Joshua Alston on 'Dallas DNA': Justice Served Cold

DNA is the hardest-working double-helix in show business. The days are brutal: a bunch of paternity tests on "Maury," then under the fingernails of a murder victim on "Law and Order," then over to a special about prehistoric fish fossils. It seems DNA's work is never done, but it never gets the billing it deserves. Enter "Dallas DNA," a new documentary series on Discovery.

I jest, but the work done on "Dallas DNA" couldn't be more serious, and the stakes couldn't be higher. The show focuses on a small team of attorneys inside the Dallas district attorney's office called the Conviction Integrity Unit. Their job is solely to revisit old cases to determine whether or not current inmates should have their convictions overturned. Dallas is among a few cities that have stored physical evidence collected at crime scenes for decades, back before the technology to test that evidence had been developed. Science now allows these cities to go back and try to correct blemishes on the judicial system, but correcting the record is far from a clean process.

In the premiere, a convict named Johnnie Lindsey has his DNA tested to determine his complicity in a rape case. He is told, after serving 26 years in prison, what he's known all along—that he didn't do it. But as wonderful as it is to be exonerated, Lindsey's treatment upon release isn't markedly different than a guilty person's would be. He's set free but given no money and no place to live. Many of his family members have died since he was incarcerated, some without having seen him in years, thinking he was guilty of a heinous crime. Michelle Morris, the Conviction Integrity Unit's point person, has to scramble to get him a suit to wear on his court date so he doesn't have to start his new life wearing a prison-issued jumpsuit. He has few marketable skills, having missed out on a quarter-century's worth of technology. To call Lindsey's release bittersweet is an understatement.

The other case in the premiere, that of convicted rapist Rocky Dennis, goes quite differently. Unlike the Lindsey case, his has an awful stench on it to begin with. Dennis admits to having assaulted the victim, a 19-year-old woman, but says he didn't rape her. The CIU team is not gung-ho about it, but they see a clear-cut case—a guy shouldn't be in prison for something he didn't do, even if he did do something else pretty heinous. I was far more ambivalent. Dennis didn't look to me like a guy I wanted walking free, especially since he admitted to having assaulted a teenage girl. I was relieved when the DNA confirmed his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Despite this, Dennis requests to be heard by the judge in order to give his side of the story, and crashes and burns with an awkwardness and lack of self-awareness I haven't seen since Anne Hathaway's toast monologue in "Rachel Getting Married."

"Dallas DNA" is compelling viewing, but not easy viewing. Like the best scripted crime dramas, it demonstrates that when it comes to crime and punishment, even the happiest endings are marbled with sadness and despair.