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ABC star Viola Davis tackles real death row cases in ‘Last Defense’

New docu-series from the "How to Get Away with Murder" actress and her husband, Julius Tennon, highlight cases of Darlie Routier and Julius Jones, who say they were wrongly convicted and condemned.

Death Row inmate Darlie Routier was a Rowlett, Texas, homemaker in 1996 when she was charged with killing her two young sons. Her story is the first told in ABC's new docu-series "The Last Defense," whose producers include "How to Get Away with Murder" star Viola Davis and her husband Julius Tennon
Death Row inmate Darlie Routier was a Rowlett, Texas, homemaker in 1996 when she was charged with killing her two young sons. Her story is the first told in ABC's new docu-series "The Last Defense," whose producers include "How to Get Away with Murder" star Viola Davis and her husband Julius TennonRead moreLincoln Square Productions

How to Get Away with Murder's Annalise Keating might  have seen to it that Darlie Routier and Julius Jones never landed on death row.

Real life doesn't work the way it does in the often-bananas world of the Philadelphia-set ABC legal drama, but that doesn't mean Viola Davis, the show's Oscar- and Emmy-winning star, can't be part of the fight to save two people who say they were wrongly convicted.

On Tuesday, ABC mounts The Last Defense, a seven-part documentary series produced by Davis and her actor and producer husband, Julius Tennon, with ABC News' Lincoln Square Productions (Let It Fall: 1982-1992) that will reexamine the cases of the two death row inmates and highlight efforts to have their convictions overturned.

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In the introduction to every episode, it's Davis who notes that in the United States today, there are nearly 3,000 people on death row, and that "every year, on average, five of them are found innocent and set free. We know the system can get it wrong. But for some who maintain their innocence, there may be a chance to get it right. This is The Last Defense."

The first four episodes will focus on Routier, who was a Rowlett, Texas, homemaker on June 6, 1996, when, she claimed, an intruder broke into her home and stabbed her young sons to death in an attack that also left her critically wounded. It had been less than a year since South Carolina mother Susan Smith was convicted of drowning her two young sons. In Rowlett, police and prosecutors, influenced by an expert who said the break-in had been staged and by what they saw as Routier's inappropriate behavior afterward, quickly came to believe that Routier, too, had killed her children.

Darin Routier, who was sleeping upstairs at the time with the couple's third child, an 8-month-old son, is among those who insists that can't be true, and that a grave injustice was done and should be corrected.

"It's not too late, because Darlie's not dead," he says.

Guilty or not, Routier's case isn't typical. Women represent less than 2 percent of death row inmates. Was she chosen to go first because more viewers might relate to her? It's not until the fifth episode that we get to Jones, an African American who was a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Oklahoma when he was arrested in the killing of  white insurance executive Paul Scott Howell. Jones was 21 when he was sentenced to die for a crime he says he didn't commit. (According to the Death Penalty Information Center, African Americans make up 41 percent of death row inmates. More than 75 percent of executions involve homicides in which the victims were white, says the center, even though "nationally, only 50 percent of murder victims generally are white.")

True-crime TV, big enough to have its own cable networks and to dominate some network news magazines, doesn't seem aimed at making viewers feel safer. Here's how Investigation Discovery describes a series it's launching at 9 p.m. Wednesday:  "Broken Trust tells chilling real tales of when trust is betrayed with deadly consequences and how in the blink of an eye, the world we thought was safe can become unrecognizable and terrifying."

Yes, that's what a lot of my email looks like these days.

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More frightening to me, though, are shows like The Last Defense and Netflix's Making a Murderer, The Central Park Five, and The Staircase — now on Netflix, with new episodes — that bring home what it could be like to be accused of a murder you might not have committed, particularly one notorious enough to inspire a possibly fatal rush to judgment.

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The first five episodes of The Last Defense left me with what I'd consider reasonable doubt about its two subjects' guilt, but I'd counsel anyone watching Tuesday's premiere to watch subsequent episodes before forming unshakable opinions about what may have happened in Routier's case, if only because The Last Defense is good enough television not to show all its cards in the first hour.

That's also its power. Because one takeaway from all these shows about the flaws in our justice system is that too many cases are over long before they get to a jury, as what starts out as an investigation becomes instead an all-out effort to confirm one particular theory. And I've been as guilty as anyone of drawing conclusions about a suspect's character from reports that may lack context.

The real possibility that Routier,  a young mother with breast implants and a taste for luxury, was judged for things that had little to do with the evidence makes her case the stuff of scripted drama.

But with the death penalty on the table, the stakes are much higher.

Watch it

The Last Defense. 10 p.m. Tuesday, ABC.