims of innocence, the tests are often ignored, and these individuals remain imprisoned. Simply put, innocence, in and of itself, is not enough."
In "The Case for Innocence," both District Attorney Michael McDougal and Appeals Court Judge Sharon Keller defend their refusal to grant Criner a new trial, suggesting that the sixteen-year-old victim--whom Keller calls "promiscuous"--could have had sex with someone else before Criner raped and murdered her. The fact that Criner's DNA was not present, they said, proved nothing.
DNA testing conducted after the FRONTLINE broadcast, however, confirmed that a cigarette butt found at the murder scene had traces matching both the victim and the semen donor, placing the latter at the scene of the crime. The district attorney subsequently recommended that Criner be pardoned.
Also pardoned as a result of "The Case for Innocence" investigation was Clyde Charles. When producer Bikel first met Charles, he had already served eighteen years in Louisiana's infamous Angola State Prison for a rape he claimed he did not commit. All of his requests--and subsequent appeals--to have a DNA test had been summarily denied.
"[The state] didn't want to try it," Charles tells FRONTLINE. "I don't know why they didn't want to try it. I asked the lawyers, 'What reason for a court in this system, a modern-day system, don't want to give me modern technology, extend that to me?' ...Every time I asked them [for a DNA test] and they said no, I said, 'Why?'"
At Bikel's request, Charles's case was reviewed by noted attorney Barry Scheck, whose Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School has successfully exonerated more than thirty-five prisoners using DNA testing. Scheck agreed to deal with the case personally, filing a new motion in federal court and holding a conference call with the judge.
After years of denials and appeals, Charles's request for a DNA test was finally granted. "When they know that national attention can be focused on a case," Scheck says, "and that we will be coming in with the best scientists, and we will be making the right motions, and we will fight them tooth and nail every step of the way, and people will pay attention to the fight, then I think we get more cooperation than a lawyer that has lesser recognition."
Clyde Charles's DNA test results came back just before Christmas 1999. They were negative, and he was released.
Joseph Roger O'Dell was not so lucky. The fourth and final inmate profiled in "The Case for Innocence," O'Dell was executed in 1997 for the rape and murder of Virginia waitress Helen Schartner despite his repeated assertions that a DNA test would prove his innocence. "The Case for Innocence" follows the attempts by O'Dell's lawyers to have the evidence tested posthumously to settle the question once and for all.
Two months after the original FRONTLINE broadcast, however, the state of Virginia burned the evidence, effectively preventing any further DNA testing.
Bikel--who previously produced a series of documentaries that secured the release of the defendants in North Carolina's Little Rascals sexual abuse case--says she is gratified that "The Case for Innocence" played a part in freeing the inmates it profiled. At the same time, however, Bikel says that the cases of Clyde Charles, Roy Criner, and Earl Washington, Jr. have caused her to ponder how many other innocent people may be languishing behind bars. "It's terrifying to realize that without the attention of FRONTLINE, these people would have spent their lives in prison," she says. "They benefited from the media spotlight and the available DNA evidence. How many innocent people are there who don't have either?"
"The Case for Innocence" is written, produced and directed by Ofra Bikel. The field producer is Katie Galloway. The film is edited by David Zieff. "The Case for Innocence" is a co-production with Ofra Bikel Productions.
FRONTLINE is television's longest-running long-form public affairs documentary series.
FRONTLINE is presented on PBS by WGBH Boston.
The executive producer for FRONTLINE is Michael Sullivan.
The senior executive producer for FRONTLINE is David Fanning.
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