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'The Last Defense' review: Exhaustive, but inconclusive docuseries about death row prisoners

Darin Routier, husband of Darlie Routier, a Texas

Darin Routier, husband of Darlie Routier, a Texas inmate on death row, appears in ABC's "The Last Defense." Credit: Lincoln Square Productions

THE DOCUSERIES "The Last Defense"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Tuesday at 10:01 p.m. on ABC/7

WHAT IT'S ABOUT This seven-episode docuseries produced by Viola Davis and Julius Tennon's production company, JuVee, promises to "explore and expose" flaws in the U.S. justice system by examining two "emotional" death row cases: Darlie Routier and Julius Jones. Routier, 48, was charged and convicted of murdering her 5-year-old son, Damon, on June 6, 1996, in her Rowlett, Texas, home. Her 6-year-old son, Devon, was also killed in the attack. (She was not charged in Devon's death.) Routier said an intruder stabbed her children. Jones, who was 19 at the time and a recent high school graduate, was charged in the murder of Paul Scott Howell, 45, an insurance executive, in Edmond, Oklahoma. Both Routier and Jones have long maintained their innocence.

The first four episodes are about Routier and the final three are about Jones. 

MY SAY In a taped interview posted on ABC's press site, Davis laid out her hopes for "The Last Defense" along with her vision for JuVee: "I do believe the voiceless have a voice," she said, "and they are screaming loud and clear. I don't think people are hearing or seeing them."

Davis and Tennon, in fact, already have: "Two Sides," a film on Eric Garner and other Africans-Americans who died at the hands of police within the span of a year, aired on TV One in January. They've launched projects on the fictionally voiceless too — an adaptation, for example, of "The Personal History of Rachel DuPree," the Ann Weisgarber novel about a black woman on the American frontier.

The voiceless are indeed their specialty. So why, then, launch this new ABC summer series with a four-part look at Darlie Routier? Routier has been the subject of (at least) two books and countless news stories and has the full attention of a prominent regional magazine (Texas Monthly), which has covered this case for two decades. There are at least three "save Darlie Routier" initiatives, petitions and assorted other ventures. Routier has had nothing but voices behind her.

In fact, "The Last Defense" — or ABC — almost certainly has this the wrong way around: The three-parter on Julius Darius Jones was the better starting place. Compared with Routier, Jones is virtually invisible outside Oklahoma, where he remains on death row after various appeals and a 2016 petition by his lawyers. That petition contended his sentence was unconstitutional because, in murder cases where the victim is white, black defendants are three times more likely to receive a death sentence. Jones has steadfastly maintained his innocence for the past 20 years.

Much of this, if not all, may be new to a national audience. What's new with Routier? On "The Last Defense," not that much. Exhaustive, thorough and deeply reported, these four hours may also be the best defense Routier ever got, too. With a few exceptions (including the crime scene investigator, who declined to be interviewed), dozens of key people are involved in this film. The arguments, for and against, are heard again, the evidence intricately parsed, the memories all relived. That horrifying night is replayed over and over.

What's left is a comprehensive overview that tries — and ultimately fails — to gut the state's case. Doubts are raised, and convincing ones, but none are fatal blows, while the program is forced to concede at the end — in an on-screen bumper — that "post-conviction DNA testing has so far come back inconclusive."

Routier got a fair hearing, and next, it's Jones' turn. At least these early hours indicate that he'll get one, too.

BOTTOM LINE  Exhaustive, but also inconclusive — at least over the first four hours. 

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