In the last two years, stories of possible wrongful convictions have taken the true-crime genre by storm. To the Serial podcast and Netflix’s Making a Murderer, we can now add MTV’s Unlocking the Truth.
“It could happen to anyone” says Ryan Ferguson in the opening scenes of the show, as he explains his own story. When Ferguson was 19, he was convicted of murdering a newspaper editor in his hometown of Columbia, Missouri, and sentenced to 40 years in prison. After his case got picked up by Chicago-based attorney Kathleen Zellner—who has successfully litigated exonerations for 17 men and now represents Steven Avery of Making a Murderer—attorneys found that evidence against Ferguson was obtained through coerced false confessions by local police and prosecutors. Ferguson spent ten years in prison before being exonerated in 2013.
Last year, a documentary film about Ferguson’s case caught the attention of MTV producers.
“I thought, what a great way to tackle this [issue]—with someone who had been through it,” says Adam Kassen, one of the series’ executive producers.
Ferguson’s case is presented as a backdrop in the show. Now that his name’s been cleared, he’s decided to help others in similar situations. Early in the first episode he joins forces with Eva Nagao of the Chicago-based Exoneration Project to investigate three other cases of possible wrongful convictions.
The cases are those of Michael Politte, accused of killing his own mother in Missouri and setting her body on fire when he was 14; Kalvin Michael Smith, accused of beating a pregnant woman nearly to death in North Carolina when he was 26; and Byron Case, who was accused of killing a female friend at the age of 19, also in Missouri.
Since MTV is a youth-oriented channel, “they wanted to look at cases where arrests happened when people were younger,” Kassen says.
Nagao says she was at first hesitant to bring the sensitive work of investigating possible wrongful convictions into a reality TV framework. “The cost-benefit analysis to doing a true-crime show is whether your work is possibly going to expose issues that are going to benefit the greater community,” she says. She doubted that “a crew could really capture this slice of life in a real and responsible way.”
Ultimately, though, Nagao says she’s “ecstatic” about how the show turned out, and is hopeful that it will draw wider attention to the problem of wrongful convictions. Between 3 and 5 percent of U.S. prisoners are estimated to be innocent, which translates to an estimated 60,000 people currently serving time for crimes they didn’t commit.
“We’re in a moment right now that the national consciousness is receptive to ideas around reform of the criminal justice system,” Nagao says. “Innocent people are going to prison; if we can show that with sympathetic characters like Ryan, then we can take [the message] a step further.”
But it’s impossible not to notice that the sympathetic characters, and the faces of false conviction in this series, are overwhelmingly those of white men. Aside from Ferguson, two of the cases center on white men (Politte and Case). The third (Smith) highlights the conviction of a black man.
According to the Sentencing Project, 38 percent of state prisoners are black and 35 percent are white. However, incarceration rates among African-Americans are five to ten times greater than among whites in every state. In addition, the Exoneration Project receives an average of 250 letters from prisoners pleading their innocence per month, and of the cases the group follows up with, “it’s overwhelmingly black defendants, overwhelmingly black men,” Nagao says.
So why didn’t those numbers translate into the show?
When it comes to producing a television show, the resources needed to film a prisoner and bring their families and legal teams on board are immense, Nagao explains. And for the show, the strongest cases had families and lawyers already actively working to prove the prisoner’s innocence.
“The common thread between [the cases profiled] is they have a lot of people working to get it onto a show and get more attention, and you need resources to do that,” says Nagao. “And any time you need resources you’re gonna see white privilege play out.”
Producers also needed connections in a state’s criminal justice system to jump through the hoops necessary for filming inmates.
“We had an easy in in Missouri, because Ryan is well-known there,” Nagao says. (Ferguson served time in the same prison and cell block as Politte.) She also points out that all three cases profiled on the show had the active backing of innocence projects such as her own.
They also chose high-profile cases that would be feasible to investigate with the support of existing innocence projects in a five-month production time frame, Kassen adds.
He defends the balance the show struck: “These are issues that affect us all,” he says. “It can happen in middle-class white communities, it can happen all over the place.”
Still, giving the network the benefit of the doubt, it feels as though MTV followed the path of least resistance in choosing these cases. One wonders whether giving more exposure to prisoners whose cases were already being championed was the best use of the network’s reach and resources.
Aside from these issues of representation, the program promises to be an interesting showcase of the work of exoneration-focused groups. The misconduct highlighted in the first two episodes alone is jarring—witness testimony is ignored, evidence is lost or not collected at all, obvious suspects are overlooked, confessions are coerced. Perhaps it’s nothing new, but it is a reminder that the machinery of the criminal justice system around the country is often morally and procedurally compromised, no matter the defendant’s race.
Unlocking the Truth premiered on MTV August 17 and will air every Wednesday at 10 PM central. The two-hour finale airs September 28 at 9 PM central.