TV dramas take on death penalty cases so often it's become a trope. Usually, these stories are heavy-handed tales meant to incite viewers to protest against the death penalty.
But Proven Innocent Season 1 Episode 7 provided one of the best takes on this controversial issue I've seen in a long time.
There was no preaching or over-the-top messaging. Instead, the story spoke for itself and the death penalty became yet another example of how our deeply flawed criminal justice system hurts people.
I expected there to be more of a conflict between Maddie and Amina.
Amina's initial opinion that Maddie only took high-profile, guaranteed-to-win cases made it seem like she wasn't going to be won over any too easily. Plus, East Cleveland was her neighborhood, so I thought Maddie's way of doing things might be ineffective or offensive to the people she needed to talk to.
Amina: Oh please. There ain't no ending anything when you come from an underprivileged and dying community.
Maddie: If someone needs our help, we don't give a damn where they come from.
Amina: Good. An innocent man, Devon Watkins, is on death row for murdering a cop. He's not famous and he's poor as dirt. You ready to take on the case everyone else is too afraid to take?
I'm glad that the story didn't go in that direction, though. We've seen it happen over and over on other shows, so we didn't need another story about two people who should be on the same side arguing with each other.
Plus, that would have been a distraction from the point the show wanted to make about Devon.
I didn't blame Easy for being gun-shy about taking the case, though. After suffering the humiliation of being conned by a guilty person on Proven Innocent Season 1 Episode 6, the entire team should have been wary so they didn't make the same mistake.
They have to believe in their clients' innocence or they won't be able to advocate for them in court. But still, it's not surprising that Easy would question the veracity of Amina's claims about Devon.
They didn't know the guy, after all, and who has more motive to con his way into getting his conviction overturned than someone who's sentenced to die for it?
I swear on my momma's grave I didn't kill no cop. I don't even own a gun.Devon
Devon was innocent, of course, and I believed him as soon as he swore to it.
It made me mad that there were so many opportunities to suggest reasonable doubt that nobody followed up on during the original trial!
Nancy's eyewitness account was apparently not disputed even though it was impossible to identify a person from the distance she was watching from and there were five Impalas with similar license plates on the road that night.
And that doesn't even count the fact that the suspect was in handcuffs before the taxi driver was asked to ID him.
I'm glad Proven Innocent brought that up. It's something that unfortunately happens all too often.
Seeing a person in police custody taints eyewitness accounts because there's an unconscious assumption that the cops got the right person.
Eyewitness accounts are already notoriously unreliable, to begin with, and useless if the eyewitness is asked to ID someone who is clearly under arrest.
Anyway, that was yet another problem with Devon's original conviction and it remained unchallenged until Maddie came along.
It's bad enough that this happens in cases where people are locked up for years. But a man's life literally rode on the outcome of this case, and whoever was supposed to be defending him didn't question any of the problems in the case.
And that was only half the problem!
I liked the exploration of the cycle of violence in East Cleveland.
Everyone knows everything in this town. Just nobody's gonna say what that everything is.Nancy
It's a sad irony that in poorer communities, there's both over-policing and a ton of violent crime that goes unpunished.
It makes sense that in gang-run neighborhoods, no one is going to cooperate with the cops. As Amina said, people in East Cleveland were trying to survive, and that meant keeping their mouths shut.
I wish that the episode had also explored the issue of residents in poor communities, especially poor communities of color, not trusting the police to help them, but I guess there's only so much you can pack into an hour!
Amina did a great job of explaining the cycle of violence and the role that fear played in perpetuating that cycle. But she left out the effect of "broken windows" policing and other police behaviors in communities like East Cleveland.
Police often attempt to combat crime in high-crime areas by punishing residents for relatively minor crimes that they might overlook elsewhere. The idea is that by arresting people for minor issues, they can deter major crimes. But this strategy doesn't do anything to stop gang-related violent crime. It just makes people fear the cops and feel harassed by them.
As a result, people don't turn to the police for help, preferring to handle problems themselves rather than risk going to jail for a minor issue if they report a crime.
Undoubtedly that kind of problem also contributed to the violence in East Cleveland, and since the man Devon was accused of murdering was a cop people would have been doubly afraid of going to the cops with what they knew.
The cops might have been out for blood and nobody wanted to be a scapegoat.
Anyway, whether it was because of the gangs or the cops or both, it was unsurprising that nobody wanted to come forward about this case.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Omar's scenes, too.
This was a guy who had shot a cop and let someone else take the blame for it and who was on death row for some other murder.
But Proven Innocent showed another side to this seemingly horrible human being.
Omar only wanted one thing: to see the son he'd never had the opportunity to raise. Who couldn't be affected by that?
His son, understandably, wanted nothing to do with him, yet Omar was proud of him. The moment when Omar mentioned that his son was a doctor while the rest of the men in the family were behind bars broke my heart.
I just wish Omar had been smarter about letting his killer approach him. The guy was on death row for years and just agreed to testify in court.
It wasn't like he was new to the prison system. He knew how things like this tend to go down.
And the guy who murdered him was so obvious about it! The dude waited til Omar was alone in the yard, then came up to him prattling about admiring him and wanting a cigarette.
Where were Omar's street smarts? Why on Earth did he let that guy anywhere near him?
And was that guard in on it, since he told Omar to wait in the yard and conveniently disappeared until after Omar was stabbed?
It takes them two seconds to lock someone up and an eternity to admit they're wrong.Maddie
The strongest statement was the judge's reaction to Maddie's presentation of the case. Even though Omar wasn't there to back up his words, she had a signed confession on top of all the reasonable doubt that was never addressed the first time.
Yet the judge was reluctant to consider this evidence now that Omar was dead.
Her argument that Omar had a motive to lie because he was on death row didn't hold water. He was going to be executed for a crime he committed -- what did he gain by claiming to have committed a different one. And how would him saying it in person make him less likely to lie than if he gave a sworn statement?
Plus, obviously, someone killed him to keep him quiet, suggesting that he was telling the truth.
Devon: I'm gonna die right here behind this.
Maddie: Devon. I don't know what it's like to be on death row, but I know what it's like to be hopeless. I was eight years in, nothing but bars in front of me. All I had was my truth. I DIDN'T DO THIS.
A few other observations:
Maddie's encouraging Devon not to give up was undoubtedly the most powerful scene of the hour. I'm a sucker for inspirational speeches, and this was an especially strong one.
Levi's attitude towards Maddie is going to come back to bite him. He already almost went to jail because he stubbornly insisted on a public defender who knew nothing about the case rather than swallowing his pride and letting Maddie defend him. I doubt he will listen if she tries to warn him about Isabel.
Is any evidence Bellows gets from Isabel going undercover in a therapy group even admissible? Not that Bellows cares about things like that, but Maddie certainly does and has the skills to suppress any so-called evidence from this scheme.
- I loved that short therapy scene between Easy and Irene. It's ironic that the reason Easy didn't go to East Cleveland appeared to be so that he could go to therapy, considering that Irene's anger is about Easy putting work before family.
Your turn, Proven Innocent Fanatics!
What did you think of the show's take on the death penalty? Was Levi too hard on Maddie? And will Bellows' plan to take Maddie and Levi down go anywhere?
Watch Proven Innocent online and then come back and share your thoughts in the comments.
Jack Ori is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter.