If the road to freedom truly is long and winding, the characters in “After Innocence” are the quintessential weary travelers. Scheduled snuggly in between last month’s Actors’ Gang performance of “The Exonerated” and next week’s Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, Jessica Sanders’s documentary about seven vindicated U.S. prisoners depicts the results of a problematic justice system in a grueling story about wrongful accusations and the process of rebuilding. Sanders’s camera crew poignantly captures the stories of six inmates following their individual exonerations, as well as one – Wilton Dedge – as he awaits the results of a retrial that has kept him behind bars unfairly for 22 years.
With incarceration times that ranged from six to 23 years, the subjects featured in “After Innocence” all seem collectively lost in their own homes and families following their release. Often left with little more than an apology on behalf of the court system – and many failing to get even that – the exonerated are forced to grapple with the question of, “Where do I go from here?” throughout the film’s narrative. While some – like wrongfully accused patrolman Scott Hornoff, who served nearly seven years for a murder he did not commit – return from prison to wives and children, most are left penniless and nearly unemployable, sharing tight living quarters with aging parents at a time when the roles of child and guardian are often reversed.
What links these men beyond their shared fight for justice is as disheartening as any of the film’s more explicit accusations towards the criminal system. As each of Sanders’s subjects is introduced, a pattern amongst them soon becomes apparent; nearly all of them are from working class to impoverished families and half of the men are of African American descent. Whether these accounts were intentionally selected or not, the comment on socioeconomic status and race relations is apparent, and leaves the viewer questioning – once again – the conceptual idea of American justice.
In what is perhaps one of the most startling and unlikely segments of the film, “After Innocence” presents the story of Ronald Cotton, an accused rapist who served nearly eleven years in a North Carolina penitentiary, and Jennifer Thompson-Canino, the victim who wrongly identified him in 1984. Since his release – granted due to DNA testing and another convict’s confession – the two have formed a friendship that inspires both awe and admiration. Together, Cotton and Thompson-Canino work to educate students and community members about the shortcomings of the eyewitness identification practice.
Like Cotton, the majority of Sanders’s subjects possess an outlook on life that is unendingly respectable, if at times problematic. Dennis Maher – a 19-year rape, battery and assault exoneree – spends the majority of his screen time humbly thanking the system that, after nearly two decades, granted him freedom. The grateful attitudes that shape these men’s outlooks on life manage to be both noble and unrealistic. Rather than live with unsuppressed rage or vindictive agendas, the film’s characters stoically involve themselves in local and national organizations in hopes of exonerating others like them. Still, with an underlying message that thousands more men and women are wrongly imprisoned every year, many of whom will never see justice or compensation; the subjects of “After Innocence” can hardly be looked upon as representative of a whole.
Despite its attempts to present a somewhat hopeful look at what many have deemed a hopeless situation, Sanders’s “After Innocence” sets out to call attention to this important issue, and does so without a hitch. The raw – if at times substandard – camerawork does an adequate job of blending a large collection of stories into one collective statement. Likewise, the harrowing efforts of watch groups and nonprofits like the Innocence Project further drive home the idea that individuals can and do make a difference. Though it is but one in what seems a burgeoning trend towards documentary filmmaking on the subject, “After Innocence” succeeds where it matters most; shocking its viewers into taking a stand while warning them not to take life for granted.
Arts & Lectures presents a screening of “After Innocence” tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Campbell Hall. Tickets are $5 for students and the film will be followed by a Q&A session with filmmaker Jessica Sanders and exonerated inmate Herman Atkins.