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Must-See Wrongful Conviction Films and TV Shows

By Innocence Staff

Do you want to know more about wrongful conviction, but you’re not sure where to look? No worries. You don’t need to sit in court or be a lawyer to learn more. Here are tv shows and movies that tell true stories and fictional accounts of individuals who have been wrongfully convicted. 

Documentaries

Amanda Knox

Amanda Knox was an American foreign exchange student in Perugia, Italy, who was wrongly convicted, along with her then-boyfriend, of killing her roommate in what prosecutors speculated was a sex act gone wrong. Knox recounts the nightmare of her conviction and how she was vilified in tabloids and media across the world.

Watch the trailer here and full Netflix Original documentary here.

David and Me

Filmmakers Ray Klonsky and Marc Lamy set out to help their friend David McCallum, who was forced to confess to a 1985 murder he didn’t commit as a teenager, prove his innocence. The friendship between Klonsky and McCallum began over a decade ago, when McCallum contacted Klonsky’s father after reading an article he wrote about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a former boxer and exoneree who became a strong advocate for the wrongly convicted.

Watch the trailer here and stream the documentary on Netflix.

Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four 

Four best friends–Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra Rivera and Anna Vasquez–also known at the San Antonio Four, were wrongfully convicted of raping Ramirez’s seven- and nine-year-old nieces in 1994. Their convictions were motivated by homophobia and eventually it was revealed that evidence used in court room testimony was erroneous. One of the victims also recanted her testimony, admitting that she had been forced by family members to deliver false testimony.

Watch the trailer and look for a screening near you here.

Making a Murderer

This widely acclaimed 2015 Netflix documentary series exposes the details around the case of Steven Avery, a man who, despite being exonerated for a crime he did not commit in 2003, found himself behind bars again in 2005 for an unrelated crime. Netflix recently announced that a second season is coming soon and will follow up on the post-conviction process.

Watch the trailer here and stream the first season on Netflix here.

Fear of 13

Nick Yarris is the sole subject of this 2015 documentary feature. Nick tells his story starting with his youth to his murder conviction. He explains the 21 years he spent on death row and his exoneration. The film was nominated for Best Documentary Film at the 2015 London Film Festival.

Watch the trailer here and buy it here.

Murder on a Sunday Morning

This documentary, directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, is based on the true story of Brenton Butler, who was 15 years old when he was wrongfully convicted of murder. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film at the 74th Academy Awards in 2002.

Watch the trailer here and buy it on Amazon here.

Deadline

After Northwestern journalism students uncovered new evidence that exonerated 13 people on Illinois death row, Illinois Governor George Ryan ordered a moratorium on the death penalty. This 2004 documentary follows the process of rehearing all the death row cases in Illinois and the history of the death penalty in America through a critical lens.

Watch the trailer here, rent it on YouTube here, and buy it on Amazon here.

After Innocence

This documentary, produced by a former Innocence Project clinic student, focuses on the DNA exonerations of seven wrongfully convicted men. It received the 2005 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize.

Visit the film website, watch it instantly on Netflix, buy it on Amazon.

The Thin Blue Line 

Errol Morris’ award-winning 1988 documentary presents compelling evidence that Randall Adams was wrongfully convicted of killing a police officer in Dallas, Texas.

Watch instantly at Netflix, buy a DVD or watch now at Amazon.com.

An Unreal Dream 

In 1986 Michael Morton’s wife Christine is brutally murdered in front of their only child, and Michael is convicted of the crime. Locked away in Texas prisons for a quarter century, he has years to ponder questions of justice and innocence, truth and fate. Though he is virtually invisible to society, a team of dedicated attorneys spends years fighting for the right to test DNA evidence found at the murder scene. Their discoveries ultimately reveal that the price of a wrongful conviction goes well beyond one man’s loss of freedom.

Buy the DVD or watch on Netflix or iTunes.

The Central Park Five

In 1989, five black and Latino teenagers were arrested and charged with brutally attacking and raping a white female jogger in Central Park. News media swarmed the case, calling them a “wolfpack.” The five would spend years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit before the truth about what really happened became clear.

Watch instantly on Netflix or iTunes or purchase the DVD or Blue-Ray at Shop PBS.

Scenes of a Crime Scenes of a Crime explores a nearly 10-hour interrogation that culminates in a disputed confession, and an intense, high-profile child murder trial in New York state.

