'How to Get Away With Murder' star Viola Davis is executive producer of ABC's new docuseries 'The Last Defense'
NEW YORK (CNS) -- "How to Get Away With Murder" star and Oscar winner for "Fences" Viola Davis and her husband, Julius Tennon, are executive producers of ABC's new docuseries "The Last Defense."
The first episode of the promising, quietly compelling seven-hour program premieres Tuesday, June 12, 10-11 p.m. EDT. The series will air in this slot weekly throughout its summer run.
Through the cases of Darlie Routier and Julius Jones, the series examines one of the most troubling aspects of the death penalty's application in the United States: the distinct possibility that innocent people have been or may be executed. Since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, 162 individuals have been released from death rows nationally, having been exonerated of their crimes.
Though a minimal presence as the first episode's narrator, Davis notes that, out of a population of 3,000, five death-row prisoners are cleared annually in this country. But it's difficult to estimate how many others with substantial claims of innocence states are put to death for a myriad of reasons, including overzealous prosecutors and myopic laws limiting the admission of fresh exculpatory evidence.
Routier and Jones may be executed before they are definitively vindicated. The documentary is intended to serve as their "last defense." The first episode focuses on the criminal investigation of the Routier case.
To be profiled in subsequent episodes, Jones, an African-American attending college on an academic scholarship, was convicted in 2001 of murdering Edmund, Oklahoma, insurance executive Paul Scott Howell in 1999, when Jones was 19.
Jones maintains his innocence, arguing the description of the accused didn't match his, his public defenders didn't present his strong alibi evidence, and the physical evidence didn't link him to the crime.
In Routier's case, while her husband, Darin, slept with their infant son, Drake, upstairs, the then 26-year-old mother of three boys insists a white male intruder broke into her home in the Dallas suburb of Rowlett, Texas. Taking a large knife, she claims, this invader assaulted her and her sons Devon, 6, and Damon, 5, injuring her and killing them.
Steadily and unobtrusively, director Jeremiah Crowell mixes Routier's home movies, archival news footage, and interviews with prosecutors and defense attorneys, journalists, witnesses and family members to help viewers understand the family's background, what happened the night of the murder, the subsequent investigation and the preliminary case for and against Routier.
Her husband, Darin, is the most prominent interviewee. The producers say this is his first interview about the case in roughly 15 years. Still Darlie's ardent defender, Darin divorced his wife in 2011 because he wanted to move on from the limbo he had been in since her arrest and conviction. But "The Last Defense" erroneously leaves viewers with the impression the couple is still married.
Journalist Kathy Cruz, who has written a book about the case, "Dateline: Purgatory," notes Routier almost died in the attack. But Rowlett Detective Jimmy Patterson and prosecutors Greg Davis and Toby Shook, ignoring evidence that cast doubt on their crime theory, became convinced Routier staged the home invasion and inflicted injuries on herself to cover up the murders.
News video of Routier and her family and friends celebrating what would have been Devon's seventh birthday at his graveside by spraying Silly String may have been the most damning evidence against the young mother.
As "The Last Defense" producers will likely demonstrate in subsequent episodes, however, this video didn't paint a full picture of the complicated emotions Routier experienced in her shock and grief.
"The Last Defense" describes a graphic crime, but not luridly. Other than one mild reference to sexuality, nothing objectionable occurs in this admirably restrained episode. With its clear aim to inform rather than titillate, "The Last Defense" makes apt viewing for grownups and may be deemed acceptable for mature adolescents as well.
Refraining from theatrical manipulation, the documentary makes its case, and trusts the audience to reach conclusions. After its strong opening, viewers will want to stay tuned to "The Last Defense," if only to determine where things stand with the Routier case.
A 1997 revision to revision in the Catechism of the Catholic Church repudiated capital punishment in all but the most exceptional circumstances, calling such instances "very rare if not practically nonexistent" given modern means of incarceration. This further solidified the tendency within the church to regard the ultimate sanction with ever greater wariness.
For his part, Pope Francis has labeled the death penalty "contrary to the Gospel." Those who share his assessment will hope "The Last Defense" sharply and effectively indicts capital punishment.
- - -
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.