Reality TV's New Target: Flipped Verdict Dramas

Reality television, which has probed virtually every aspect of American life, is looking to enter a gritty part of the criminal justice system: the campaign to exonerate the innocent.

GRB Entertainment, whose clients include National Geographic and the Discovery Channel, has discussed a proposal with the California Innocence Project, GRB Executive Vice President Michael Branton says.

A separate, undisclosed company is negotiating with the Innocence Project of Texas, says Jeff Blackburn, the Texas project's chief counsel.

In New York, the national Innocence Project is approached nearly every week with a new proposal to allow cameras access to a long and confidential process that may — or may not — result in exoneration, spokesman Eric Ferrero says. The national and state groups have represented prisoners, including some facing life in prison or death, whose claims of innocence were proven by DNA testing or other evidence.

"It's a story where the stakes are often life or death," Branton says. "I don't think there is anything like this on television."

Unlike Donald Trump's boardroom, though, it may be a hard sell for Hollywood. Lawyers involved in the growing innocence movement say those same life-and-death stakes make them reluctant to expose private, confidential communications with their clients or risk undermining credibility with prosecutors and judges by converting their cases into television dramas.

"It's a dilemma for us," says Blackburn, whose Texas operation has engineered recent, dramatic exonerations of two wrongfully convicted men who served a combined 53 years in prison. "How do we publicize what we're doing, when what we're doing is often a private, plodding operation? Do we really want to share that? We gotta build confidence among prosecutors and judges."

Blackburn says his group, a non-profit organization dependent on private donations and the work of volunteer law students, hasn't nixed the idea but isn't close to striking a deal.

Rob Warden, executive director of Northwestern University School of Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions, also has fielded reality TV proposals, including a recent inquiry from a New York production company. "We haven't absolutely ruled it out," Warden says. "Ethically, there are some real questions."

Among them: a provision of the American Bar Association's rules of conduct that generally prohibits lawyers from striking media deals involving their clients before cases are concluded.

"I'm not saying it can't be done," says Northwestern professor Steven Lubet, who teaches legal ethics. "It would be a difficult and tricky undertaking."

Adds Ferrero: "You're talking about a very trusted relationship that exists (between attorney and client). Once you say something on tape, you can't take that back."

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