After Innocence (New Yorker, Unrated)

While the men may have been set free, there was no compensation for the courts’ mistake.

 

After Innocence is a gripping documentary focusing on several men exonerated for crimes they were once accused of committing. Heading into the film armed with my best “yeah, right” for those times when inmates try to persuade us of their innocence, I was shocked at how quickly my steel curtain of disbelief dissolved. I suppose I have lived in a fantasy world, thinking that bad people went to jail and the innocent were set free. Well, my world of naivety came crashing down around me as the film followed the lives of several men who try to reintegrate into society.

Never having served on a jury, I suppose I should have seen this coming. Juries are made up of humans—humans who make mistakes. I just never thought that much about how these decisions can affect a person’s entire existence.

Director Jessica Sanders created an intriguing portrait of each man who had been wrongly accused. Giving each man his “15 minutes” to tell his story and then conveying the difficulties of having to find his place in a society that has forgotten about him proved to be spellbinding. Each of the men profiled benefited from DNA testing, which ultimately proved their innocence.

Sanders also does a wonderful job in profiling he Innocence Project—an organization dedicated to helping criminals prove their innocence. I am not going to play down the wonderful deeds this organization performs; it is a testament that there are indeed lawyers who are driven by passion and not just the almighty dollar.

While it would be easy for Sanders to throw these men (some who have served more than 20 years of an unfair sentence) under the microscope and have them plead their case, she takes the film to the next level. Not only does she catch a prosecutor who breaks down emotionally when the man he put behind bars is freed, she tackles the sketchy subject of eyewitness identification.

Sanders follows a woman who identified a man as her attacker, only to be confronted with the fact that DNA testing ruled the accused man out and led to a conviction of an entirely different man. It was mesmerizing to watch this woman confront the man she wrongly accused.

Perhaps the most jarring profile featured was that of Wilton Dedge. Convicted in 1982 of rape, Dedge began serving his life sentence. Sanders followed The Innocence Project as they worked with Dedge in trying to get DNA testing admitted into the courts. It was an emotional rollercoaster to watch Dedge, along with his elderly parents, deal with the courts and then finally be reunited as a family. The fact that Dedge lost 22 years of his life due to a false accusation was mind-boggling and emotionally overwhelming.

The creepiest portion of the film was watching the men try to get their lives back on track. After serving decades behind bars, these men appeared to have lost the ability to interact with society. While they may have been set free, there was no compensation for the courts’ mistake. They are set on the street with what they had when they were incarcerated and that is about it. With no money and no future, these men face the daunting task of rebuilding a life that was destroyed.

Sanders actually pulled off a fair and balanced view of a massive oversight by our legal system. She took a look at every angle of the subject, presenting the facts rather than skewing viewpoints and preaching politics. Even though her film may raise more questions than it answers—i.e., what can we do about these oversights? How can we get past our prejudices and help these people integrate into our world? How do we appropriately compensate these men for their loss?—Sanders takes a giant step forward by giving these men a chance to tell their story. Today we know the effectiveness of DNA testing, and I think this film would make any American think twice before making a final decision on someone else’s guilt or innocence.

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