LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A woman who says she was jailed after falsely confessing to a crime and a man imprisoned for 20 years for shooting a hole in a wall are just some of the cases explored in a new documentary series that Al Jazeera America hopes will draw viewers to the fledgling news network.
“The System with Joe Berlinger,” premiering on Al Jazeera America on Sunday, will explore the complexities of the U.S. criminal justice system in an eight-part series that uses real cases to question the effectiveness of laws.
Berlinger, who specializes in long-form, investigative story-telling, is best-known for his “Paradise Lost,” a series of films that helped to secure the eventual release of the ‘West Memphis Three’ - teenage boys accused of mutilating and murdering three eight-year-old boys.
The director said the phenomenon of “reality documentaries,” which follow characters such as A&E’s “Duck Dynasty,” has left little room for television news documentaries.
“There’s a certain homogenization that’s happened in television as all the networks move away from their historical underpinnings and are all chasing the next big docu-soap,” the director said.
“For somebody like me who has done long-form investigative work in documentaries, there aren’t that many places to go.”
In the premiere episode of “The System,” Berlinger explores why people might falsely confess to a crime that can lead to their conviction, even when DNA evidence might be scarce.
But it is the second episode that Berlinger says defines what “The System” is about: The case of Florida man Orville Lee Wollard who was jailed for 20 years after firing a gun into the wall of his home to scare off his daughter’s violent boyfriend.
“The series is not intended to wag a finger and say the system is broken. The series is intended to highlight the problems, and sometimes the problems are very complex,” he said.
Wollard was found guilty of aggravated assault with a firearm, which owing to Florida’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws came with a 20-year jail sentence for the father of two, who never had a prior conviction. The shot in his home, fired from a legally registered gun, did not injure anyone, but Wollard landed behind bars and his family became financially destitute.
“The System” comes at a crucial time for the eight-month-old Al Jazeera America as it struggles with low ratings against established news competitors such as CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.
Shannon High-Bassalik, senior vice president of documentaries and programming at the network, said new viewers have been drawn to the network with its “Borderland” docu-series, which explores immigration and border control.
“Something that sets us apart is that we’re very immersive,” she said. “What we’re doing very well is crafting stories, letting the viewer watch, and then letting the viewer have their own decision and then act in any way they feel compelled to.”
Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Chris Michaud and Steve Orlofsky