After Innocence

“Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error: error in determining guilt and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die. What effect was race having? What effect was poverty having?

Because of all these reasons, today I am commuting the sentences of all death row inmates.”–Former Illinois Governor George Ryan

When I was living in Illinois a few years ago, the state’s death penalty came under intense scrutiny. It turned out that several death row inmates had been wrongully convicted, many of them spending decades on death row for crimes they did not commit. As he was leaving office, Governor George Ryan commuted all Illinois death row sentences to life in prison until the state’s legal system could resolve the problems that were producing false convictions. As a strong opponent of the death penalty and an observer of the legal system’s inequities, I couldn’t help but appreciate Ryan’s gesture. But legal exoneration is often only the beginning of the story, and Jessica Sanders’ compelling documentary, After Innocence (IMDB) asks an easily forgotten question: what happens after these innocent people are released from prison? How do they renew lives that were disrupted by the false conviction?

Innocence features seven cases of men who were wrongfully convicted of crimes, and in all cases the men discuss the powerful whirl of emotions and the overwhelming sensory overload that greets them when they emerge from prison. In almost every case, the men find themselves stepping back into the world at a tremendous financial disadvantage because they spent the years they would have been attending college, learning a trade, or serving in the armed forces trapped in prison. Many of them spent every dime of savings and their parents’ savings paying legal bills to fight their conviction. As Vincent Moto notes at one point, his parents should be retired and living in the Poconos. Instead, they’re forced to work far past the age of retirement. Others describe the difficulty of finding work when the conviction hasn’t been fully erased from their record, while Dennis Maher discusses the difficulties of explaining his situation to women he’d like to date.

One subtext of the documentary is the promotion of the Innocence Project, a campaign started by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld in 1992 to support te use of DNA evidence to oveturn false convictions. Of course this is only the beginning of securing justice, and more recently there has been an effort to seek financial restitution for those who are wrongfully convicted. In fact, in some cases, when these men were released, they were given little more than a bus ticket home, with many of them moving back into their parents’ homes years after adulthood.

In all cases, their stories are devastating, but Sanders’ subjects show surprisingly little anger about what happened to them. In fact, Maher somehow manages to forgive the original prosecutor of his case immediately after he walks out of prison a free man. Perhaps this is a conscious strategy on Sanders’ part to underplay their anger, which sometimes bubbles just beneath the surface, but I’ll admit that I couldn’t have shrugged off losing years of my life so easily.

At the same time, several reactions seemed fairly consistent. In many cases, the men would describe what might be described as feelings of emasculation. Soto, in particular, explains that he feels like he hasn’t lived up to his obligations as a father, who should provide for his children. Others describe the uncanny experience of returning to the community they called home and feeling like an outsider. Scott Hornoff, while driving through the town he had called home, reflects that “I feel like a foreigner.” Others describe the sensory overload that they confront when leaving prison, with Nick Yarris, who was prohibited from speaking during his first two years on death row, commenting that he “couldn’t believe how loud the world was.”

I do think that the film could have benefitted from more legal argument or explanation of how the justice system often fails. Instead of getting a clear understanding of these problems, the seven stories are somewhat isoalted from each other, and some tighter connections might have resolved this concern. But when one of the featured exonerees, Wilton Dedge, is finally released from prison several years after his innocence has become indisputable, it’s not hard to recognize some of the reasons for corruption. After all, if Dedge is released, it sets a precedent for other criminal convictions in Florida where DNA evidence was not used. Drawing these connections more explicitly, where possible, could have made the film an even stronger argument.

I caught After Innocence at DC’s Provisions Library, where Taryn Simon’s amazing photography series, The Innocents, is currently featured. If you can’t make it for the film screening, I’d certainly recommend spending a few minutes viewing Simon’s work.

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