Recently, Netflix released “Exhibit A,” a series that explores the consequences of mistakes in forensic science. Kelly Loudenberg, the series’s creator, has a knack for displaying injustices that slip past public attention; she also masterminded “The Confession Files,” a docuseries that examined the validity of coerced confessions, and, now, she has set her sights on more slippery problems in the justice system.
Each episode of “Exhibit A” explains a potential complication within forensic science: video forensics, blood spatters, cadaver dogs and touch DNA. These practices, which the population typically perceives as foolproof, can fuel injustice if they’re used improperly. “Exhibit A” introduces audiences to four individuals whose lives have all been drastically changed thanks to questionable forensics.
The individuals’ gripping testimonies blend seamlessly with scientific explanations and infuse the potentially dull procedures with vitality. The heart and soul of the series lies with its four mind-boggling stories, which, though vastly different, are tied together with a similar thread of unfairness.
On December 31, 2016, the blurry lens of a police camera captured the worst moment of Dasha Fincher’s life, which, oddly enough, began with a dispute over the shade of the car’s windows. Officers stopped Fincher, who was with her boyfriend at the time, to scrutinize their window tint, and the couple exited the borrowed vehicle peacefully, undisturbed by the prospect of a mandatory search.
One officer emerged with a clear bag filled with blue cotton candy. Hands clasped, Fincher watched quietly as the officer performed a roadside methamphetamine test, but his conclusion shocked the couple. His analysis determined that the carnival treat was a hard drug, and Fincher soon found herself in handcuffs.
Three months later, Fincher was released from custody after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s official test verified a fact that Fincher already knew: no controlled substances were present in the cotton candy. She had lost three months of her life, and irreplaceable milestones, because the officers who pulled her over lacked vital drug training. Sadly, there are 145 other stories like Fincher’s in Georgia alone.
With the help of stories like this, “Exhibit A” highlights the importance of scrutinizing scientific processes. The show subtly suggests that genuine scientific literacy is scarce among normal people, and without the appropriate amount of skepticism, equitable convictions can disappear. In trial, jury members listen as an expert presents their analysis, and if the jargon sounds reliable and the “facts” irrefutable, most individuals cannot distinguish the truth. After all, these are ordinary people who begrudgingly showed up for jury duty one day.
In such a position, it’s easy to trust sources that present an air of dependability and move on with life. “Exhibit A,” however, asserts that one expert’s opinion is not infallible. In a brilliant move, Loudenberg humanizes the experts, removing their shroud of lofty, unapproachable intelligence: we see specialists joke about unreliable weather, lament the tedious examination processes and make song references. A few scientists’ well-intentioned jokes fall flat, and there are some awkward pauses in the interviews; although simple, such instances display the experts’ humanity. Crime scene analysts, like everyone, can make mistakes.
Across the board, “Exhibit A” paints realistic portraits of its diverse subjects. Although they’re often wronged by the justice system, the defendants are not always angels, and when forensic scientists slip up, the narrative does not transform them into careless monsters. The series allows each victim’s story to unfold naturally, without the pressure to resemble a pre-developed caricature.
Strong recommend: New Netflix series Exhibit A, by Kelly Loudenberg of @ConfessionTapes fame. Blood-boiling examples of junk forensics allowed to pass as science in courtrooms.
Only critique: Each episode should be a half hour longer, and there should be twice as many episodes.
— Radley Balko (@radleybalko) July 3, 2019
Some elements, however, adhere all too well to a familiar storyline. “Exhibit A” presents a world in which physical appearance controls success; money buys power and, ultimately, control of the justice system. In many cases, the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” is more of an ideal than a reality, and “Exhibit A” fearlessly displays the classic moral failures that run rampant in the world.
At one point, while describing the criminal justice authorities, a lawyer remarks cynically, “If they really want you, they’re gonna get you.” Obviously, reformers need to correct many things in order to achieve a just and fair system.
The cinematography of “Exhibit A” borders on absolute perfection. It uses brief landscape shots to let audiences grasp an area’s vibe, without clunky narration or supplementary statements. Loudenberg adheres to the famous creative advice “show, don’t tell,” and there is no ever-present narrator to connect the dots for viewers.
Rather, Loudenberg demonstrates faith in her audience’s intelligence. The commentary shifts between victims, lawyers and scientists, with no explanatory voice-over, which eliminates lulls while adding excitement to the stories. Viewers might be tempted to avoid documentaries because they can be boring; rest assured, Loudenberg’s storytelling skills chase boredom away and provide beauty in ugly situations.
Dasha Fincher is still fighting to rectify a hideous injustice. While officers waited for the official crime lab results, she spent three months in jail, during which she missed the birth of her twin grandsons and lost the opportunity to comfort her daughter after she suffered a miscarriage. Unsurprisingly, Fincher is suing the responsible parties.
At one point, her official lawsuit maintains the defendants “knew or should have known that a red negative test result, when combined with a blue substance, would produce a purple liquid, erroneously signifying a positive test result.” But the officers ignored the elementary principles of color combination in favor of a cheap, DIY drug testing kit.
“Exhibit A” attempts to shed light on other, similar situations. Audiences can see how faith in the power of forensic science overshadows both common sense and eyewitness testimonies, but by no means is the series anti-science. In the first episode, a video analyst states, “Ultimately, there is a universal truth … Every time technology advances, we get closer and closer to being able to reach that universal truth.”
Before unleashing criticism, commenters frequently highlight the positive elements of scientific advancement. “Exhibit A” is never aggressively anti-science, but it refuses to downplay the disastrous effects of human carelessness. Those who can appreciate the difference will certainly love the new docuseries.