After Innocence

October, 2005, Documentary

After Innocence

Documentaries rarely contain the visceral wallop of a first-rate drama, but this one does; it examines the lives of a half dozen of the more than 150 men freed from prison in the recent past after DNA tests established conclusively that they were innocent. If you're already opposed to the death penalty, this one will supply powerful ammunition for your point of view; if you're still a proponent of execution, "Innocence" ought to trouble the confidence with which you hold that point of view.

This 96-minute examination of heartbreak follows the work of a non-profit organization called "The Innocence Project", founded by Barry Scheck, a well-known criminal defense attorney. As Scheck and his staff work to free Wilton Dedge, (a soft-  spoken convicted rapist incarcerated in Florida) the film introduces 5 already freed felons who've spent from 6 ½ to more than 23 years behind bars before their innocence could be positively established. Each now lives with a determined conviction forged during their years in jail; still inside and wondering what delays the prosecutor will throw at him next, Dedge has the air and appearance of a gerbil caught in a cage he cannot fathom. (The arguments made by the state's attorney in seeking to reject his appeal strike a new low in judicial mendacity.)

Scheck appeared on television in 1993 with one of the very first men released after DNA evidence was admitted in a post-conviction appeal. In the past decade, as more and more appeals have introduced this new technology, what previously seemed like open and shut cases of rape, murder and other serious felonies have been overturned, establishing that in each instance, the convicted man was guilty of nothing more than not being able to prove his innocence. But clearing these men is only the beginning of the problem.

Most states make no apologies in these cases, provide no counseling to those re-entering society, nor pay compensation for the time and money the innocent have lost. As one recently released man noted, he's not eligible for the same services provided to parolees when they’ve finished serving their time. Most damningly, states also often refuse to expunge the innocent man's record, making it virtually impossible for him to obtain housing and employment. 

As might be expected, most of those who have suffered this nightmare are poor and not well educated. All received inadequate legal representation, despite nearly bankrupting themselves and their families in the process of trying to establish their innocence. In seeking to rebuild their broken lives, the men encounter suspicion from neighbors and little consolation outside that provided by their own self-help groups. 

There's no attempt here at even-handedness--this a an hour and a half of polemical diatribe against a system in which, the unappealing nature of those accused and the system’s excessive reliance placed on "eye witness" testimony, those on trial find themselves in the position of having to prove innocence rather than relying on the clear requirement that the state prove guilt. These Kafka-like horror stories are all the more frightening because they're real--and as the film notes, likely to be just the tip of the iceberg.

The film closes with statements by the former governor of Illinois explaining why he recently commuted all death sentences in that state to life imprisonment without parole and the signing of a "victim's compensation" bill in Massachusetts requiring that records be expunged and payments made to those so tragically deprived of their freedom. That's a modest beginning, but only that.

This one doesn't mean to entertain--it seeks to educate and prompt much needed change.


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