Judge Daniel MacDonald isn't innocent, but doesn't feel guilty about it.
Freedom is Just the Beginning
More than 2.5 million people are incarcerated in United States prisons; some estimate more than 10,000 of those inmates are innocent of the crime of which they were convicted. Many of these were tried prior to DNA evidence being widely available and scientifically proven, meaning they probably would not have been convicted were they to be tried today. Yet they remain in prison, paying a debt to society they do not owe.
After Innocence explores the plight of the wrongly accused and recently exonerated by following seven men whose prison terms range from 6.5 to 23 years, all of whom were eventually vindicated using DNA testing. The men's stories are heartbreaking and tragic, with families devastated, young lives interrupted, and personalities changed irreversibly. Director Jessica Sanders clearly has a passion for the subject matter and an interest in seeing some of these wrongs righted.
The Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization focusing on freeing innocent convicts and changing the US criminal justice system, plays a major part in the film, as their work was responsible for the freedom of many of the film's subjects. It has few paid positions, relying on volunteers, many students in law school, to do much of the work including screening letters from inmates requesting the Project's help. In one scene, a volunteer shows the documentary crew file cabinets where letters are stored until they are reviewed and sorted: drawer after drawer is opened, thousands of letters waiting for their turn to be read.
The subjects of the picture are overwhelmingly positive despite the tragic turn of events in their lives, struggling to start fresh and to help others in the same position. One exonerated man, Nick Yaris, spent 23 years on death row, all of it in solitary confinement in a prison criticized by the United Nations for its treatment of inmates; for the first two years of his stay, he was not allowed to speak. Another, Scott Hornoff, was a police officer, and his 6.5 years inside prompted him to fight for improved conditions in the prison system. The most moving story told is that of Wilton Dedge, a man who spent 22 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and who was exonerated by DNA evidence three years before being released, as the District Attorney fought efforts to do so. In his story, we see the process unfold as Wilton and his lawyers plead the case to a judge, incredulous at the opposing arguments presented, just waiting to return to the outside world.
What's perhaps most surprising in the film is not that innocent people can be convicted—that's bound to happen in an imperfect system—but is the way in which exonerees are treated once they are released. Many still have criminal records, as it can cost $6000 or more to have one's record expunged, and the State is not volunteering to do so. And few receive compensation, or even an apology. These are men whose lives were taken away, in most cases, when they were in their early twenties and ready to establish a career and earning power, released to the streets in their forties with a false criminal record and nothing in the bank. The general public may not even know that they were released because they were exonerated, only that they are out of jail. It's a jaw-dropping realization, and a point well made by the film.
While the picture has the best of intentions and an inherently provocative subject, I was disappointed by its overall lack of scope, and general one-sidedness. While there is the occasional mention of how difficult it is to adjust to life after twenty years in prison, I would have liked to explore the idea further—when many of these men went to jail, computers were not commonplace, so how do they cope with our wired world? What's the community reaction? What's the first thing you do once your freedom is restored? How is this problem affecting arguments for and against the death penalty? The opening scenes give the impression that some of these questions may be addressed, but the payoff never comes.
More statistics and graphical representations would have been helpful to grasp just how big a problem this is nationally, and I would have liked to see how the American stats compared with those of other countries. Taking these personal stories and contrasting them with a broad perspective, while I think was attempted, is not fully successful and ends up hampering the overall impact of the piece.
Instead, the movie comes across as a petition to changes to the system, a lofty and valuable goal but not necessarily the stuff of the most thoughtful documentaries. Early in the picture, we're on board, buying what they're selling, so instead of preaching to the converted I would have appreciated more opposing opinions and viewpoints, leaving a bit more room for ambiguity. I applaud the filmmakers for briefly including some opposing opinions, such as that from a lawyer who states no apology is warranted, as the prosecutors and police did the best they could with what they had at the time, therefore the system itself did not fail. I would have liked to have heard more of this line of thinking to balance the scales.
Presented in 1.85:1 non-anamorphic widescreen with a 2-channel stereo soundtrack, the film doesn't dazzle from an aesthetic point of view, but accurately reproduces its digital video origins. The DVD is fairly stacked with special features, including talking-head interviews with the director and producer, lots of extra footage, a Pearl Jam performance, updates on the featured subjects, and more. The interviews provide some helpful background information on the picture's creation and goals, although it's pretty dry stuff, 23 minutes of a static camera. Deleted scenes are worthwhile, especially the extended footage of Wilton Dedge's homecoming—this material is more emotionally affecting than anything included in the picture, and I wish it hadn't been excluded.
Overall, this is a picture worth seeing because it is a topic worth talking about, but is also hampered by its narrow viewpoint and obvious goal of persuasion. I was surprised that it won a Special Jury Prize, and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize, at the Sundance Film Festival, as it's the subject matter rather than exceptional filmmaking that makes it compelling.
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