For Brian Banks, life as he knew it slipped away when he was just 16.
When he should have been preparing for college, improving his skills as an already sought-after football player and enjoying the last of his teenage years, Banks was instead coming to terms with the fact that he could spend most of his life in prison.
“It is tough to accept that you’ve been wrongfully convicted of a crime that you didn’t commit,” he told InsideEdition.com. “To be placed in handcuffs, to be put behind bars, to be taken away from all that you know to be true.
“To be taken away from your family, stripped away from your dreams and passions and goals in life, and to be put in a box or a cage, like an animal, knowing that you’re innocent this entire time, and you’re crying and you’re pleading and you’re begging for someone to listen, to help you, and all of it falls on deaf ears — it is something that I wish on no one.”
Banks spent five years in prison and an additional five on probation for a rape he did not commit. He also had to register as a sex offender.
But in 2012, his conviction was overturned and he was exonerated after his accuser admitted she had made up the story.
Banks then tried to pick up his football career where he left off, eventually landing with the Atlanta Falcons in the 2013 preseason, but he was cut before the regular season began.
“I lost 10 years of my life for the wrongful conviction and after receiving my freedom back, I vowed to myself that the first thing that I would do is get involved in the awareness and activism of the space of wrongful convictions, trying to put it to an end — if possible,” Banks said.
His work in the space eventually gave way to Final Appeal, a new show on Oxygen that showcases the work of Banks and attorney Loni Coombs’ as they re-investigate the convictions of several murder suspects who claim to be innocent.
Coombs worked as a criminal prosecutor in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office for 18 years before moving on to cover cases for broadcast outlets.
“I was seeing things that were making me question how fair the system is — how consistent justice is — across the country,” she said. “And I was getting to the point where I wanted to use all of my court room experience, all of my background and training in the law, and in trying cases, to look at cases and see if people are wrongfully convicted, and help people in that way.”
Timing and a shared passion brought the pair together, years after having first met by chance at a New York restaurant.
“I was having lunch with my husband and Brian was there with his attorney,” Coombs recalled. “He had just been exonerated, I had seen him on TV, I knew his story [and] I was so intrigued by it because it’s a crazy story, that he was able to be exonerated and he had had so much potential. And I just looked at him and I thought, ‘I wonder what he is going to do with life now.’”
They shook hands and went their separate ways, but Banks’ path remained on Coombs’ mind.
“I just thought, ‘I want every good thing to happen to him now,’” she said.
“Fast forward to four years later. I’m in an office with the production team of Final Appeal and we are discussing who I could have join me in this process, and this journey of exposing some truth to our justice system,” Banks said, picking up on Coombs’ story seamlessly. “And they thought one of the best ideas would be, ‘Why don’t you have somebody from the other side? A prosecutor who’s done this for many years, who knows the way prosecutors think, the court system works, what makes sense [and] what doesn’t make sense.’ And a name popped up: Loni Coombs. It was almost like divine intervention that we are here today, after meeting on a brief moment and now here, as a team on this new show. It’s amazing.”
In its first season, Final Appeal focuses on a different case in each of its four episodes.
Coombs and Banks retrace the steps of the original murder investigation, and probe whether any information may point to a different suspect or an unearthed motive.
“These are people who have been in prison for a number of years, and this entire time, have stood to their innocence,” Banks said. “They’re back in court at this very important moment, where a judge can vacate their sentence, keep their sentence, or give some major decision as to what happens in this person’s life. And we come into their case and that situation right then and there.
"We re-investigate the case, feet on the ground. Put in all the necessary hours to make a determination if that person should have been behind bars this entire time, or were they innocent and wrongfully convicted like me?”
It took the pair and the production team nearly a year to complete the first season of the show, a lengthy process that in some ways was beholden to the judicial system, by which Coombs said she was not surprised.
