Free At Last

After Innocence begins with a shout-out to God. “Hallelujah!” crows one man, arms upraised. “Praise God!” The man has literally been saved, after all, though by DNA and not strictly the divine, one of the growing number of men exonerated by genetic evidence.

Jessica Sanders' deliberately paced and often disturbing documentary doesn't dwell long on the exuberance of the newly freed. As its title attests, the film primarily focuses on the aftermath of exoneration, the often bewildering and belittling slog that faces the men after their supposed redemption.

Not surprisingly, the system that demonstrated an incompetence verging on cruelty in the incarceration of these men continues to haunt them after their release. One of the documentary subjects was given less than $6 when he left prison; this in stark contrast to the job training, counseling, and other services that are granted to parolees. Others never receive official or even informal apologies -- or, worse yet, never have their records expunged, making finding a new job or apartment a near impossibility.

The documentary has as its foundation the work of the Innocence Project, a legal nonprofit that lawyers Barry C. Sheck and Peter J. Neufeld founded in 1992 at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in Manhattan. Their work, and that of their chipper but overwhelmed lawyers and law-student volunteers, has resulted in more than 150 exonerations, many based on new DNA testing.

The organization also offers support to those exonerated, who are often in dire need of assistance. Their families are frequently burdened by legal bills or already mired in poverty, and without marketable job skills or training, the men struggle to piece together a livelihood -- and their identities. “The prime years of your life are gone,” says exoneree Vincent Moto. In prison and even afterward, he says, a man “can't be a father who supports and gives … just a dad who boasts and brags … .”

For Nick Yarris, who spent 23 years on death row on a murder charge, much of that time in solitary confinement, even the smell of the world outside was a shock to him. “I was allergic to fresh air,” he marvels. And now? “I'm Ebenezer -- a ghost in my own life.”

Despite the frustration, rage, and despair that well up in many of the seven men After Innocence follows, all seem eager to rejoin the world -- and to better it. A few, like Yarris, have become outspoken advocates for the innocent and for crime victims who have never received justice in cases that have resulted in wrongful incarcerations. Ronald Cotton became close to his former accuser, Jennifer Thompson-Canino, and together they raise awareness about wrongful identification and the flaws of the justice system.

Others have channeled their energies into psychology degrees and art. Former police officer Scott Hornoff, wrongfully convicted for murder, taught himself how to draw during his six and a half years in prison. In the film, he stands in his living room presenting beautifully detailed portraits of hands in different frames -- his son's hands reaching for a ball, his stretching out to toss it. The hands are mute and disembodied, a reflection of both his lack of connection to his family and his attempts to imagine a space free from his confinement.

With their uncommon perspectives on life before and after prison, the exonerees make powerful critics of the justice system, especially with the unique strength they developed during their incarceration. Hornoff asserts that the staff at his prison saw their jobs as being to break the inmates psychologically; Dennis Maher says his prison's mental-health therapists were fixated on getting him to admit his crimes. But still, these men insisted on their innocence, despite the efforts to break their will -- an effort that seems to have helped them maintain a level of self-certainty even as they attempt to navigate disorienting new lives.

The film gains much of its narrative drama in following the Florida case of Wilton Dedge, imprisoned for 22 years on rape charges, as he tries to win his innocence. Dedge had already used DNA testing to prove his innocence in 2001, but prosecutors kept him in prison three years longer as they maneuvered to have the evidence blocked.

With his large, sad eyes, Dedge has a calm that borders on resignation, quite a contrast to the brusque energy of his prosecutors, who demonstrate a staggering disregard for the evidence he presents. “It's a little late to be playing the discovery game,” says one prosecutor. At a hearing, one state attorney asks, “Does a hair prove innocence?” It put him away in prison, didn't it? Even more fantastically, the assistant district attorney argues that even if Dedge is found innocent, he isn't owed an apology, compensation, anything -- “The system worked the way it was supposed to.” Dedge's case points out the dangers behind a convict-at-all-cost approach, and the ways in which officials hide behind a “system” to deny their own -- to turn around a favorite conservative phrase -- personal responsibility.

The film interweaves the seven stories at a measured pace; even so, it seems stretched too thin at times (although I'm hesitant to try to think whose portrait should have been left out). In general, the film benefits from Sanders' generous direction; she allows these men the space that is truly due them, and her insistence on foregrounding their experiences means that their insights gain that much more depth and power in the film. She similarly avoids bullying polemics, refusing to draw self-righteous attention to the role that race and socioeconomic class played in these men's incarceration, even as she clearly demonstrates their effect in her shots of crumbling African American neighborhoods, crowded houses in the South, blue-collar family gatherings.

The push to free the innocent, to question a justice that seems rather too blind at times, is “the new civil-rights movement in this country,” as Innocence Project co-founder Scheck puts it. The men “want change,” he asserts. “Their sacrifice must mean something,” and they are frequently driven to make that meaning in their new lives. It's a long battle, but the men in After Innocence are already finding their way into a hard-earned grace.

Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.

You may also like