As scientific advances have made forensic DNA matching a reality, a new field has emerged in criminal justice: exoneration. In cases where relevant biological evidence has been preserved, innocent inmates who’ve been serving time for decades suddenly have cause for hope. If a prisoner can manage to get legal help, if a DNA lab can get a good reading from the evidence, and if a judge is willing to admit new evidence against the (customarily) fierce protests of the prosecution — all, admittedly, big ifs — he may one day walk free. And then what?
That’s the question posed by After Innocence, a piercing and intelligent documentary by director Jessica Sanders. First, she introduces us to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that began when two lawyers decided to take on some pro bono exoneration cases and has since expanded to a nationally recognized civil rights crusader with more than 160 successful exonerations. Then Sanders shows us what happens to the men after they’ve been freed.
Unlike criminals who are released on parole, exonerees receive no assistance from the system that wrongfully imprisoned them. Not surprisingly, they struggle. One gets the sense that the seven men profiled in After Innocence are faring better than their cohort, and they’re still plagued with difficulties: finding work, being accepted by their communities, establishing intimate relationships with others, re-forming identities as free people, and simply re-entering the world that once left them behind.
The men’s stories are harrowing and infuriating. Nick Yarris spent 23 years on death row, all of it in solitary confinement; for the first two years, he wasn’t allowed to speak. (That is positively Orwellian.) Scott Hornoff, a police officer at the time of his arrest, was released after serving six and a half years of a life sentence — and only because the real killer confessed to the crime. When Hornoff sued the City of Warwick, Rhode Island, to be reinstated as a police officer and to receive back pay and pension, the court ruled in his favor, but the city has appealed the decision. Then there’s Wilton Dedge. When the film opens, Dedge is still in prison after 22 years, despite the fact that three years earlier, a DNA test on hairs found at the scene of the crime outruled him.
Amid the disastrous stories it tells, After Innocence has some enjoyable surprises. For one, there’s Phil Donahue. For many of the exonerees, a 1993 Donahue show featuring the Innocence Project lawyers was the first hint of hope, and Donahue continued to forward inmates’ letters to the lawyers long after the show aired. Then there’s Jennifer Thompson, a rape-survivor-turned-activist attempting to raise awareness about the limitations of witness identification. Her (unwittingly) false identification of her rapist put an innocent man behind bars; now friends with that same man, she campaigns against the use of witness IDs. (Indeed, many falsely imprisoned men are victims of mistaken identifications.) It’s hard not to wish that the prosecutors in these cases, so many of whom dig into their initial positions with self-righteous fury, could have Thompson’s grace in admitting error.
One of the powerful things about After Innocence is that, no matter what your position on punitive justice, you can’t argue with its position. Even if you believe in capital punishment, you don’t stand a chance of supporting a claim that innocent men deserve to be killed; likewise, jailing innocents is no one’s idea of sound judicial policy. Whatever your politics, it’s an outrage that so many innocent people have been convicted, and if punitive justice is your cup of tea, you might find it equally appalling that those guilty of the crimes in question have been allowed to go free. Worse, the 160-plus people exonerated by the Innocence Project are only the iceberg’s tip. In the majority of crimes, there is no biological evidence, or it hasn’t been preserved, or a lab can’t get a good enough read to make a DNA match.
But there’s another, more difficult question lurking beneath the surface of this movie. What about the guilty? Aren’t they also worthy of humane treatment while they serve their time? One of the incidental horrors of the film, revealed mostly in asides, is that prison conditions are despicable, with little by way of rehabilitation and much by way of humiliation and torture. (Only one exoneree, Dennis Maher, was given psychotherapy while he was inside, and his therapists tried to convince him to overcome his “denial” about his guilt. Even so, he credits his lack of anger about his wrongful imprisonment to the work he did in therapy.) Many of the exonerees have the openness of heart to argue for the benefit of all of their imprisoned brethren, not merely the innocent.
Still, such compassion seems a long way off. If our communities can’t forgive and support men who’ve been declared innocent, how can we forgive the guilty?