After Innocence (2005)
Release Date: October 21st, 2005 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Jessica Sanders Actors: Jessica Sanders, Nick Yarris, Wilton Dedge, Scott Hornoff
he subject matter and content in “After Innocence” is so moving and thought-provoking that it hardly matters if the movie is a technical achievement. With its low budget and absence of flair, it certainly offers little pizzazz. But as an obvious independent film, it lacks only in style – the people onscreen are so tragically touching that they demand to be seen. Some aspects of the exonerated victims could have been looked upon with a little more detail, and many of the crimes themselves are not explored with much precision, but merely seeing the unspeakable injustices of the judicial system in full force is enough to evoke sympathy from anyone.
DNA (what is referred to in the film as “God’s signature”) testing in the United States has led to over 150 people being positively identified as innocent, freed from blame, and released from decades of imprisonment. As miraculous as it is that so many luckless citizens have managed to overcome a justice system so flawed that they could end up in prison for crimes they did not commit, it’s equally horrifying to learn that there is absolutely no compensation for their plight. Most don’t even receive an apology, and many struggle unimaginably against courts, judges, and prosecutors that don’t want to admit a mistake. And what an eye-opening, terrifying mistake it is.
The Innocence Project was started during the early years of DNA testing to help convicts with the costs of testing and with lawyers – almost all of whom spend money out of pocket, devote countless amounts of time, and are guaranteed never to be reimbursed. The crimes against these “criminals” don’t stop at trying to ignore their merciless years of captivity – many do not get their records expunged (or are charged $6000 in paperwork fees), preventing them from getting jobs. A regular convict who is paroled typically receives job training, job placement, housing, and access to many other programs designed to help them succeed with reintegration into society. But a wrongfully imprisoned exoneree gets nothing; one “fortunate” man did walk away with $5.37 for his troubles. Additionally, the stigma of the sex crimes that many of the exonerated were accused of is often too difficult to wipe out – people know they have been released, but not that they are innocent.
Of the many men explored in the documentary, Nick Yarris has a particularly woeful tale. He was imprisoned for 23 years in solitary confinement on Death Row. For the first two years, he was not allowed to speak. And he was completely innocent. When he claims he is one of the strongest men ever created, it is undoubtedly true. Another example, Wilton Dedge, was convicted of rape, imprisoned for 22 years, and given two life sentences. When filming began for “After Innocence,” he was still not released (creating a rather suspenseful story arc to bookend the picture), even though DNA testing had already cleared him of guilt. He spent an additional three years in prison, after being proven innocent, because of political red tape, incorrect filing, and other tactics by the state of Florida to prevent his atrocious case from becoming public and having to acknowledge fault.
Another victim, Scott Hornoff, was a police officer who spent over six years in prison when the judicial system completely failed him. His child was born only three months after being convicted. When he was found to be innocent, the prosecutor and judge seemed upset at having to admit their errors. In the Massachusetts facility where he was held, the goal was to break the spirits of the prisoners, not to rehabilitate them.
To flesh out the atrociousness of these cases are several more, including one that delves into the relationship between an exoneree and the woman who accused him of rape; as it turns out, 88% of all wrongfully accused rape cases involve mistaken eyewitness identifications. Another man, Aaron Patterson, was tortured into a confession, despite being innocent. The amount of shocking material in “After Innocence” suggests that a new civil rights movement is necessary, the judicial process needs to be scrutinized more carefully and regularly, and exonerated people need to receive some sort of financial aid.
The documentary doesn’t offer up any solutions, though the existence of the Innocence Project is a step in the right direction. Will this all become a problem of the past, now that DNA testing is a regular part of convictions? How many more innocents are rotting away in prison, likely to be forgotten amidst the countless appeals already bogging down the system? And what of the cases in which there was no DNA evidence found to test? Such miscarriages of justice are heartbreaking and eye-opening in equal measure.
– Mike Massie