‘Wrong Man' Documentary Reinvestigates Murder Suspects Who Maintain Their Innocence

For decades, Joe Berlinger’s documentaries have uncovered injustice in our legal system.

His Paradise Lost trilogy helped free the West Memphis Three in 2011 after 18 years. Now the Emmy and Peabody Award winner has a new mission: Wrong Man reinvestigates three long-incarcerated murder convicts who maintain their innocence.

Berlinger, a fount of alarming statistics, says he chose “hopeless” cases “with all appeals exhausted. The system has more or less locked them up and thrown away the key.”

A team made up of a civil-rights attorney, a homicide detective and other pros checks for flaws such as racial bias, unfollowed leads and recanted testimony.

First up: Evaristo Salas, sentenced 22 years ago at age 16 for first-degree murder based solely on witness accounts, one from a jailhouse snitch. “This is not trial by TV. We want to present our investigations to the proper authorities to take it from there,” Berlinger says. “I believe television in this day and age can give these cases a last chance.” 


Den of Geek - Wrong Man: How Do You Right Wrongful Convictions?

Besides Evaristo Salas, who was sentenced to 33 years in Washington state prison, the series reopens the case of Christopher Tapp, who confessed to a particularly brutal sexual assault and murder that the mother of the victim believed was coerced by police. They also profile Curtis Flowers, a Mississippi death row inmate who has been tried six times for the same crime by the same prosecutor.

The six-part documentary series comes from Paradise Lost and Judgment Day: Prison or Parole? director Joe Berlinger, who directs the first two episodes, and executive produces the series. He is joined by legendary criminal defense and civil rights attorney Ronald Kuby, former prosecutor Sue-Ann Robinson, retired NCIS investigator Joe Kennedy, and Detroit Homicide Task Force member Ira Todd. 

DoG: I spoke with Joe Kennedy and Rob Kuby yesterday. How did you assemble the team, did they come to you or were they recommended?

JB: I wanted a diverse mixture of people who had different expertise. I looked at a bunch of resumes and did a lot of interviews. I was actually at a screening right around the time I was starting to think about assembling a team, and bumped into Ron Ruby, who I'd long admired for his civil rights and wrongful conviction legal work. We were at benefit screening of something else. It was like kismet because I was just thinking I need a prominent lawyer, a defense attorney who has worked in this space. Ron was a known quantity off the bat because I think he's done amazing work in this space. He's very passionate in his analysis. I think he has a great view and understanding of the problems and pitfalls of the system. I think he has a world's view about respecting the system that I agree with. He was immediately picked.

Then, I knew I had to fill it out with people of different expertises. I interviewed a lot of people, looked at a lot of resumes, and at the end of the day, we needed somebody with cold case background and found Joe Kennedy, former NCIS investigator. He has the federal law enforcement perspective. He embodies the FBI. He's a cold case specialist. He fits the bill, for me, of a guy who had expertise in cold cases.

Then, I thought, I needed a tough beat cop, beat cop's not the right word: Detective. Who had good interrogation skills, because it's not often that defense attorneys work together with law enforcement on these cases. Usually they're adversaries. I knew I wanted a veteran detective/cop on the team. I looked in a lot of different places. Being a homicide detective in Detroit you've put in your time. You've logged your hours flying the plane.

He also has a specialty in interrogation and I thought that would pay off, and in fact it did, because through his interrogation skills, that we actually got a paid, confidential police informant. Not paid by us, but paid by the cops at the time to convict Evaristo Salas. We got the paid informant to actually recant his testimony and admit that he was lying back at the original trial two decades before. I attribute that to Ira's great interrogation skills. Interrogation doesn't mean you have to be a tough guy. Interrogation sometimes means sweet-talking people into give you what they want. He's great at that.

Sue-Ann Robinson, I thought, was an interesting candidate because she was a former prosecutor and now is a defense attorney who has handled the most wrongful conviction cases. I didn't see a lot of former prosecutors turned defense attorneys who had wrongful conviction experience. She's a female and she's a person of color and some of these cases involved, frankly, race as a core element, particularly, obviously, the Curtis Flowers case. I found that perspective, a female, persona of color, with experience both as a state's attorney and as a defense attorney would be a terrific asset to the team. 

All in all, I think we had a great team. 


The true crime genre has never been more popular. Famed filmmaker delves into it at Full Frame Film Festival

Q: You've curated a fascinating program this year around the theme of true crime. How did you arrive at this subject? 

