Through heartbreaking stories of the wrongfully convicted, The Innocence Files sheds light on failings in the criminal justice system and chronicles the critical work that the Innocence Project undertakes to address them.
Chandra Thomas Whitfield
One afternoon, 18-year-old Richmond, Virginia native Thomas Haynesworth went to the grocery store to pick up sweet potatoes for Sunday dinner. He didn’t come home. Incredibly, Haynesworth — a man with no criminal record — was arrested, charged, and eventually convicted of multiple sexual assaults, based largely on the testimony of eyewitnesses. The most notable eyewitness was the accuser in his first trial, Janet Burke. Burke was certain Haynesworth was her attacker. She was wrong.Haynesworth received a 74-year-prison sentence for crimes he did not commit. He spent 27 years behind bars. His is one of eight wrongful conviction cases featured in The Innocence Files, a new Netflix series documenting exonerations secured by legal nonprofit the Innocence Project and its network member organizations. Through nine episodes, the series explores the systemic factors that most often contribute to wrongful convictions: prosecutorial misconduct, junk science, and eyewitness misidentification. The episode on Haynesworth’s case, “The Witness: Making Memory,” was directed by one of the series’ executive producers, Academy Award-nominated documentarian Liz Garbus. Queue joined Garbus and Haynesworth in a conversation about the traumatic case, the healing power of forgiveness, and what can be done to avoid wrongful convictions in the future.
Chandra Thomas Whitfield: Liz, why did you decide to direct this episode of The Innocence Files?
Liz Garbus: The question around eyewitness misidentification was so fascinating. Because you think of it as this cornerstone of justice, right? When that witness points across the courtroom and says, “He did it,” how are you going to argue with that? It’s very intuitive to believe that person. But what you find is, with trauma and with memory, that those memories are very suggestible. It’s very common to have memories and images and ideas that people supplanted on top of other memories. There are best practices that can be used to avoid these tragic, tragic errors. But too often, they are not used. So, I decided that I wanted to tackle those cases.
We always say, ‘It can’t happen to me’ — until it happens.”
The Innocence Project and its partners have helped exonerate hundreds of people. What was unique about Thomas’s story?
LG: It was an extraordinary case. Thomas was an 18-year-old boy with no criminal history when he was convicted of a string of terrible rapes and assaults. After he went to prison, these rapes and assaults continued. Thomas had been saying to people, “I know who did this. It wasn’t me.” But the conviction, based on these eyewitness identifications, was so powerful that even when they caught the person [Leon Davis] who was doing these other rapes, nobody went back to link that they were the same kinds of attacks that Thomas was in prison for. Finally, when Virginia Governor Mark Warner ordered a review of all these DNA samples that they realized were sitting in the lab, Thomas was able to get his DNA reexamined. And when it came back, it showed that Thomas was not the attacker.
Thomas, through your case, have you learned a lot about the science of memory?
TH: I think that if you’re in distress, dealing with a stressful situation, sometimes you think you see things you don’t see. And some things we do see, we don’t see as clearly as we think. When I was in college [in prison], one of my professors did a demonstration. She asked another inmate to come in our class and snatch her pocketbook and go out the door. So the dude came in, and he spoke to her, and he made a loud noise so he could get our attention. The next thing, he snatched the pocketbook and went out the door. Some guys jumped up to go chase him, and she stopped them and said, “Sit back down. This is a demonstration.” She said, “Write down what you’ve seen.” The only thing everybody got right was that he had blue pants on, jeans. He wasn’t wearing our prison uniform. The complexion, the hair, description, the height — I got everything wrong. I was like, Oh my God, here I am in prison for the same thing. That brought back memories for me. I said, Man, I see how they made a mistake now.
Watch The Innocence Files on Netflix now.