The Innocent Man season 1 premiere recap: Debbie and Denice


A new addition to Netflix’s true crime genre, The Innocent Man is a documentary series is based on the John Grisham novel “The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town.”

Before the credits, The Innocent Man opens with clips of interviews with unnamed men discussing violent crimes against women, seemingly during police interrogations. Interspersed in these clips are shots of gravestones of Debbie Sue Carter and Denice Haraway (both in their early 20s) and newspaper clippings about their deaths/disappearances.

After the credits, the episode opens in Ada, Oklahoma, with a minuscule gathering in a Baptist church. In interviews, different locals discuss the town’s culture and give an overview of the town—the century-old cement plant, how everyone goes to the high school football game on Friday nights, and how there’s a church on almost every corner, etc.

Contrasting with this simplistic life, one interviewee points out, are two notorious murders.

As the episode transitions, John Grisham discusses how The Innocent Man became his first journey into non-fiction writing.

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A reenacted scene shows Debbie leaving the bar where she worked late at night, getting in her car and driving off. After she arrives home, someone knocks on the door and attacks her when she opens it. This transitions The Innocent Man into talking about the events surrounding her murder.

Dawn Teal, a county court reporter, takes the documentary crew to a storage unit where evidence from Debbie’s case is kept and shows them some of what was submitted during the trial. One of the most disturbing is a ketchup bottle. Its lid was found inside of Debbie’s body.

Debbie’s cousin, Christy Sheppard, shows the crew Debbie’s old apartment, where Debbie had lived for two months before she was murdered. Christy and her mother Glenna then discuss what they remember about Debbie, who lived only a few blocks from Christy and Glenna.

Peggy “Peppy” Carter, Debbie’s mother, helps complete the maternal family tree, discussing her three daughters, Darla, Debbie, and Leona. Peppy recalls the day she received a phone call from one of Debbie’s friends who has just found Debbie’s body on the ground and bloody.

There’s then a weird sequence of events that involve Peppy calling Glenna’s phone and Debbie’s phone and not getting an answer. Then, as she starts to walk over, Glenna pulls up in Peppy’s friend’s car and Peppy, in that moment, knows Debbie’s dead and collapses in tears in the road.

Now, it’s not clear from this angle where Glenna was coming from or how Glenna found out about Debbie or when the police got involved.

Transitioning away from the family, private investigator Dan Clark breaks down the crime scene, including the cord wrapped around Debbie’s neck and the writing found on her naked body, a wall and a table in the apartment.

This sequence also introduces a few key players: Dennis Smith, the lead police investigator who worked on the case, agent Gary Rogers from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, who Dennis had called in to assist, respected District Attorney Bill Peterson and retired Pontotoc County District Court Judge Tom Landrith.

Without much discussed about Debbie’s investigation beyond the basic crime scene, the episode jumps right to Denice’s disappearance two years later. Denice was abducted from her job at a gas station convenience store.

Her disappearance is detailed by an uncle and nephew who had stopped at the store for cigarettes and change and went inside to find the place empty. As the nephew was entering the store, he had passed a man and a woman who got in a pickup truck and drove away. Suspecting that that was Denice, the police started looking for that truck.

Another eye witness from a store nearby provided a description for a composite sketch that, after being published, led to tips pouring in to the police. This leads us to the first real suspect of the show, Tommy Ward.

Dennis Smith and Gary Rogers are also working this case and are present for an interrogation of Tommy. Tommy, and later Karl Fontenot, discussed how Odell Titsworth convinced them to rob the store and abduct, rape and murder Denice. The confession tapes from Tommy and Karl are absolutely brutal.

A twist comes when the police go to arrest Odell and he has a solid alibi. His mother said he was home with a broken arm and hospital records show that he did have a broken arm that was treated that night, muddying the confessions that claim Odell was the ring leader.

It’s also pointed out that at that time, Debbie’s case was still unsolved and the police were facing pressure to get convictions for the murders of these young women in the small town.

Before jumping into the trial, the episode makes sure to point out, through various people, that even though Denice’s body hadn’t been found, there was legal precedent to charge someone with murder based on evidence that a crime had occurred, even without a body.

Tommy and Karl were tried for robbery, kidnapping and murder. District Attorney Bill Peterson also served as the prosecutor on this case, along with assistant DA Chris Ross. The confession tapes, which were now revealed to have shown the men talking about hiding and burning Denice’s body, were shown to the jury during the case.

In his closing arguments, Chris takes a significant step in explaining the mentions of Odell in the confessions by pointing out that Odell and Tommy never did anything significant together during Tommy’s recollection of the night. Tommy, Chris explains, saw himself doing these things, and in order to explain to himself actions that he thinks he’d never do, he says Odell did them instead.

After his explanation, the jury found Tommy and Karl guilty on all accounts.

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The episode ends by cutting to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in 2017 where Tommy Ward sits down and matter-of-factly says he’s been in prison for 33 years for a crime he didn’t commit.

What do you think happened? Why did Tommy confess in those tapes if he didn’t commit the crime? Is this just clever storytelling from the DAs? Let us know your thoughts on The Innocent Man in the comments.