Cinema Junkie by Beth Accomando
Saturday, February 11, 2006
In 1993, The Phil Donahue Show featured Barry Schek, co-founder of the Innocence Project, and a number of men who had recently been released after DNA evidence cleared them of their crimes. The show not only awakened viewers to the fact that innocent people were indeed languishing in prison but it also gave hope to many inmates who were wrongfully imprisoned for crimes they did not commit and who did not know where to turn for help. The Innocence Project was inundated with letters and continues to work to this day to help inmates get their cases reheard.
At first you think that there can be no greater injustice that having an innocent person convicted of a crime he or she did not commit. But as the film introduces us to its subjects and their stories we realize that the greater injustice may be the frequently indifferent and sometimes downright antagonistic legal system that refuses to acknowledge its mistakes. One prosecutor, even when shown conclusive DNA evidence that the man he convicted was the wrong person, still insists that the justice system worked and that there is nothing it needs to apologize for.
After Innocence serves up a diverse group of men, some black, some white, one was a police officer, another a Marine, and some were barely out of their teens when they were arrested. The diversity of the group makes us realize that this could happen to almost anyone, and thats scary. Writer-director Jessica Sanders familiarizes us with each of the men. Providing background on their cases, insights into their personalities, and a glimpse into their lives after being freed. Whereas men who have been paroled or served out their sentences receive support after being released, there is no program in place to deal with people who have been proven innocent after a wrongful conviction. In addition, most states offer no compensation or even offer to expunge the persons record. This means that if not for family waiting for them on the outside, these people would be penniless and homeless. In addition, if they try to apply for a job, they have to state that yes they were arrested and convicted of a crimethere is no box to check for wrongful conviction.
One man, named Nick, explains how the prison he was at had been condemned by the United Nations for practices of tortureyes, he reiterates, it was condemned for tortureand how he was put into solitary confinement and forbidden to speak. When he finally won his release, he says that the first thing he noticed about the world was how loud and filled with noise it was. It was deafening and actually hurt his ears that had grown accustomed to the stuffy silence of his solitary cell. Nick, who has become a passionate spokesman and advocate for change, explains that he derived strength from knowing that he was innocent.
Sanders film moves confidently and efficiently through these various stories, providing enough details that we feel we get to know these men. To provide some dramatic tension to the film, Sanders also follows the case of Wilton Dredge, who is in jail as the film begins and awaiting a hearing regarding the DNA evidence in his case. In following his case through the courts, we get a small sense of the frustration and lengthy delays that are commonplace for people like Dredge.
After Innocence is a remarkable documentary that opens our eyes to a problem that may be more pervasive than anyone could have imagined. Hopefully this film, combined with the efforts of groups like the Innocence Project and the activism of many of the men after they are released, will help to effect a change in the legal system. At the very least, the courts and the government have to simply learn how to admit they can make a mistake and then they have to learn how to say theyre sorry and ask how they can make amends. But nothing can really compensate someone for having years and sometimes decades taken away from them.
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