MTV recently wrapped up a true-crime mini-series featuring investigations of the Exoneration Project, one of the Law School’s legal clinics, into the cases of inmates in the Missouri prison system.
The Exoneration Project provides pro bono legal counsel to inmates who are appealing on the grounds of wrongful conviction. Its work has recently freed several prisoners in Illinois. Its staff consists of UChicago Law graduates as well as lawyers from Chicago-area firms.
The mini-series, Unlocking the Truth, was co-hosted by Eva Nagao, the director of the Exoneration Project, and Ryan Ferguson, who himself was wrongfully incarcerated in a Missouri state penitentiary. After being convicted of murder at age 19, Ferguson served ten years before his sentence was ultimately overturned.
Since Illinois prisons do not allow inmates to be filmed or interviewed, clients of the Exoneration Project could not be featured in the show. Instead, Nagao and Ferguson worked with the Missouri Innocence Project and focused on defendants in prisons that allowed camera access.
Over the course of eight episodes, Nagao and Ferguson examined claims of wrongful conviction from defendants Michael Politte, Kalvin Michael Smith, and Byron Case. Smith is serving a 29-year sentence for assault, and Case and Politte are serving life sentences for murder. Politte is incarcerated in the same Missouri prison where Ferguson served time.
The cases of each defendant raised significant doubts, due to either originally flawed police operations or the emergence of new evidence and technology. To re-investigate the convictions, Nagao and Ferguson looked into old police files and interviewed inmates, their families, and other involved individuals.
Unlocking the Truth stands out in MTV’s 2016 lineup, which includes shows like Catfish and Teen Wolf. This was an intentional choice. Ferguson and Nagao hoped to reach young people, especially young black men who are disproportionately affected by high incarceration rates, through the series. “We were excited and energized to reach a more youthful audience, people who are growing in their knowledge and development of the criminal justice system,” Nagao said.
The network also provided an unusual and welcome level of autonomy for Ferguson, Nagao, and their team. According to Nagao, MTV, unlike other networks, did not put pressure on the show’s creators to have a storyline or definitive ending to the series. Instead, a camera crew followed Ferguson and Nagao for four months, documenting their work.
Still, Nagao and Ferguson were initially apprehensive about bringing these defendants’ cases in the public eye. “When you rehash these crimes, you are unlocking Pandora’s box as far as the trauma that this community endured because of this case,” Nagao said. The show’s team was careful to be respectful and open-minded during their investigations, and many of the involved families were eager to share their experiences.
The show performed well and increased publicity and online appeals for featured cases. The defendants themselves have yet to watch the program in full: its 11 p.m. EST airtime fell after lights out at the prisons where they remain incarcerated.
“Our hope is that each and every one of the defendants utilizes Ryan and I and the show as a tool if they have messages that need to get out to a broader audience,” Nagao said. “And I know they’re trying to catch the reruns.”