Netflix's docuseries "The Innocence Files" covers eight cases of wrongful conviction. (Netflix)

Opinion

Opinion: Netflix’s docuseries ‘Innocence Files’ episode 6 reveals flaws in our legal system  

“The Innocence Files” episode 6 “The Witness: Making Memory” tells the story of Thomas Haynesworth who was wrongfully convicted of rape in 1984 and served 27 years in prison.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/nithyatolety/" target="_self">Nithya Tolety</a>

Nithya Tolety

January 25, 2023
Have you ever played the game telephone? We all know how that game ends. Well, what if I told you that our memory works exactly like the game telephone? Each time we recall a memory, our brain alters it. So the more we recall a memory after the event, the more altered and distorted it becomes.

At one point, after so many retrievals of the memory, it can become so distorted that it is completely false and inaccurate. It’s crazy to think about this because we often believe that recalling a memory is like accessing a videotape in our brain and replaying it. This idea, however, is completely wrong and can be quite disastrous.

In the legal system specifically, eyewitness testimony is seen to be a valuable piece of evidence to support the case; however, if one’s memory cannot be unreliable, how can we truly depend on the accuracy of eyewitness testimony to serve justice? 

Netflix’s show, Innocence files: Episode 6, “The Witness-Making Memories,” reveals the flaws in eyewitness testimony. The documentary is about a rape case in 1984 when “a teenager [was] convicted after multiple rape victims identify him with absolute certainty; decades into his imprisonment, a harrowing truth surfaces,” according to the 2020 Netflix series. 

Janet Burke, a white woman in the city, was raped by a Black man. She describes how she paid extreme attention to this man’s characteristics: his face, height, weight, and more. After much observation, Burke knew she could recognize this man anywhere at any time.

Weeks after the interaction, Burke was shown possible suspects, and she came across Thomas Haynesworth’s picture. He was 18 at the time, and Burke said she was 100% sure that was the man who raped her. She mistakenly identified him as the assailant. 

In court, she pointed him out and he was wrongfully convicted. Five other white women who were raped mistakenly identified Haynesworth as the rapist.

Haynesworth was wrongfully sentenced to 74 years in prison for the rapes that occurred in January and February of 1984. In December 1984, Leon Davis was arrested and the rapes stopped. 

When Janet Burke saw a photo of Davis, she “felt no connection to the photo,” according to “The Innocence Files” episode 6.

Decades later in 2007 as DNA science had advanced, authorities retested Burke’s rape kit. They found Haynesworth was not the rapist, and the DNA matched Leon Davis.

Burke was overwhelmed with guilt and shame, she said in “The Innocence Files.” She thought the rapist was Haynesworth, and now she felt like a criminal. She was the cause of an innocent man spending 27 years of his life in prison.

“Before I was a victim. Now, I’ve become the person that caused harm on someone else.” Burke said in “The Innocence Files.” “The guilt and the shame from that just consumes your soul.”

Thomas Haynesworth was an innocent man and was released on his 46th birthday in 2011 after serving 27 years in prison. He lost his whole life due to the inaccuracy of an eyewitness. He spent 27 years in prison for absolutely no reason. He could have lived and built a beautiful life. The legal system has failed both Burke and Haynesworth. 

The documentary describes how eyewitness accuracy relies on many aspects, including race, stress, weapon presence, and more. This documentary shed light on the flaws of the legal system and how one’s life can depend on inaccurate and unreliable eyewitness testimony. The issue is that when juries hear eyewitness testimonies in court, they believe they are the most reliable evidence to prove someone guilty or innocent. 

It is vital that future generations educate themselves on topics like this so that when we serve as juries in courts, we take into account the possible inaccuracies with eyewitness testimony and make sure we don’t make the same mistake and put an innocent individual in prison. 

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