“DNA… That’s God’s signature, okay? [And] God’s signature is never a forgery, and his checks don’t bounce.”
—Eddie Joe Lloyd, freed from jail after serving 17 years of a life sentence for a crime he did not commit.
So let’s take the case of Nick Yarris.
In 1981, he was arrested, speedily tried, and sentenced to death in Pennsylvania for kidnapping, rape and murder. He spent 23 years in solitary confinement on death row, rarely let out of his cell, for two years not even allowed to speak. At all times he maintained his absolute innocence, a protestation which fell on deaf ears… until his letter, and prayers, were answered by the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal clinic founded by civil rights attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld and based out of the Cardozo School of Law in New York City. On 16 January 2004, Yarris was finally released in the face of overwhelming DNA evidence that he could not possibly have committed the crimes he was accused of. Today he is married, living in London, and carrying on a worldwide campaign against the death penalty.
One wishes Yarris’ story—so unbelievably terrifying that the mind reels, is positively obliterated just contemplating it—were extraordinary, that it was an isolated case of a miscarriage of justice of grotesque proportions. But not only is his wrongful incarceration not an isolated instance, his fate, along with those of the five other exonerees featured in Jessica Sanders’ harrowing but hopeful After Innocence, is probably only the tip of the iceberg. If we are to assume that perhaps one percent of prisoners in the United States are guiltless of their crimes, we are talking anywhere between 20-to-25,000 people who should not be behind bars. To date, the Innocence Project has effected the release of 194. A noble start, to be sure, but with such a Sisyphean and thankless task before them, you wonder if there can ever be any real hope, as the people of the Innocence Project race both against the mistakes of the legal system and, in the cases of those sentenced to death, the clock.
After Innocence is the embodiment of that hope, a testament to the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of unspeakable duress, and an overdue recognition of the noble few who work so indefatigably for the salvation of the condemned. I’m not a particularly religious person, but if anyone is doing God’s work on this Earth, it’s the lawyers and volunteers working for the Innocence Project and other similar non-profit exoneration groups around the country. And if anyone is deserving of what divine mercy there may be, it is these few men, now freed, who still must shoulder the stigma of guilt and imprisonment for crimes they never committed.
And yes, the innocent deserve mercy in this instance, because, here’s the horrible rub, the final kick in teeth after being beaten down for years and years by a merciless legal and penal system: though now cleared of all charges, found innocent of their “crimes” by incontrovertible exculpatory evidence, still they must bear this burden of presumed guilt. It’s almost as if society, or the law, or whomever, asks “Surely, even if they are innocent of this particular crime, they must be guilty of something to have landed themselves in jail, right?” And thus, the final horrible irony that awaits those freed: their guilt somehow still abides, their criminal record remains, with all the difficulties and walls towards advancement it entails. Because, after all, just because you are freed doesn’t mean your past is expunged. You still did the time.
Take the case of Vincent Moto, who served 10½ years for a rape he didn’t commit. Though he’s been out for over seven years, he’s been unable to find and hold a steady job, mainly due to his criminal background. In order to get his record expunged, he has to plunge back into the legal system, which, of course, costs money—money he does not have.
And then, couple that with this doozy: So, even though you might have spend the last 20 years of your life falsely imprisoned, since you are now innocent, well, here’s the door buddy, and good luck. And this is where it gets really good: normal prisoners, upon fully serving their sentence or being paroled, receive state assistance to get themselves back on their feet and become productive members of society. They are given money, a temporary place to live, job leads. An exoneree gets exactly the following, and no more: nothing, no money, no prospects, just a nice “Sorry! And don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out”. The thinking being, of course, that since you are in fact innocent, you aren’t entitled to any special rights over anyone else who hasn’t been convicted of the crime you were falsely sentenced for. In other words, tough shit.
So with the result…no, wait, get this!: Even when presented by this irrefutable 100 percent unquestionable DNA evidence, courts and prosecutors still can refuse to allow the evidence back into the case, stalling for months, or even years, before being forced to not only acknowledge DNA’s admissibility, but to confront the reality that they (prosecutors, et al) fucked up, and royally.
Take the heartbreaking case of Wilton Dedge, whose story forms the dramatic arc of the film. Sentenced to life in Florida for rape, but cleared of any culpability by DNA, the film opens to find him still in prison. Why? Well, even though the DNA evidence has been available for three years, the prosecutors refuse to allow the evidence to be presented, and when it finally does get presented, they still, insanely, maintain Dedge’s guilt. So, there’s still this inherent distrust of science in many quarters, this stubborn belief that eye witness testimony (which is the main culprit for many of these wrongful convictions) is somehow more reliable still, than this new fandangled “DNA”.
