Ferguson and project director Eva Nagao probe the pasts of three prisoners who say they were wrongfully convicted. Michael Politte’s mother was bludgeoned and set afire when he was 14. A juvenile detention worker said the teen confessed; he was found guilty and jailed. But what about his dad, who threatened his wife during a bitter divorce? Kalvin Michael Smith was found guilty of brutally beating a pregnant woman; two ex-girlfriends had implicated him. Byron Case’s ex-girlfriend said he killed a friend with a gunshot to the face. All three men deny the charges.
Like the criminal justice system, “Unlocking” has its flaws. The Chicago Reader has accused the show of being “too focused on white men” — of the subjects, only Smith is black. Nagao reports that letters the Exoneration Project receives are “overwhelmingly [from] black defendants.” And for a show dedicated to uncovering the real truth, the use of dramatic re-creations — like young Politte staring into flames — seems unwise.
Nonetheless, it’s a haunting show. In the opening montage, a (presumably innocent) prisoner says: “Imagine the worst day of your life. Now imagine living that day every day of your life.” Only 3 to 5 percent of prisoners are estimated to be innocent, but that adds up to 60,000 people stuck in hell because the courts failed them.
More of Marc’s TV musings: