Directed by Jessica Sanders. (2005, NR, 95 min.)
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., Feb. 24, 2006
This Showtime production is the most frustrating sort of social-issues documentary: It has a story that must be told – a story everyone should hear and heed – but as a film it stumbles frequently. See it anyway, for despite its flaws After Innocence raises staggering questions about virtually every aspect of the criminal-justice system. Sanders follows several men accused, tried, and convicted of heinous crimes; incarcerated in some of the nation’s most notorious hellholes; and finally exonerated by DNA evidence submitted by the Innocence Project, an advocacy group co-chaired by legal eagle Barry Scheck. Upon their release, the exonerees are greeted with smiles, photo-ops, and pats on the back, but their lives are irrevocably altered. In some cases their criminal records cannot be expunged – one state requires a $6,000 fee from an applicant before it will correct its mistake – so they cannot find jobs or housing; they are still pariahs in their communities, and many are returning into a changed world at middle age after decades behind bars, their youth wasted, their hopes of career and family permanently crushed, their friends and relatives bankrupted by legal fees. The state of Florida won’t even admit DNA evidence from Wilton Dodge, jailed at age 20 for rape on the basis of a shaky eyewitness identification – even though the victim reported her attacker was over six feet tall, and Dodge stands all of 5 feet 6 inches. Twenty-two years later, he’s still in prison as the film unfolds. Sanders argues quite convincingly that innocent, law-abiding people – one subject is a police detective – can lose their liberty in almost any moment if the prosecution desires a fall guy, and that most states offer no accountability for their errors. There are certain exceptions, and the film is not entirely pessimistic: Running throughout is a thread of hope that the appeals process might move the entire system toward its ostensible paradigm of assuming innocence until guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. This is advocacy telejournalism more than it is a true documentary. The filmmakers invite criticism of the prison system and the death penalty, and much screen time is devoted to Scheck and his volunteers; even when it’s clear that the prosecution is in the wrong, one attorney correctly points out that Scheck’s organization is committed to proving innocence, not seeking judicial fairness. There’s also a little something smarmy about the interactions between the lawyers and their clients, all of whom are poor. (Class seems to be the significant factor here, more than geography or even race.) Yet the real trouble with the film is that it’s torn between telling the exonerees’ stories and making its point, and it’s not wrong to wish for a more artful narrative approach – more show, less tell. Should that stop you from seeing the film? By no means. There is room for different aesthetic approaches to a subject this important, and while the critic’s task is to evaluate whether After Innocence is both ideologically and artistically successful, the role of citizens – potential jurors all – is to understand the critical failings in our justice system.