Ten years ago, Tim Hennis' fate seemed sealed when he was sentenced to death for the brutal murder of a woman and her two children in Fayetteville, N.C. Hennis' parents, wife and two attorneys, though, believed he was innocent and vowed to appeal the verdict.
"Innocent Victims," a four-hour drama airing Sunday and Monday on ABC, chronicles how the unerring dedication of Hennis' parents and lawyers ultimately led the Supreme Court of North Carolina for the first time in its history to overturn a capital case and order a retrial. The second trial ended in 1989 with Hennis being acquitted.
Rick Schroder and Tom Irwin star as Hennis' attorneys, Billy Richardson and Jerry Beaver; Hal Holbrook and Rue McClanahan play his parents, Bob and Marylou; and John Corbett ("Northern Exposure") is featured as Tim Hennis.
"This story for me is unique because it shows [that] a system that has been much maligned with O.J. Simpson, etc., etc., really works if the people are prepared to put in the time and the effort," says director and executive producer Gilbert Cates.
The murders occurred in 1985 in the city that was still reeling from the controversial "Fatal Vision" slayings. Six years earlier, former Green Beret physician Jeffrey MacDonald was convicted in Fayetteville of murdering his wife and daughters at their home in Ft. Bragg, N.C.
The community wanted swift action this time. Circumstantial evidence pointed to Hennis, a married U.S. Army soldier who recently had bought a dog from the victims and was identified as having been in the neighborhood at the time of the killings. As the evidence mounted, Hennis was arrested.
"There was so much heat in Fayetteville," Cates says. "They didn't want the same thing to happen with this case that had happened with 'Fatal Vision.' The police felt they botched that case."
And Hennis looked guilty. "This is a story about mistakes and bad luck," says executive producer Dennis Doty, "and how extraordinary timing and being at the wrong place at the wrong time and saying the wrong thing plummeted this poor man into this horrible situation. It is something that could almost happen to anybody at any time."
Hennis made the mistake of visiting an ex-girlfriend the night of the murder. "Because he didn't have sex with the ex-girlfriend, the police thought he left frustrated," Cates says. "He went to this woman's house who he had bought a dog from a day earlier. He made the mistake of going to the house and then he made the mistake of not telling the police he had been there because he felt it was no one's business and nothing did happen. The sheriff wanted to close the case quickly. The sheriff made the mistake of pushing the prosecutor."
Bob Hennis, Cates says, was an executive at IBM at the time of his son's first trial. "He probably earned $75,000 a year at this point. He needed $100,000 for the defense and had to sell his house and move to a smaller home. He stopped working because he couldn't monitor the trial."
Doty adds: "He was the tent pole of strength throughout this thing. He would light the fuse the lawyers would burn on."
In the course of the first trial, Cates explains, Hennis' attorneys "knew they had been out-lawyered. The prosecuting attorney was better than they were. Also, key witnesses just couldn't be found. A couple of key pieces of evidence remained missing. [With] the second trial, everything worked. [Hennis' attorneys] found the missing information and the key witnesses who had mysteriously vanished from the area."
The attorneys and Bob and Marylou Hennis visited the set during production late last summer in Los Angeles. (Tim Hennis was not involved in the production.) Holbrook found them to be "fine, straight" people.
"You know," Holbrook says, "the thing that always amazes a person, of course, is when you meet somebody who has done something brave or something very admirable, they are just regular people.
"They were ready to retire," the actor continues. "I am at the age when you see how vulnerable people can get. You realize you may not have enough money in the bank to live your life if you live too long. They kept mortgaging and mortgaging. He is now a consultant, she is still working. You just imagine if this happened to your son. It would just be unbelievable."
Tim Hennis is still in the Army and served in the Persian Gulf War. He's now stationed in Michigan. The real killer has never been found.
* "Innocent Victims" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. and Monday at 8 p.m. on ABC.