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Fall TV Program Welcomes More Criminal Justice Stories


Two TV documentaries on the criminal justice system debut this week. On Monday, HBO's going to air "The Sentence." That's a film about a woman given 15 years in prison for crimes committed by a former boyfriend. Then, Friday, Netflix debuts the second season of its hit true crime program, "Making A Murderer." Here to talk with us about these projects is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.

Hey, Eric.


MERAJI: All right. Let's talk about "The Sentence" first. This was filmed over a 10-year period by Rudy Valdez. He's the brother of the woman sentenced whose name is Cindy Shank. How does this show expose issues in the criminal justice system?

DEGGANS: Well, first I've got to say, I've been reviewing TV for a long time, and I was crying by the end of this. I mean, "The Sentence" is this surprisingly emotional story about a couple of things - mandatory minimums for sentencing and prosecuting people for crimes committed by their romantic partners. So Valdez's sister Cindy was in this relationship with this guy who was involved in drug dealing, and he got killed.

And then, six years later, after she's married and she's had three kids, federal authorities arrest, prosecute and convict her on conspiracy charges. So - and the mandatory minimum sentence for that was 15 years. Now, we've got a clip of Cindy describing what it was like to face that sentence. Let's check it out.


CINDY SHANK: The marshal said to take off my wedding ring. That's when I felt like crying. That's when I felt like I got the wind knocked out of me. I was guilty, but 15 years was too long.

Missing my daughters grow up - that's what I was sentenced to.

DEGGANS: So her brother, Rudy Valdez, documented the struggle for the family to cope. And so we see her kids grow up over nearly a decade. We see Cindy get moved to a prison far away from her family. And then there's this emotional twist at the end that just drives home how much she's lost over all this time.

MERAJI: In that clip we just heard, she says she's guilty.

DEGGANS: She's guilty of knowing about the crimes that her boyfriend was committing and not calling the cops or, you know, doing something to try and stop it. Having knowledge of a crime can mean that you're part of the conspiracy to commit that crime.

MERAJI: And, this Friday, the second season of "Making A Murderer" is debuting. The first season was such a hit. Tell us about the second season.

DEGGANS: So the first season exposed the nation to the story of Steven Avery. He was this guy in Wisconsin. He was exonerated in 2003 by DNA evidence after serving almost 20 years for sexual assault and attempted murder. Then he gets arrested and convicted of committing a different murder a few years later, along with his nephew, who's named Brendan Dassey.

So the first season raises some doubts about the evidence that they collected against Avery and exposed allegations that the nephew's confession was unfairly coerced. This season is about Avery's appeal of his conviction and efforts by Brendan Dassey to have his confession thrown out.

MERAJI: It sounds very, like, getting into the nitty gritty of the legal process.

DEGGANS: Well, I think that's one reason why the show might be less impactful - because it's a more mundane story about how tough it is to appeal these kinds of convictions.

MERAJI: Did you find a link between the two documentaries?

DEGGANS: Yeah. I think they both try to humanize people who've been convicted of crimes and show the really brutal impact of these really long prison sentences. I mean, we're incarcerating a tremendous amount of people in this country for long stretches of time, sometimes for nonviolent crimes. And it's valuable to have a high-profile TV project that just kind of reminds us of the consequences of that.

MERAJI: NPR TV critic Eric Deggans, thank you so much for being with us.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.

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