Among them, Dennis Maher, Calvin Willis, Scott Hornoff, Wilton Dedge, Vincent Moto, Nick Yarris and Herman Atkins served 123 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. Three of those years were served by Dedge after genetic testing proved him innocent, but the state of Florida fought to keep the new evidence out of court. Jessica Sander's even-handed but quietly devastating "After Innocence" documents the lives of these seven men after their exoneration by post-conviction DNA testing while questioning the logic -- not to mention competency and ethics -- of a criminal justice system that provides ample social services for ex-convicts who have served their time but none for those who have been wrongfully imprisoned.
The film follows the exonerated as they adjust to life outside prison, with the assistance of lawyers, activists and politicians who helped free them. Featured are Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, founders of the Innocence Project, along with other attorneys and students working for the organization; Dr. Lola Vollen, the co-founder of the Life After Exoneration program, and George Ryan, the former governor of Illinois who commuted 171 death sentences two days before the end of his term. Ryan pardoned four of the death row inmates, one of whom, Aaron Patterson, had been tortured into confessing to a crime he did not commit.
The stories of their incarceration are grim and raise serious questions about prison practices and criminal rehabilitation, but the film focuses primarily on former prisoners' readjustment to life outside. With no compensation, programs or even the expunging of their criminal records to help smooth the transition, they in many cases remain Kafka-esquely enshrouded in the guilt wrongly attributed to them. There is a heartbreaking poignancy in seeing several of the exonerated move back into the homes of their elderly parents, having left them barely out of their teens and returned in middle age. All of the featured former prisoners are active in criminal justice reform, trying to get legislation enacted that would provide compensation for the wrongfully convicted and expunge their records. Their efforts have resulted in changing some state laws (Maher helped get Massachusetts to pass a bill providing compensation, but as Neufeld explains, "What started out as a small mom-and-pop operation has now mushroomed into a kind of new civil rights movement in this country.... It's not just about exonerating the innocent, it's about reforming all of the criminal justice system.... The paradigm we've lived with now for 40 years is now based on the presumption of guilt."
As he says, what emerges from these stories is a picture of the fallibility of the system and the vulnerability of innocent citizens, whom even scientific evidence cannot protect from incompetence, ego and prejudice, and of the courage of the exonerated victims to make meaning of their tragedies.
As heartening as their progress is, their loss is even more haunting. Yarris, who served 22 years on death row in solitary confinement, continues to advocate the abolition of the death penalty and has, since the end of the movie, married and moved to the United Kingdom. But it's his remarks early in the film, as he sits outside his childhood home, that linger. "Some of my fondest childhood memories are underneath that green awning. Now I walk by and I'm Ebenezer, walking around like a ghost in my own life."
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Contains verbal descriptions of violent crimes
A New Yorker Films release produced by American Film Foundation with Showtime Networks Inc. Director Jessica Sanders. Writers-producers Jessica Sanders and Marc Simon. Editor Brian Johnson. Cinematography Shana Hagan, Buddy Squires, Bestor Cram and Bob Richmond. Music Charles Bernstein. Running time: 95 minutes.
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