In an exclusive interview with Deadline, Ross Dinerstein, founder of production company Campfire, which made the adaptation of John Grisham’s non-fiction book, reveals how the six-part series helped shine a spotlight on the case, expediting Fontenot’s release on Thursday.
The series, which is based on Grisham’s The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice In A Small Town, launched on the streaming service in December 2018. It followed two murder cases in Ada, Oklahoma between 1982 and 1984.
Directed by Gleason’s Clay Tweel, one of the cases involved Fontenot (left), who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the kidnapping and killing of convenience store clerk Donna Denice Haraway. However, a federal judge ordered his released after discovering evidence that provides “solid proof of Mr. Fontenot’s probable innocence”. Fontenot’s co-defendant Tommy Ward is still in prison, although his case is also under review.
The series explores how both cases, which were prosecuted by the same District Attorney, Bill Peterson, involved a number of mistakes and shady legal practices including exculpatory evidence kept from the defence and manipulated, coerced false confessions.
The first two men, Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were released after 11 years in prison with Williamson released five days before he was due to be executed. It took longer for Fontenot and Ward.
How did you first get involved in The Innocent Man?
Ross Dinerstein: I read the book in December 2007 on honeymoon in Costa Rica. I was at the airport and I love John Grisham books and I picked up his latest one but it doesn’t say non-fiction on the cover. I sat down at the pool and quickly realised it was non-fiction and two and a half hours later I finished and my life has never been the same. It only took ten years to make, I joke. When I came home from that trip, I looked into the rights and I was in a different place in my career and it was harder to get traction. A gentleman by the name of George Clooney had the rights and he was trying to do it as a scripted film. At one point David Gordon Green wrote a script and then Tom Hanks was involved but I don’t think they could ever get the script right because the truth is so bizarre and hard to believe and if you script it, it doesn’t add up. So, nothing happened and there was a pretty big lawsuit with big players suing John Grisham and then he won the lawsuit. When that got cleared up, Warner Bros and Clooney had moved on and Grisham had put the book in a drawer and he didn’t want to mess with it, I think the process was really hard for him, there was no happy ending. I finally got on the phone with John in October 2017. I think he really responded to me because we’re both southern and we got along, but he didn’t really understand the idea of doing it as a documentary. We kept talking and then Making A Murderer came out and John became intrigued because that showed the potential of what this could be. A bunch of other producers had reached out to him but because he’s such a good guy, he remembered I’d had this idea and I connected with him and then he said he wanted to do it.
What was the reaction when you first started filming the series?
I sat down with Bill Peterson, who was the DA who prosecuted he cases and had a four hour meeting and Clay and I told him we’re doing this with or without you, Netflix was behind this and we wanted him to be part of it. He went on about how Grisham’s book didn’t tell the full story. I didn’t agree with him but said ‘here’s your opportunity’ and he declined to do an interview and over the year we made the show, we spoke a number of times, but he wouldn’t go on camera. The one thing he said to me in that meeting that I thought was really interesting was ‘no one cares about these cases’ and I as spent more and more time in Ada I realised everyone did care about the case. Frankly, most people believed that law enforcement got it right, and all the law enforcement was old Ada, they were settled in to the city before the city was a city.
People want to watch these shows because it’s everybody’s biggest nightmare, being put in prison for a crime you didn’t commit. When the first two guys were exonerated, they sued the city and got a pretty big settlement. The way the settlements were paid for was by raising property taxes, so people in the town resented them, which is messed up. With Karl and Tommy, the second case, it solved a lot of problems by putting these guys away, so people felt justice had been served. We knew the truth and being producers and filmmakers, it was clear how this was injustice. As we got into it, we realised there was active court proceedings and parole hearings and there was a lot of people trying to get these guys out.
How did the documentary series help move the case forward?
What ended up happening was we made the show and people were pretty shocked by it. What the show did was put a spotlight on these cases, it was pouring gasoline on the fire. I’d occasionally catch up with the attorneys or Tommy’s brother and for the first time last February, these guys started to become positive and they had never been positive. If this had been on a traditional network, the episodes would have aired over six weeks and then disappeared but a year later now that Karl’s been released, there’s hopefully going to be a lot of press, and the show is going to become a thing again on Netflix.
Netflix really put a spotlight on these cases and I think it really did accelerate everything with Karl and Tommy. Tommy’s case is a lot slower because his case is in the state court rather than the federal court. Karl had essentially run out of options with the state and then it gets kicked up to the federal court. Getting to the federal court was the best thing that happened. Tommy, hopefully, the next big movement for him, is that it will get kicked up to the federal court, they’re still trying and that’s the best chance for success.
Do you think these men would have been released without The Innocent Man?
I don’t want to take credit away from the attorneys who have been working tirelessly for decades on this but the series helped. The big thing the series did was reignited the public knowledge of it. There was so little public support for the state trying to fight, that had to with the show and that’s a big part of it and the [judge’s] opinion validated everything we did with the show. It shows the power of documentary, it’s an educational tool and is something that shows the injustice that happened.
Now that Karl is released, what’s next? How are you going to cover these developments?
We’re keeping an eye on the case. We’re doing a podcast series and our first two episodes are going to cover Ada, Oklahoma. We’ve got a very broad slate and true crime is a big part of the mission statement of the company.
Has it become more difficult to cover true-crime stories since the boom in the genre? Surely, there’s more competition from producers looking to tell the same stories?
I think it’s helping, there’s a lot of good work being done. We set the standard really high and I’m so proud of our show and Netflix has told me that people reference The Innocent Man when they’re talking to them and there’s a couple of things that I’m helping to produce because people want their shows to be as good as The Innocent Man. Every Tom, Dick and Harry is doing true crime but we set the bar really high and with Karl getting out and hopefully the attention that gets will show how powerful these docs are.