A: I was asked to come up with the theme, and I thought it would be a good time to examine the true crime genre. It's been my focus over the years – most of my stuff has been crime-related. Also, there's been such an explosion in this genre in recent years. It's never been more popular.

I wanted to focus on those films that have both a social justice component and a true crime orientation. I thought it would be interesting to show some of the films that influenced me as a filmmaker, the great classics of the genre, as well as newer films that I admire. But I was only given eight slots. There are more movies that I admire than I can program.

Q: Still, you've got a formidable lineup of films here, including one film that isn't a documentary at all.

A: Right, one of the films I chose is the 1967 version of “In Cold Blood,” which is actually a scripted movie. It's an odd choice for a documentary film festival, but it's based on the Truman Capote book, which I feel is like the Big Bang of true crime. Capote is the grandfather of what has been called the “non-fiction novel.” He synthesized, for the first time, narrative technique with journalist technique.

You know, it's rare that a book and movie, both on the same subject, are each genre busters in their own right. The film was groundbreaking in its day for its authenticity. Not only was it a location shoot, it was filmed in the house where the murders took place. It was revolutionary.

I see it as a kind of mirror image of what I try to do in my films. “In Cold Blood” is taking the scripted format and trying to make it as real as possible. I'm taking the documentary format and trying to make it as narrative as possible. 


Joe Berlinger’s Documentary Series Wrong Man Debuting June 3 on Starz

Starz has announced that its new original series Wrong Man will premiere Sunday, June 3rd at 9 p.m. ET/PT. This groundbreaking six-episode documentary series from Academy Award nominee and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost) examines three different inmates who have been incarcerated for decades and claim they are innocent. The series will uncover new theories, offer alternate suspects, and reveal startling new evidence that could prove these inmates are not guilty.

In Wrong Man, Berlinger’s cameras follow a team of esteemed legal, investigative and forensic experts including renowned civil rights attorney Ronald Ruby, former prosecutor Sue-Ann Robinson, retired NCIS investigator Joe Kennedy, and Ira Todd, a member of Detroit’s elite Homicide Task Force, as they re-investigate the cases of three inmates who have been locked up for decades and claim they are innocent.

According to the non-profit legal organization Innocence Project, these types of wrongful conviction cases are not rare. They estimate that up to 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are convicted of crimes they did not commit. With more than 2 million people in prison, that adds up to 120,000 potentially innocent people possibly behind bars. Berlinger said that “partnering with Starz to create a series that represents both great storytelling and an opportunity that actually moves the needle on social justice for the wrongfully convicted has been a great privilege.” 


Metallica frontman James Hetfield has landed a role in the forthcoming Ted Bundy biopic

The Metallica frontman has landed a part in 'Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile', the forthcoming Ted Bundy biopic that is set to star Zac Efron as the notorious serial killer. Hetfield will play the role of 'no-nonsense' highway patrolman Bob Hayward, who was the first police officer to arrest Bundy, according to Deadline.

Rather than just a random casting, however, there's a history between Hetfield and and 'Extremely Wicked...' director Joe Berlinger; Berlinger co-directed and produced the Metallica documentary 'Some Kind of Monster' and later wrote a book about the experience.

He said in a statement: "Having spent hundreds of hours behind the scenes with James and the rest of Metallica, I have experienced his charisma and powerful presence close up. It seemed only natural that he would bring that same power and magnetism to a dramatic role, so when he agreed to my pitch that he be in the movie, I was thrilled.” 


FirstPost - Zac Efron to play serial killer in upcoming film 'Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil & Vile'

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil & Vile is being helmed by Joe Berlinger who has previously directed films like Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Brother’s Keeper.

According to a report by The Hollywood Reporter, the premise of the biopic will be based on the dark and harrowing accounts of Ted Bundy's longtime girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer. Ted Bundy made headlines during the 1970s after he was arrested and later executed on charges of a slew of murders, rapes, burglaries and indulgence in necrophilic activities. 


Newsweek - True Crime Director Joe Berlinger Reveals What He Learned from the West Memphis Three

Airing on SundanceTV, Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders is both an homage to the origins of true crime stories and a kind of reckoning with Berlinger’s own history with the Clutter family murders. He said he has been obsessed with the crime for decades, but as much as he loves In Cold Blood he has never seen a handling of the event that focused on the Clutter family.

