The Real World: Wrongful Convictions

In Unlocking the Truth, true crime gets the MTV treatment.

Katie Way

Ryan Ferguson speaks at the premiere for MTV's 'Unlocking the Truth' on August 11, 2016 in New York City (Jason Kempin/Getty Images for MTV).

What would it look like if MTV made a show about the depredations of the criminal justice system? Though the premise might sound like a Madlib of sorts, we now have the answer in Unlocking the Truth, a new series that sits somewhere between true crime and reality TV. The show, which premiered on August 17 at 11/10 central and airs its second episode this Wednesday, sets out to re-examine the cases of two young men who claim they were wrongfully convicted of violent crimes. The twist is that one of the hosts, author and personal trainer Ryan Ferguson, himself spent ten years in jail for murder before being exonerated in 2013 at the age of 29.

Reporters and documentarians are using their platforms to magnify the flaws in the judicial process. In these stories, prejudice, law enforcement incompetence and courtroom misconduct are given equal weight and screen-time to the crimes committed.

Unlocking the Truth deals with similar themes as NPR’s breakout podcast Serial and Netflix’s Making a Murderer, but it looks and feels distinctly MTV. While MAM’s attorney Dean Strang may have become an unlikely internet fashion icon, Ferguson sports a series of stylish cardigans as he searches for clues, and the show’s soundtrack wouldn’t be out of place on a serious episode of True Life—one of the ones about addiction, or coming out as a furry.

In other words, Unlocking the Truth is clearly aimed at a younger audience, but this does not mean it lacks merit. The series is the latest entry into a new canon of true crime that’s out to expose the rot in the criminal justice system. This trend synchs with a growing distrust in the enforcers of criminal justice. According to a 2015 Gallup poll, Americans’ confidence in police has dropped to its lowest rate since 1993 amidst a series of high-profile cases of police killings and brutality.If this project also happens to pique the interest of viewers of Teen Wolf or Guy Code vs. Girl Code, all the better.

This true crime renaissance is especially welcome given that the genre was once populated by morality tales fundamentally at odds with the reality of how law and order works. Criminals are punished, justice triumphs and the families of victims are thanked for their cooperation with a final frame after the credits roll.

The most famous of these, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, is a voyeuristic joyride inside the minds of killers, followed by satisfying retribution dealt by the hands of the Finney County courthouse: death by hanging. In The Stranger Beside Me, author Ann Rule’s unique perspective as an acquaintance of serial killer Ted Bundy humanizes him at first, making the reveal of his crimes later in the narrative all the more devastating.

Instead of critiquing the individual, the genre’s newer offerings turn the microscope on the institution — namely, the American justice system. From the first season of Sarah Koenig’s hit podcast Serial (we don’t need to talk about season two) to HBO’s The Jinx, reporters and documentarians are using their platforms to magnify the flaws in the judicial process. In these stories, prejudice, law enforcement incompetence and courtroom misconduct are given equal weight and screen-time to the crimes committed.

Even familiar cases have been retold with this treatment, most notably in ESPN Films’ miniseries OJ: Made in America. The five-part series contextualizes O.J.’s murder trial with the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the acquittal of the police officers who brutalized Rodney King, positing that O.J.’s acquittal was a measure to quell the pain and outrage of the black community.

The first shot of Unlocking the Truth’s first episode is an aerial of Kansas City, Missouri, where Ferguson drives to the show’s high-ceilinged, exposed-brick investigative headquarters. Co-host Eva Nagao fits well into MTV’s cool-girl template, but has the investigative chops to match. The former managing director of the non-profit Exoneration Project rocks an undercut and skinny jeans while she and Ferguson sleuth it up in style. Once the scene is set, we learn the story of Ferguson’s wrongful conviction from archival footage and concise, if occasionally simplistic, narration by the man himself — and it is a doozy.

We see how police attempted to coerce a confession from the then 19-year-old, who landed in hot water when his friend experienced a series of dreams that he and Ferguson were connected to the murder of Kent Heitholt on November 1, 2001. Witnesses testify against Ferguson, only to recant years later and ask meekly for his forgiveness. We then see a triumphant Ferguson, ten years after his ordeal began, waving a sign that says IT IS OVER!” as he is released from prison. That’s when the show really begins.

Though the series itself will follow Nagao and Ferguson’s investigation of Kalvin Michael Smith and Michael Politte, Politte was the focal point of the series premiere. Arrested for murdering his mother when he was only 14 years old, Politte and many of his close family members have maintained his innocence since his second-degree murder conviction in 2002.

Ferguson and Nagao visit the Midwest Innocence Project, where a team of lawyers currently working to free Politte. Evidence footage from the case shows the burnt spot on the carpet where Rita Politte was bludgeoned to death and then set on fire. Old family videos serve to demonstrate happier times. A reenactment shows a little boy led by a corrections officer down a jail corridor.

Politte’s sisters and aunt are also interviewed, and all manage to insert threads that will doubtlessly carry on to future episodes. Could Politte’s father, who recently split from his mother in a nasty way, have been involved? What about the man his aunt saw walking on the nearby train tracks the morning of the murder? Politte himself is interviewed from prison. At times, his sound-bites seem scripted, although anyone who’s been proclaiming their innocence for more than a decade would likely be well-rehearsed in doing so. But when he breaks down on camera describing his mother’s death, the emotion is authentic and visceral.

Deride MTV and true crime as trite and exploitative, but the publicity they churn up, and sometimes even the investigation that takes place on the shows themselves, can have real-world impact. Ask Adnan Syed, who was granted a new trial on June 30 after Serial brought witness Asia McClain’s testimony to light. Or Brendan Dassey, of Making a Murderer fame, whose multiple convictions, including mutilation of a corpse, were overturned on August 12 after the series brought attention to the lack of physical evidence tying Dassey to the crime and the coerced confession that damned him. All considering, it’s unlikely that Politte and Smith would much care about the lingering glamour shot of Nagao’s platform slip-ons.

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Katie Way is a Summer 2016 editorial intern at In These Times. She currently attends Northwestern University. Follow her on Twitter at @k80way.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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