The blinds were drawn in the living room but plenty of midday sun is still slipped in as Harvey Robinson reclined on his couch, video-game controller in hand and tired eyes gazing at “Halo” on his TV screen. Robinson had jumped up quickly at the buzzing sound of his doorbell to open the door — his 15-month-old was sleeping — and nimbly made his way back to the couch, answering questions while his eyes remained locked on the screen.
This was his first day off since October, he figured, having spent the day prior in the purgatory of the DMV and leaving four days later for a family trip to Maine. It wasn’t until Robinson’s “Halo” character died that he turned his full attention back to the subject at hand: work, of course, but more specifically, his role in MTV’s new show “Unlocking the Truth.”
Robinson is just one of several elements that ties the documentary-style investigative show about wrongful convictions to the Triad. The hardworking Greensboro filmmaker who attended UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem brought a college friend in as a gaffer on the show, “Unlocking the Truth,” which is co-hosted by Guilford College alum Eva Nagao. And the show itself closely examines the questionable conviction of Winston-Salem’s Kalvin Michael Smith.
The new MTV show premiered last week, airing between two runs of a “Catfish” episode featuring a thick-skulled man who believed himself to be in a long-term relationship with pop icon Katy Perry, and continues Wednesday night at 11 p.m. with a deeper focus on Smith’s case.
This is not your typical MTV show, but it deviates from other documentaries or shows that explore wrongful convictions, too. While it comes at a time of heightened awareness and discussion about innocent people being put in prison, and the fault lines of the nation’s legal system, “Unlocking the Truth” brings a different tone than podcasts such as “Serial” or shows like Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” thanks to co-host Ryan Ferguson.
“Unlocking the Truth” opens with a chilling story of wrongful conviction, a boy who at 19 found himself facing a murder charge for a crime he had nothing to do with. Archival video footage of his initial police interrogation and subsequent legal proceedings show a wide-eyed kid truly flummoxed by what’s happening, as if unable to wake up from a bad dream. It would be 10 years before the alleged evidence — including witness testimony from people who later admitted that police pressured them for false statements — unraveled and this kid from Missouri walked free.
It’s been two years since Ryan Ferguson legally escaped the hell of prison, and he knows the fact that he’s white, educated and from a middle-class background helped with the necessary attention and pressure to release him. That’s part of the reason that he is dedicated to helping other wrongfully convicted inmates prove their innocence, and a widely broadcast television show lifting up other cases seemed like the perfect way to do so.
Especially the cases of other people who were young at the time of their arrest, like he was.
“The fact that things like this can happen to people at such a young age is intriguing,” Ferguson said in an interview with Triad City Beat last week. “People can be taken out of society, kids can be taken out of society, because of someone’s word or less. The truth of the legal system is scary. I think a lot of people can see themselves in that position, and that’s what we want to show with these cases…. It could’ve been you, and I think that’s very compelling.”
Or, as he put it in Episode 1: “The reality is, this could happen to you. And I don’t accept that.”
Ferguson anchors the show with Eva Nagao, a 2008 Guilford College grad and the director of the Exoneration Project, a Chicago-based group that works on cases similar to Ferguson’s and has helped free more than a dozen people who were wrongfully convicted.
As Nagao says in the first episode of the show, her interest in mass incarceration sprang from her family’s experience: Her Japanese grandparents were interned during World War II. She’s worked on exoneration cases since 2009 and already knew of Ferguson, but joined the show when he reached out to the Exoneration Project while still in the planning stages.
Together the pair investigated three cases of possible wrongful convictions, including that of Kalvin Michael Smith. And while neither has a law degree, both bring considerable experience with such cases to the show.
Ferguson’s lived experience helped open doors while they worked, Nagao said in an interview with TCB, but they aren’t there to be part of anyone’s legal defense team and approach each case as outsiders intent on listening and uncovering new elements of each case.
“We’re kind of rogue investigators,” Nagao says in the premiere. “We’re accountable to no one but the truth.”
Each of the cases is very complicated, Nagao said in an interview, especially because they’re digging far back in time. But she hopes that by doing “deep investigations” into these three cases, “Unlocking the Truth” can bring attention to systemic issues and introduce new audiences to topics related to mass incarceration and police accountability, while also providing a tool for people who are already aware and want to make a change.
“I think this show has some real big-picture goals,” Nagao said in an interview. “It’s taking a big look at mass incarceration and police accountability…. By narrowly focusing on particular cases, we can grab a lot of people’s attention that way for larger issues.”
