By my conservative count, at least 11 innocent men and women have been freed from prison because of Ofra Bikel. She’s not a lawyer, not a cop, not a private detective. She’s not a law professor marshaling the energy of cadres of willing, eager students.
– “The Plea” Frontline website, including FAQs, interviews, discussion forum and other resources
She’s a journalist.
Bikel makes documentaries for “Frontline,” a 21-year-old series that is one of a dwindling number of jewels in public television’s national schedule. Although she has produced films on international affairs, family dynamics, pseudo psychoscience and clashes between and within cultures, Bikel’s specialty is justice.
Whether she found her calling in 1990 or it found her is a minor point. All she was doing at the time was looking for a great story, and the child abuse accusations against seven people associated with the Little Rascals Day Care center in Edenton, N.C., were nothing if not a great, albeit appalling, story.
The picture-book community, sitting on a westward-pointing finger of the Atlantic Ocean called Albemarle Sound, was electrified by allegations that dozens of children had been sexually abused by well-known, well-thought-of local people entrusted with their care.
Between 1991 and 1997, Bikel produced three powerful films about the Little Rascals story — eight hours of airtime in all — documenting that what happened in Edenton amounted to mass hysteria abetted by incompetent investigations, overzealous prosecutions and jury misconduct.
By the time everyone’s convictions were overturned and the charges against them dropped, four people had spent a total of 15 years in custody, a marriage and a thriving business had collapsed and a community had been ripped apart and set against itself.
In “The Case for Innocence,” broadcast early in 2000, Bikel examined three other unrelated miscarriages of justice. All three men whose cases she profiled — Roy Criner, Clyde Charles and Earl Washington — eventually were freed.
It is an agreement between the prosecutor and the accused in which the accused pleads guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence or a reduced charge. About 95 percent of all felony convictions in the United States are the result of plea bargains.
“So the result is that the system as a whole doesn’t do what we count on it to do, which is to sort out the guilty people from the innocent people. It doesn’t do that because the guilty people and the innocent people are all faced with the same pressure to plead guilty.”
Criner, wrongly convicted for rape and murder, was in prison for 10 years. Charles served 18 years of a life sentence for a rape he didn’t commit before he was released. Washington spent most of his 18 years in prison on death row. DNA testing — which the state of Virginia first resisted having done, then hid the results — exonerated him.
Two years later, Bikel followed up on stories in The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., about Terence Garner and found a man who was in prison for only two reasons: His first name was the same as that of one of the perpetrators, and one of the other crooks was offered a sentence of five years instead of 50 if he would name Garner as the trigger man of the armed robbery.
Bikel’s “An Ordinary Crime” galvanized public opinion, and six months after its telecast — four years after Garner was sent to prison — his conviction was reversed.
In “Requiem for Frank Lee Smith,” aired in the spring of 2002, Bikel told the story of an innocent man who spent 14 years on death row for rape and murder before DNA evidence cleared him — 10 months after cancer killed him in prison.
In a conversation last year, Bikel told me she thought the power of public exposure was responsible for righting just a few of the many wrongs of a gravely flawed criminal justice system. “If you’re asking me very specifically, ‘Would Garner have been freed without you?’ I’m saying no. I mean, I’m still known in Edenton, North Carolina, as the person who freed seven guilty people. But it’s not me. It’s the media. You go into those little places, and you put a flashlight on them. It’s not me.”
One thing leads to another. The mass hysteria of Edenton led her to question tainted interviewing techniques with which therapists and interrogators inadvertently — or purposely — can create false memories rather than retrieve real ones. An exploration of the increasing reliance on criminal informants (“The Snitch,” 1999) led her to the kind of twisted plea deal offered in the Garner case.
And that led to Bikel’s latest, “The Plea,” a 90-minute film scheduled for national telecast in prime time Thursday at 8 p.m. on PBS (KUED-7).
Like most of Bikel’s films, “The Plea” is infuriating. Peeling apart the layers of three cases in Texas and New York, Bikel finds innocent people rotting in jail or scavenging for food and shelter on the street, all thanks to plea bargains coerced from them by sneaky prosecutors, inept and overworked public defenders and arrogant judges.
And then there’s Patsy Kelly Jarrett, who had the temerity to cling to her principles and refuse to trade a reduced sentence for an admission of guilt where there was none. She has been in a North Carolina prison for 27 years.
In an online chat for washingtonpost.com two years ago, Bikel took note of an award she had received for having championed justice. “I’m very glad I got the award,” she wrote, “but that shouldn’t be. It’s a television show. A journalist shouldn’t be the one finding this stuff. It’s crazy.”
Crazy? Sure, but who else is going to do it?