“It was difficult to get some of the living Clutters to open up to us at first,” he told Newsweek. “But finding a space for your subject to trust you is always tricky. It takes time.” He did eventually earn the trust of the Clutters, and they are fully represented in the film. Their voices and insights are included alongside previously unseen archival footage of the family before they were murdered in 1959.

Berlinger’s focus on the Clutters in Cold Blooded reflects his push toward a more empathetic future for the true-crime genre. He believes that obsessively probing crime scenes and the minds of killers can have a dehumanizing effect on viewers. “I’m looking for narrative truth in my films,” he said, “and I believe that a story about true crime has to start with the victims and their experience. Why wouldn’t you begin with the people who were most affected?” 


Yahoo - Oscar-nominated filmmaker Joe Berlinger on his new 'In Cold Blood' murders documentary, 'Cold Blooded'

Were you surprised by anything while making Cold Blooded?

"Well, interestingly, as I said, the [In Cold Blood] book threw me into this style of literature, deeply fascinated by the storytelling and the portrait of the killers, and Capote’s own kinship that he felt with both of them, but in particular, Perry Smith. Knowing all that at the time that I first read it produced in me a sense of sympathy for the killers. So that when you either read the book or watch the movie, those final moments, where they’re ascending the gallows, and they’re hung, you have a sense of, not regret, but ... you have tremendous sympathy for these people you’ve gotten to know, and what a shame that this is what their lives amounted to.

That’s been my position, but the thing that surprised me about digging deeply into the archives, listening to the confessions, doing the story in the way we did it, is I’ve actually come away with far less sympathy for the killers than I’ve had for decades. Because at the end of the day, I saw little evidence of any kind of remorse, even up to their dying day. So, for me, it was kind of a surprise that my sympathies waned and moved toward the victims’ families and how they were treated and what the story has done to them. The fact that their tragedy has been used in the service of creating a literary movement ... I’m glad the literary movement exists. But we must be reminded of the price that some people paid."


NYTimes - Review: 'Intent to Destroy' Shows That the Armenian Past Is Not Over

Joe Berlinger, the director, uses old footage of survivors and insights from historians to provide an overview of the crimes. He also embeds himself with the cast and crew of “The Promise,” a recent fictional film set around 1915 that explores the fighting and mass killings. Mr. Berlinger’s plan is smart as well as symbolic — evidence shows that the Turkish government has often pressured studios into shelving movies about the genocide.

Discussions on the film set are intertwined with historical analysis, and there are explorations of crowd psychology, revisionism and German cooperation with the Ottoman Turks; it’s no stretch to see how the massacre of Armenians helped lay groundwork for the Holocaust.

At its core, “Intent to Destroy” is a call to remember the victims, both for their sake and for our own. “If you want to understand Yugoslavia, if you want to understand Rwanda, if you want to understand any other mass atrocity [that] is happening today, you should really look into the Armenian genocide,” one scholar says near the end of the documentary. “History is not in the past.” 


Slant - Interview: Joe Berlinger Talks Career and Intent to Destroy

Elise Nakhnikan: “I appreciate Intent to Destroy because its main focus isn’t the facts of the genocide. You establish those, for viewers who don’t know about it, but then you move on to your real subject, which is the campaign of denial that’s suppressed those facts over the decades. What made you choose that angle?”

Joe Berlinger: “There are other films out there that have covered the genocide itself, but for me what’s most interesting is the mechanism of denial, the aftermath of denial—and American complicity in that denial. Everyone thinks that Hollywood is just this liberal environment where people can tell whatever story they want, but the fact is that as early as 1935 Irving Thalberg was being shut down [when he tried to make a film of the book The Forty Days of Musa Dagh]. It’s basically taboo in Hollywood to tell this story, because whenever a project is mounted, the Turkish government complains to the state department and the state department twists the arm of the Hollywood studio to drop the project. …

There are parallels to the times we’re living in today. For Turkey, to have mounted this century-long campaign of obfuscation to the point where, at one point, helping the Armenians was America’s greatest moment of generosity, the Near East Relief effort was the largest relief effort mounted up until that point, and there were 146 articles in the New York Times—it was a well-known story—yet today most Americans have no idea that the genocide happened. I think stories like that, that are swept under the rug, are a parable for much larger issues, particularly in these perilous times, where alternative facts and fake news are bandied about, where Trump just bombards you with an alternative version of reality, until people just get so tired they tune out or they accept the other version of reality.”