The American criminal justice system is brimming with complicated cases, where juries are forced to decide questions like: Was it self-defense, or aggravated assault? Was it a vehicular manslaughter, or just a tragic car accident?
For the accused, those verdicts are a culmination of a strenuous legal journey that will spell the difference between a life salvaged or a life ruined beyond repair. A&E’s Accused: Guilty or Innocent?, centers on the feloniously accused as they navigate the greatest challenge in their lives with their lawyers, their families and their community at large.
[Stream episodes of Accused: Guilty or Innocent? in the A&E app.]
A&E True Crime caught up with executive producers Malcolm and Xander Brinkworth (father and son, respectively) to discuss what makes their show so unique.
Your docuseries profiles accused criminals. Why’d you choose to make a show from their point of view?
Malcolm Brinkworth: Ever since the beginning, our goal has been to bring light into a previously unknown space. [Before Accused: Guilty or Innocent?] we had made a couple shows in the U.K. about the experience of the accused, and what we genuinely felt was that this had not been covered before.
It’s a side of the criminal justice system you don’t see, because you’re never in the room. You’re never in those rooms with those lawyers; you’re never back at [their] home in the kitchen or as they sit down on the sofa talking about, ‘Oh my god, this is what I’m going through, these are the consequences.’ The only thing you ever see is on the news—where they’re talking about what the prosecution has just released, or there’s a reporter facing the camera as the trial is beginning. This is a completely different view, from a completely different perspective.
These episodes almost invariably highlight the emotional burden that a serious criminal accusation places on the family. Do you think being a father-and-son production company affected your storytelling approach?
Xander Brinkworth: What was interesting about making Accused: Guilty or Innocent? is we were always looking for cases that spoke not just to experiences in the criminal justice system, but also to what it means to be an individual—a human being—trapped inside of circumstances. And because being in a family unit is such an integral part of the human experience, it’s quite natural that when you’re in that nightmarish position there’s pressure distilled across the people who love you and [who] you’re with.
We were just looking for great stories, and the fact that it had familial elements was a constituent part of making a great story…which is why it might be the first time we’ve thought about it in that respect.
Any moments from the first season that you think capture what makes the program so special?
XB: In the first episode—the domestic violence episode—the entirety of the crime is caught on CCTV (closed-circuit television, a video surveillance camera). And unfolding out of that is an investigation: into a husband and wife relationship, into drug misuse, into family tension and a range of other things. And there were definitely several moments as we were making that episode where we thought: ‘Wow, this is remarkable.’
In several episodes of the first season, the defense attorney returns to the scene of the alleged crime with his or her client, to discuss the event as it took place. Do defense attorneys regularly do this with their clients?
MB: I think, like with everything in life, each lawyer has their particular approach to these kinds of things. [Some of the lawyers] were very hands-on attorneys who wanted to see and hear from that immersive perspective. Others are slightly more ‘stand back, let’s assess the situation and be strategic about it.’
We are simply there as observers for an unfolding process—between the accused and their attorneys [or] the accused and their families. If it’s an appropriate thing for them to go back to the crime scene, and that’s an appropriate thing for us to cover, then we cover it.
Not every case in the American criminal justice system goes to court—many end in plea deals. How often did defendants get offered a plea?
XB: In one of the [Season 1] episodes, there is a plea deal taken. And in others, there are plea deals offered. But we wanted to follow people who truly believed in their innocence and whose lawyers really backed them inside that belief. Therefore, in those sorts of situations, quite often the trend for those accused is to not take the plea deals, because they believe in their position.
Do the cases tend to resolve in a certain way?
MB: [Throughout the whole series, the question in your mind will be ‘Are they guilty, or are they innocent?’ And there are a range of outcomes. There are people found innocent, and people found guilty. And apart from one case, everything goes to trial—where they are judged by their peers. Where they stand up and they have no idea whether they’re going to be found guilty.
One particular moment that I’ll never forget in one of [Season 1] episodes, is when the team are in the room with one of [the accused]: a farmer in Iowa accused of murdering his mother. And the jury comes, effectively, to say the jury has reached a verdict. And you can see it on his face at that moment: everything that is about to bubble over. And that is what makes Accused: Guilty or Innocent? electric.