Watch instantly on iTunes, Vimeo or Distrify. DVD copies are also available for educators, libraries and legal practitioners.

TV

60 Minutes: ‘Eyewitness: How Accurate is Visual Memory?’ CBS News’ 60 Minutes reports on the case of Ronald Cotton, who was wrongfully incarcerated for over 10 years for a brutal rape and burglary he did not commit.

Watch Part 2 of the episode and read the 60 Minutes report on the accuracy of eyewitness identification.

Frontline: “Death by Fire” 

This 2010 episode of PBS’ Frontline examines the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas in 2004 for allegedly setting a fire that killed his three young daughters 13 years earlier. He always claimed his innocence, and the arson investigation used to convict him was questioned by leading experts before Willingham was executed. Since 2004, further evidence in the case has led to the inescapable conclusion that Willingham did not set the fire for which he was executed.

Watch the full episode on PBS’ website.

Watch other “Frontline” episodes on wrongful conviction issues:

• “The Child Cases” (2011) – An investigation by NPRProPublica and “Frontline” into more than 20 wrongful conviction cases involving faulty forensics in accidental child deaths.

• “The Confessions” (2010) – An award-winning documentary on the case of the “Norfolk Four” – Navy sailors convicted of a murder they didn’t commit after giving false confessions under pressure.

• “Burden of Innocence” (2003) – This look into the lives of five men who served years in prison for crimes they did not commit reveals the social, economic, and psychological challenges that people face post-exoneration. • “Requiem for Frank Lee Smith” (2002) – An investigation by Ofra Bikel into Frank Lee Smith’s wrongful conviction of the rape and murder of a young girl.

• “What Jennifer Saw” (1997) – An examination of flaws in eyewitness identifications as evidence, through the lens of the case of Ronald Cotton, who served 12 years in North Carolina prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

• “Innocence Lost” (1991) – Ofra Bikel’s three-part documentary raised serious questions about evidence in a notorious North Carolina day care abuse case.

Drama

Rectify

This SundanceTV drama, starring Aden Young, tells the story of a man who, after spending 19 years on death row, must readjust to his life in Georgia after DNA evidence exonerated him.

The show started in 2013 and three seasons have been released, with a fourth on its way.

Watch the trailer for season 1 here and follow the show on its website.

Forensic Files

Ed Honaker is the subject of an episode of Forensic Files called “Crime Seen” from 1998. Ed was convicted of rape and was sentenced to three life sentences. He was exonerated using DNA evidence. This episode features both Ed Honaker and Barry Scheck, co-founder and co-director of the Innocence Project. Watch the episode on YouTube here.

Conviction

Directed by Tony Goldwyn and starring Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell, Conviction (2010) tells the true story of a woman’s fight to prove her brother’s innocence.

Watch instantly on Netflix, buy a DVD or watch instantly on Amazon.

Watch the story behind the film in this three-minute Innocence Project video.

The Trials of Darryl Hunt

Break Thru Films’ 2006 documentary about Darryl Hunt’s decades-long fight for justice after being wrongfully convicted of rape and murder.

Visit the film website, Watch instantly on Netflix, Buy a DVD on Amazon.

The Exonerated 

Court-TV’s 2005 film version of the award-winning Off-Broadway play features the stories of six people who were exonerated after being sentenced to death. The cast includes Susan Sarandon, Danny Glover and Aidan Quinn.

Watch instantly on Netflix, Buy a DVD on Amazon.

The Wronged Man

Lifetime Movie Network’s 2010 original movie about Calvin Willis, who was released from Louisiana State Penitentiary after more than 21 years of wrongful incarceration. The film focuses on Willis’ relationship with his longtime advocate, Janet Gregory, a single mom and paralegal, and her critical role in his exoneration.

Visit the film website, Watch instantly on Netflix, Buy a DVD on Amazon.

The Hurricane

The story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer wrongly imprisoned for murder, and the people who aided in his fight to prove his innocence.

Watch now or buy a DVD on Amazon.com.

In the Name of the Father This Oscar-nominated film tells the true story of a Gerry Conlon’s coerced confession to an IRA bombing he didn’t do; and a British lawyer’s fight to free Conlon and his father.

Watch instantly or buy the DVD at Amazon.