Now, confronted by this colossal litany of injustice, of trial upon trial, you would imagine that many, if not all, of these men would simply cave into anger and resentment, give into the cosmic despair and futility of the card that fate has dealt them—especially when their “crime” follows them and haunts them even after your exoneration. After Innocence, on paper, should be an infuriating and depressing film, and indeed, it often is. And yet, the main current coursing underneath it all is one of indestructible hope. Sanders and her producer, Marc Simon, chart the proper course for their film by remaining in the present and looking towards the future, refusing to dwell on the miscarriage of justice, or the grim details of prison life, except the monolithic fact of lost time.
And oh, that lost time! For all these men, the prime years of their life, their 20s, 30s, and 40s, have been forever lost, squandered, suspended, frozen. They emerge to a markedly different world from the one they left, and now they have the further burden of trying to adapt to what must seem an alien way of life. And yet, almost to a man, they are, if not sanguine, than at least resigned, having reached some peace with something so unfathomable. They are, in a way, reborn, and find their freedom so galvanizing that it allows them to overcome the tragedy of their lives.
They do (for the most part), find jobs, marry, have children, find new lives they never dreamed possible. They adjust rapidly, they seems to do everything rapidly, both making up for lost time, and racing to fit a full life into, at best, half of what’s left. And many of them, with the help of Innocence Project and similar exoneree programs, have striven to effect legal redress for the further injustices that have followed their release. The are met with slow but gradual success, as they force states to be held accountable in some way for their misfortune. If the film had only chosen to concentrate and dwell on all these legal outrages, rather than on the new lives born out of them, it probably would have been unwatchable. Sanders’ choice to focus on the present, on healing and life after “innocence” is not only the best choice for how to tell these stories: it’s the only one.
After Innocence is about as unimpeachable a film as you are likely to ever see. It is impossible to argue with its premises, it entirely resists polemics, because, really, is anyone actually in favor of imprisoning the innocent? Of course not. And thus, if it has any failing as a film qua film, it’s that there is no possibility of a chink in its armor, it is so morally impregnable that it can only be accepted, never questioned. Indeed, it plays almost better as a recruiting film for Project Innocence than as a proper documentary. And thus, it’s almost an impossible film to write about critically, or even assign a rating to. It does exactly and precisely what it intends to, with no dispute possible. Is it an important film? Absolutely, and the more people exposed to it and possibly (hopefully) inspired by it—to raise awareness, to volunteer—the better. Is it a great documentary, great art? Well, no, most likely not, but that’s not really the point. As a piece of social activism and agitation, it is overwhelming and flawless.
The copious extras—comprised of outtakes, updates on the exonerees, and interviews with the director and producer—nearly constitute a separate feature in and of themselves, in terms of both length and interest. Most of the deleted scenes feature reunions of exonerees at Project Innocence meetings. Despite their disparity of backgrounds, they seem to possess that eerie brotherhood of war veterans, born of trials simply unimaginable to those who don’t share them. The updates are generally optimistic and hopeful, showing the men’s fortunes on the uptick (though one wonders how much different or more affecting the film would have been if Sanders had chosen some exonerees who hadn’t adjusted so well). Of especial note is a rather lengthy passage following Wilton Dedge on his first few days of freedom, which cuts right to the quick emotionally, if mostly because he looks so hopelessly adrift, walking and driving around with a stunned, shell shocked look on his face.
In lieu of a commentary track, Sanders and Simon sit for separate interviews, going into some depth about the how the film got off the ground, and finding the proper balance between promoting its agenda and telling a riveting story. Sanders came to the project from the documentary series Crime and Punishment, which mined similar territory, but from the prosecution’s angle. Her inspiration for the film seems to be born equally of the dramatic opportunities that present themselves on the “other” side of the law, as well as desire to see the innocent freed. Simon was a volunteer at the Project during his law school years, and was integral in getting Sanders access to both the Project itself and the exonerees. A fortuitous pairing, to be sure, and one hopes that this isn’t the last film these two work on together. Tthe world needs more films like After Innocence, films that inspire equal parts outrage and activism.
For those who would like to learn more about Project Innocence and other exoneration programs, please see:
- After Innocence Trailer AfterInnocence.com