2005Director: Jessica Sanders
Cast: Barry Scheck, Wilton Dedge, Nick Yarris, Calvin Willis
eventy-four nations execute criminals. The only western democracy among them is America, where all but 12 states use the death penalty. There exists no convincing reason why this barbaric and ludicrous practice continues. Its effectiveness as a deterrent to violent crime has never been sufficiently demonstrated. It is more expensive and time-consuming to implement than life imprisonment. Claims that it provides victims and their families with closure are suspect. It is a gruesome Old Testament holdover, a pandering to the public blood-lust for reflexive, feel-good justice that has no place in an enlightened society. Yet the most valid argument against capital punishment is the certainty that innocent people have been killed by their government, that mistakes are not correctable.
The documentary After Innocence isn't an anti-death penalty movie, but that emerges as the strongest position in a film that begins with a narrow focus, yet blossoms into a scathing indictment of how justice in America is routinely miscarried. Since DNA evidence became admissible in 1993, more than 150 men have been released, and many more wrongly convicted prisoners surely languish on death row and elsewhere. Tens of thousands, say the participants of lawyer Barry Scheck's Innocence Project, who provide legal aid to prisoners whom DNA evidence is likely to exonerate. So effective and revelatory is the group's work that, in 2003, Illinois' then governor, George Ryan, commuted all death sentences within the state to life imprisonment. By far the most common cause of wrongful incarceration is eyewitness misidentification. Eighty-eight percent of all incorrect rape convictions, for example, are based on eyewitness testimony.
After Innocence traces the stories of several convicts wrongly jailed for serious crimes. Upon exoneration, these men face a pathetically unjust ordeal. If a guilty prisoner serves out his sentence and is paroled, he receives government benefits and assistance with housing and job placement. There is no such apparatus to reintegrate an exonerated prisoner into the world. So, if you spend years in prison for a crime you did commit, you're dealt a better hand than someone whose life was ruined by a deeply flawed legal system that is more interested in covering up its mistakes than owning up to them.
Filmmaker Jessica Sanders visits Life After Exoneration, a support network for prisoners suddenly released back into society. There's Vincent Moto, who did ten-and-a-half years for a rape he didn't commit. He moves in with his parents and tries Internet dating. There's Nick Yarris, an innocent man who served 23 years on death row, in solitary confinement at a Pennsylvania prison whose torture practices were condemned by the United Nations. Yarris works tirelessly to publicize his plight, at one point resorting to handing out leaflets and yelling through a bullhorn at a park (though the sequence feels staged). There's Scott Hornoff, wrongly convicted of murder, released after six-and-a-half years. Calvin Willis, rape, released after 22 years.
Sanders’ film makes its points quietly and successfully, always careful not to become a polemic or an anti-authority screed. It would have been more effective with some commentary about criminals who have been executed, but have since been proved innocent, though it's reasonable to assume there's little government interest in examining those cases. Somewhat off-putting, most of the men featured in the film are white, while the prison population is disproportionately African-American. I won't speculate on the reason for this inconsistency. Otherwise, it's a humble, wholly effective, sobering documentary.
The key subject is Wilton Dedge, who, when we join his story, has served 22 years in a Florida prison for rape. Because of DNA evidence, he has been demonstrably innocent for three years, yet the courts refuse to grant hearings. The film follows his rocky journey through the legal system, which, by definition, can't have a happy ending. If he's freed, he's got no job, a life of no experience, and rape on his record—that's right, even with an overturned conviction, your record isn't automatically expunged. As we get to know Dedge, it becomes clear that setting him free is a moot gesture. He's a shell of a man, broken by what must have been a horrific prison experience (convicted rapists are typically not popular), barely able to speak in complete sentences or make eye contact with the people helping him. It's heartbreaking. Releasing him was a corrective measure, but how does one seek compensation for a stolen life?
By: Troy Reimink
Published on: 2006-04-12