A few weeks ago, while watching my secret addiction, Gray's Anatomy (as opposed to my well-known addiction, Law & Order), I started seeing ads for the latest Kyle MacLachlan vehicle, InJustice. The trailers suggested an intriguing and relevant-to-me premise, a lawyer drama about wrongful convictions. I set the DVR to record the series, and eagerly awaited the pilot episodes.
Two shows into the season, I'm ready to write the whole thing off. Poor writing, marginal acting, and ridiculously improbable plot lines are usually more than enough to doom a television program to my blacklist (which is why about 75% of what I watch is Law & Order or L&O SVU, and another 15% is sports). Still, I feel compelled to keep watching. Because, in principle at least, this show is about my work.
The premise is fairly straightforward: Kyle MacLachlan is David Swain, a rich corporate lawyer with political yearnings who has funded the National Justice Project. While he dozes through meetings, billing $600 per hour, his team of gorgeous young lawyers and investigators runs around proving the innocence of convicted men and women while flirting and bickering with one another.
Setting aside the exceptional attractiveness of Swain's posse, the NJP bears some resemblance to the Innocence Project in which I participate. We receive dozens of inquiries, we screen them, we discuss them, and where we have serious concerns that the inmate may be factually innocent, we try to do something about it by getting lawyers and investigators on the case.
But what the InJustice writers either don't know or have chosen to ignore is that proving someone's innocence many years after he or she has been convicted is extraordinarily difficult. And even when that innocence can be proven, there is no guarantee that the courts or the government will accept that proof or grant the individual relief. The barriers to justice are particularly formidable in cases like the two the show has treated so far, which involve eyewitness testimony, police misconduct, or ineffective assistance of counsel, rather than physical evidence that may be subjected to new testing technologies.
The show certainly is engaging, and at times heartwrenching. But its treatment of the grave issue of wrongful convictions is grossly oversimplified. For example, in last week's episode, the National Justice Project takes a case, "files a habeas" (according to Swain), and almost immediately manages to obtain a hearing on the prisoner's innocence, despite the fact that the conviction is more than a decade old. Having accomplished that extraordinary feat - the stringent evidentiary hearing restrictions of the federal habeas statutes apparently having no bearing on them - the team has 9 days to prove the inmate's innocence. How do they do this? By adhering to their cardinal rule about public defenders: "Do the opposite."
Of course, the public defender was lazy and sloppy, the eyewitnesses revise their testimony, and it is only a matter of days before the NJP folks have uncovered a high-level law-enforcement conspiracy that led to the wrongful conviction. While we do not see the hearing, it appears that all of this new evidence is presented to and accepted by the court. And the very next day, the innocent man walks out the prison gates into the arms of his family.
I recognize that the concepts such as exhaustion, procedural default, the statute of limitations, and successive petition restrictions do not make for sexy television. I recognize also that this show has the potential to raise public awareness of the reality of wrongful convictions, at a time when support for the death penalty seems to be waning considerably. Still, the inaccuracy and oversimplification this show is presenting does an InJustice to those of us who, for real, seek to remedy and invalidate wrongful convictions.