And that’s why Ferguson and Nagao see MTV as an ideal partner.
For a show that’s focused on wrongful convictions of young people like himself, Ferguson said MTV offers the prime audience, many of whom are unfamiliar with the scope of wrongful convictions and who are in the process of defining their identities. He hopes it can demystify a legal system that many people only vaguely or abstractly understand.
“To me this is the most incredible fit possible,” Ferguson said.
Nagao agreed, adding that to a “large swath” of MTV viewers, this will be a new issue, and that’s exactly why a show like this is so important on the network.
“I am surprised that I am working with MTV, but I’m not surprised that MTV is working on this show,” she said. “The country’s national consciousness is really awakening to these issues. The network has access to so many people who are interested. I couldn’t think of a better possible audience of voters, jurors….”
Joking that she wanted to be on MTV’s “Real World” but that this show would do, Nagao added, “I’m really excited that MTV took a chance on us.”
MTV didn’t just rely on Ferguson and Nagao’s credentials and charisma to carry the show; they also utilized people like Executive Producer Adam Kassen and Greensboro resident Harvey Robinson to execute “Unlocking the Truth.”
Kassen spent the last few years working on TNT’s show “Cold Justice,” a show that collaborated with prosecutors and police to try and help with unsolved homicide cases. He saw firsthand how these crimes affect victims’ families, and even came across a few where it seemed like someone in prison shouldn’t be there. But the show didn’t really have the space to get into that, Kassen said in an interview with TCB, and he’d always wanted to find an avenue to dig into wrongful convictions.
“Unlocking the Truth,” particularly because of Ferguson’s involvement, struck him as a perfect opportunity.
“What a great way to do it, with someone who experienced it himself,” Kassen said.
Once during filming he turned to Ferguson and asked what his gut told him about one of the cases, but Kassen said Ferguson responded that he doesn’t go with his gut; he sticks only to the facts of a case. You can’t help but enter a case with your own biases, Kassen said, but “you really have to go and look at the facts.”
That, he said, is what “Unlocking the Truth” does.
In order to tell the story of Michael Politte, Kalvin Michael Smith and, later in the season, another possibly wrongfully convicted man, the show needed to recreate numerous scenes to paint an evocative illustration of the cases and narratives. Robinson helped make that possible.
The British immigrant known locally for his entrancing music videos for people like Rhiannon Giddens and Langhorne Slim, a documentary about Greensboro’s historically black Warnersville neighborhood and a festival-touring short doc “Crooked Candy” first linked up with the MTV production to assist with shots on Smith’s case. That led to taking B-roll for Politte’s case in Missouri, and then more B-roll and aerial shots for Smith’s story in Winston-Salem and Durham. He hit it off with Kassen, he said, and later joined the team for 16 days of filming, much of it overnight.
In the end, Robinson’s name would scroll in the credits as a director of photography.
But first he’d have to pull off several impressive scenes, including a recreation that appears in the first episode where a young Michael Politte is lighting a fire. On train tracks. At night.
It wasn’t exactly the most comfortable shoot — UNCSA alums like Robinson and friend Scott Duvall who he brought along to execute the lighting plan know the story of one of their own dying on train tracks while filming on a bridge when an unexpected train took her by surprise.
Robinson’s never done anything on the scale of “Unlocking the Truth” before, despite his endlessly busy work schedule, and so he prepared by watching Errol Morris films and movies like The Impostor for inspiration. And he called a bunch of industry connections and asked for advice.
Day 1 of Robinson’s 16-day stint began with a 10 p.m. shoot, staging scenes inside and outside before a 20-minute window of dawn light for a series of shots with two police cars, an ambulance, a fire truck, about 30 extras and several other factors to consider. He needed to rely heavily on headlights, and needed to avoid showing faces of stand-ins to make the recreations feel more real. At the beginning of each take, Robinson would need to quickly compute the light for the end of the shot to achieve proper exposure, forcing him to shout out directions including F-stops to his team.
As much as possible, “Unlocking the Truth” aimed to keep each recreation as close to the facts as possible, down to evidence about the clothing people were wearing or finding a similar trailer to one that no longer exists. In all, Robinson describes it as challenging to execute, but he’s proud of how it turned out and hopes to work on other projects that are just as meaningful in the future.