“From my legal background, I was trying to explain to everyone before we started. I said, ‘You think this is going to take three months to shoot — it is going to take so much longer,'" she said. “It was funny, we’d be in court with everyone ready to go, and then the judge… the attorneys would come out, and one of them would ask for a continuance, and the judge would say, ‘Fine,’ and they’d all disappear. And we’d be like, ‘Wait.’
“The producers would go to me, ‘Wait, wait, they can’t do that!’ she said with a laugh. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah, they can do that’ — that’s the way the system works. But then we’d go back out and start interviewing more people and more people and so we were busy the entire time. It ended up taking 10 months and we could have gone longer. And each one of these cases could have been a whole season.”
Coombs and Banks spent months in the communities where the cases unfolded, making it a priority to get to know all major — and minor — players.
“We try our very best to turn over every stone,” Banks said. “We want to talk to every single person that was involved in this case when it first took place, and talk to every single person who’s involved in the appeal process now — on both sides.”
Sleepless nights bled into jam-packed days as the group tried to fit in as much work as possible, they said.
“We were working 18-, 20-hour days,” Coombs said. “Nobody was sleeping. It was crazy, this schedule, and yet we all felt so strongly about it. Anyone that had touched the show in any ways, just came away saying, ‘This is important. This is significant. We feel privileged to be able to have some part of this show.’ Because you just feel the urgency. It’s human life. It’s real life.”
They also resolved to maintain objective during their investigations, something Coombs said was natural as a prosecutor whose main goal was to uphold the law.
“We went in with open minds,” she said. “We didn’t say, ‘Oh, we’re assuming you’re wrongfully convicted.’ We were searching for the truth, truth about the crime to begin with. Truth about their conviction. How did this person get convicted for this crime? And then truth about, what have you [the convicted person] been doing to fight for your freedom since then, and how hard has that been? Have you had a fair chance at that?”
Banks, who notes in the season premiere that he brings to the table “the perspective of someone wrongfully convicted,” agreed, saying: “I’m going into this hoping to discover someone who has been wrongfully convicted, and shouldn’t be in prison. But at the same time, I too am going into this with a very open mind, so that we don’t make any mistakes in our process in trying to understand what happened.
“We go into this in a really neutral standpoint. Not going in to prove a person’s innocence, or keep a person behind bars, but to understand the case, the procedure, the process, and if this person ultimately received what they should have received.”
In their first episode, Banks and Coombs look at the conviction of Patty Prewitt, a mother of five who was sentenced to 50 years in prison for the 1984 murder of her husband, Bill. She has always maintained that she did not kill her husband.
“This is a 30-year-old case,” Coombs said. “People who are involved in the case who died, we talked to their kids, who they had told these experiences to and these incidents to. So, a lot of times, when you have an old case, people are dead, people don’t remember. A lot of reports are gone. So you really have to work, really dig hard.”
The work was all-encompassing for Banks and Coombs, who said they were devoted to getting it right, regardless of where the facts led or what questions remained unanswered.
“You listen to the people who had an opportunity to see the first episode... and they were on the edge of their seats, and they’re trying to figure out the case on their own,” Banks said. “And they’re upset that, you know, they didn’t get the conclusion that they were looking for, but I’m thinking in my head, ‘Imagine how the person behind bars feels. Imagine how the family feels.’”
The pair hopes the show will help educate the masses about potential pitfalls that plague the current legal system, including a lack of consistency across the country’s many courtrooms and the ways in which the court of public opinion affects actual trials.
“It’s a discussion that should have been had a long time ago,” Banks said of the topics raised in Final Appeal. “I mean, this can happen to anybody, and so I think that it makes sense that we start to have that conversation.”
They also hope it brings to light how often wrongful convictions may occur.
“I think that there are a number of ways that someone can be wrongfully convicted of a crime,” Banks said. “It is hell and it is hard to recover from. Not many people are able to come home after a wrongful conviction and just move on with life as if it didn’t happen.
"So I’m taking this opportunity, as someone who has experienced it, who’s still young and able to come home and speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. I’m here to share that pain so that people can understand that this has to stop, and it has to stop now.”