Review: After Innocence
They say no one in prison is guilty, but some of them really aren't.
|Free, but how free?|
When you're not personally affected it's easy to be complacent about the criminal justice system. If anything you worry more about the guilty people walking the streets than the innocent stuck in prison—at least until you get to know one of the innocent ones.
After Innocence introduces you to nine men who were released after serving a combined total of 143 years for crimes they didn't commit. Most were eventually found innocent because of DNA testing that wasn't available when they were convicted, usually on the mistaken identity of victims or eyewitnesses.
While the men have been exonerated their records haven't been expunged—one man says the state wanted $6000 to remove the non-crime from his record, even though he was released without compensation. (Another "was given five dollars
and 37 cents by the state of Pennsylvania " when he was freed.) This makes it hard to get a job, credit or a place to live, which is why some of these middle-aged men are living with their parents or grandparents.
It's pointed out that if the men had committed crimes and been paroled they'd be eligible for all sorts of benefits and programs the innocent don't qualify for.
Some of the men received apologies from their prosecutors or judges—one has become good friends with the woman who wrongly accused him of raping her—but some have not. An assistant district attorney in Shreveport says the mistake was tragic but, "The system worked exactly like it was supposed to."
Woven through the other stories is the ongoing saga of Wilton Dedge, who had to fight for three years, having already served 19, to get a hearing after DNA tests refuted the main evidence that convicted him. The district attorney in Brevard County , Florida , used every technicality he could to prevent Dedge's release, even though he was demonstrably innocent.
Filmmaker Jessica Sanders has chosen her subjects well. Their articulateness is as surprising as their lack of bitterness. If they were actors they'd be accused of underplaying. Looking at these poster boys for reform it's hard to use the argument that if they went to prison they were probably guilty of something. (One admits to having had half an ounce of marijuana on him when he was arrested for rape. He served 19 years. Another had been cheating on his wife but hadn't killed the woman he was having an affair with. He served six and a half years.)
The film's heroes are the Innocence Project, which at least two men heard about in prison when it was featured on Donahue in 1993, and the Life After Exoneration Program, which tries to help exonerees get their lives back together. These programs have few paid staff, mostly attorneys and law students working pro bono.
Some of the subjects are actively involved in campaigns to compensate victims of justice's mistakes, to abolish the death penalty and other aspects of reform. Some are pursuing an education, working or trying to begin or resume careers.
Hearing their stories makes you realize what happened to these men could happen to you, so if nothing else self-interest should make you add your voice to the cry for reform. In any case, the time you spend watching After Innocence will be time well served.
Steve Warren is a local actor and film reviewer. His reviews can also be seen weekly in the Sunday Paper.