“Life isn’t fair, nor will it ever be, but it shouldn’t be stacked against you,” Robinson said, sitting on his couch in the Aycock neighborhood. It felt really good to be doing this show, he added, especially if it helps in any way to reverse the trend of mass incarceration.
He thinks that cases like Kalvin Michael Smith’s — where just about everything that could go wrong if you’re innocent and poor did — will highlight exactly what’s wrong with the criminal justice system.
A black man from Winston-Salem, Smith was convicted of the brutal beating of Jill Marker. Even though former FBI Assistant Director Chris Swecker conducted an independent review of the case and called the local police investigation “seriously flawed and woefully incomplete” and despite a concerted grassroots push to free him, Smith has remained in prison for the last 19 years.
“Unlocking the Truth” briefly introduced Smith’s case in its initial episode last week, but Kassen said the show dives into the Winston-Salem case in the episode airing this Wednesday, Aug. 24.
Smith’s case stood out to Ferguson for several reasons, including Swecker’s report, the work of the Silk Plant Forest Truth Committee and the advocacy of Darryl Hunt.
Hunt, himself a wrongfully convicted black man from Winston-Salem, was exonerated in 2004, and advocated for Smith and others until he died of a self-inflicted gunshot would earlier this year, according to Winston-Salem police.
“I think Darryl Hunt is one of the largest factors in getting Kalvin Michael Smith support,” Ferguson said in an interview. “In [Winston-Salem], there are certainly racial tensions, racial issues…. It all begins with Darryl Hunt with his incredible efforts as a human being and what he experienced.”
As a fellow exoneree, Ferguson said he looks up to the example of advocacy for others in the same position that Hunt left behind.
“I try to be like Darryl, that’s the best I can put it,” Ferguson said. “He’s a great man.”
Kassen and Nagao both said Smith’s case is particularly unique because of the public support Smith currently enjoys, with Nagao referencing Hunt’s importance as well.
“I think the Kalvin Michael Smith case is a really unique one in the world of exonerations,” she said.
Referencing the pivotal role former Winston-Salem Journal reporter Phoebe Zerwick played in Hunt’s exoneration, Nagao said that when Hunt was freed and said there were plenty of other wrongfully convicted people like him and Zerwick asked him who, he pointed to Smith.
Nagao said that Zerwick, now director of the journalism program at Wake Forest University, was interviewed for “Unlocking the Truth,” though she isn’t sure if Zerwick made it into the final cut. But the story of Hunt and the journalist who helped free him underscore the importance of the MTV show examining Smith’s case, she said.
“The weight of history in Winston-Salem,” Nagao said, “the weight of misconduct in Darryl Hunt’s case, really highlights the ongoing conflicts and problems with the community and that police department.”
Viewers will get to hear from Smith directly, Ferguson said, as well as at least one person involved in the case who hasn’t spoken publicly before. Without giving anything away, Kassen said they were pleasantly surprised with the level of access they had to people on all sides of Smith’s case.
Most of Episode 1 revolves around Michael Politte’s case, though the end of the premiere teases Smith’s story. Politte was only 14 when his mother was brutally killed and set on fire in his Missouri trailer; he is now held in the same prison where co-host Ryan Ferguson was wrongfully incarcerated.
Ferguson, Kassen and Nagao were tight-lipped about what they uncovered while reexamining the cases of Politte, Smith and another man — though Robinson hinted that in at least one case, people may go in with a set of assumptions that didn’t hold up. But if viewers see something they think is an injustice, Ferguson encourages them to speak up.
“You can do something about that,” he said. “You can take action, and it’s needed.”
If people feel there’s an injustice in Smith’s case — or any of the ones highlighted — Kassen said that maybe the local movement behind him could spread, adding that at the very least, he hopes “Unlocking the Truth” will start a conversation about what really happened. For Robinson, Smith’s case didn’t make him feel particularly rosy about North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat running for governor who Smith’s supporters say is ignoring Smith’s innocence.
Regardless of the specific convictions and cases profiled in “Unlocking the Truth,” and regardless of whether there’s a second season — nobody could comment on that — it appears that the folks involved will continue working on the issues the new MTV show raises. That’s especially true for Nagao, who recently posted online about a 15th person newly freed by the Exoneration Project’s work, and Ferguson, who said it is now a lifelong mission for him and his father.
“It’s not an option for us, it’s something that we do,” he said. “There’s no accountability for police and prosecutors, and until there is, we’re going to keep fighting.”