17 Comments

  1. Diane B.

    See Double Jeopardy with Ashley Judd and Tommy Lee Jones

  2. Thank you for putting list list together. Well done.

  3. Diane Kallas

    Thank you for this list. I love, love, love Rectify, but Daniel Holden is neither exonerated nor sure of his own innocence. The DNA evidence on the show is inconclusive, and Daniel himself is not sure what happened the night of the murder. However, this is a strength of the story line, which humanizes Daniel and others on Death Row, even the guilty. The final season just started, and we may learn the “truth” about that night soon, or we may not.

  4. Sam

    Can’t believe Call Northside 777 didn’t make this list! Based on the true story of a Chicago Times reporter who succeeded in helping to exonerate two men of wrongful murder convictions back in the 1940s… I’d definitely recommend it before some of the others on this list.

  5. Juliet

    Dream/Killer …. great documentary on Ryan Ferguson!

  6. Tristan

    You should add a podcast section. There are some amazing ones out there that specifically adress wrongful conviction cases, some ongoing!:

    Undisclosed
    Truth & Justice
    Actual Innocence

    A couple others that are good, but not specifically about wrongful convictions:
    Real Crime Profiles
    Breakdown
    Criminal
    Serial
    Accused

  7. Cynthia

    Paradise Lost; The child murders at Robinhood Hills.

    Also, read Unfair; The new science of criminal injustice.

  8. McGuire

    The Shawshank Redemption (Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman)
    and
    Dark Blue (Kurt Russel) (Not really about wrongful convictions but involves falsified evidence and police corruption that result in trial, conviction, and execution in the street.)

  9. Sarah

    Incident At Oglala. Leonard Peltier hasn’t been officially exonerated, but he should never have been convicted. His “trial” was a disaster.

  10. Adam Brightman

    Hitchcock’s “The Wrong Man” starring Henry Fonda is an essential and missing title for this list.

  11. Tracy

    A glaring ommission: “Witch Hunt”, narrated by Sean Penn. This documentary chronicles the ridiculous child abuse hysteria in Kern County (Central California) around the same time of the McMartin Preschool debacle in the mid-1980s. Dozens of innocent parents arrested and thrown into prison based solely on false and fabricated testimony from their own children — led by untrained social workers and cops.

  12. Mike

    Just a correction — “Murder on a Sunday Morning” was not about a wrongful conviction, but an attempted wrongful conviction. The documentary is about the defense team’s building of the case for his innocence, which ultimately led to him being found not guilty.

  13. Mike

    One more thing, I would like to say that “The Last Word” should be included in a list like this. It is about the time when Johnny Frank Garrett, a 17 year old mentally handicapped boy, was arrested, convicted and executed for the brutal murder of Sister Tadea Benz, a local nun. He has never been officially exonerated, but the documentary makes a compelling case, particularly as other members of the victim’s order speak out on his innocence and discuss the circumstances that led to what they believe to be his wrongful conviction. It has a bit of a religious bent, but it’s a great presentation nonetheless.

  14. Toby Barrett

    There have been alot of lies told on this case it has went from state trials to federal trial new evidence has been found from defense side but having trouble getting a retrial Federal lawyer did not do his job in my opinion. Would love to see someone with the resources to blow this case wide up and shed some light.(
    Kenneth Barrett ) Highway patrol officer died it was a bad night. Media and gov. have mislead things in my opinion so you will have to dig deep not just look over it. Think you will be amazed put in the work.

  15. S Blanding

    I’ve often thought that jurors should be shown “12 Angry Men” before they start deliberating. Henry Fonda was the sole juror who wanted to look closer at the evidence — everyone else just wanted to enter a guilty plea and go home. At the end, all found for innocence. Quite a turnaround, after looking closely at the evidence, and possibly very realistic at showing how much thought some juries put into their verdicts (i.e., not much).

  16. BOB

    I’m looking for a copy of 1999 PBS “Snitch” by Ofra Bikel. Can you help?

  17. New Metro

    Good list and I would like to add one more if I could. There is an Australian movie, the title of whic escapes me, from the 1990’s that told the fictional story of a man accused of rape after consentual sex, and is sent to prison for it. At issue was the woman taking revenge on the hapless man who happened to drive the same type of car as her ex-spouse. Does anybody else remember this old movie / possibly made for TV movie? Sorry I can provide more information.

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