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4 reviews, 4 user ratings

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After Innocence
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by Jay Seaver

"A strong documentary about people stronger than me."
4 stars

We all know that our justice system isn't perfect. It occasionally lets guilty people go free and puts innocent people in jail, and we accept the latter because we know that a perfect system is impossible: A system that never could find an innocent man guilty would likely never find anyone guilty. Thus, we also provide means for a wrongful guilty verdict to be overturned. As After Innocence shows, though, it's not an easy process, and doesn't come close to solving the problems of the wrongfully convicted.

Though the title is "After Innocence", much of the film's running time is spent on the process of establishing that innocence. In the past twenty years, DNA testing has made the process much more definitive - it is much stronger evidence than the eyewitness testimony that incarcerated most of the film's subjects. Many viewers will likely be shocked to discover just how unreliable eyewitness accounts are, especially upon learning that one of the exonerees was convicted based upon the testimony of multiple witnesses.

So we spend a fair amount of time with a Florida inmate who has been locked away for twenty years, with DNA tests only recently performed. And still, the DA works to prevent or delay his release, citing procedural issues, or demanding a Y-Chromosome match with an even higher degree of accuracy. He's lucky to have a lawyer from The Innocence Project, a volunteer organization located in New York, working on his case. As one of the students who works at the project demonstrates, they have filing cabinets full of letters requesting their help that haven't even been opened, much less responded to.

In some ways, though, being released from prison isn't necessarily the hardest process. As we are shown, exonerees are not even given the same support system as parolees. No room in a halfway house, no help finding a job, and their record still shows them as having been convicted of a felony. That shows up when you're applying for a job, and even when you bring the paperwork that declares your innocence, the assumption is that you must be guilty of something; even if the record is expunged (after a lot of red tape), there's still a gaping hole in the resumé.

Some of the films' subjects were wrongfully imprisoned for twenty years or more of their prime earning years, putting their parents well past the age when most people retire and deeply in debt besides. The film loses a bit of power when trying to confront that situation, since the families appear to look at this as a fair trade for their sons' freedom. There is a brief segment on how Massachusetts has passed legislation to provide monetary compensation to exonerees.

The men themselves are an interesting cross-section - two in Pennsylvania are an interesting contrast, one mad at the world while the other has more or less retreated from it. A Massachusetts man has managed to mostly get back on his feet, but worries about meeting women - saying you've been cleared of being a serial rapist after ten years in jail isn't terribly reassuring. A former police officer in Rhode Island has become embittered, as one might expect, while a Louisiana man simply wants to cut hair.

Perhaps the strangest segment is the exoneree who teams with the woman who accused him of raping her to lecture law students on the unreliability of eyewitnesses. It's an interesting point, but there's something off about how they relate to each other. They seem rather friendly, but the voice-over indicates that they aren't really comfortable around each other. Which would make sense, given the years her testimony removed from his life. It gave me a little pause to wonder how much the subjects were trying to put their best face forward for the camera.

Of course, that's going to be an issue with any documentary; After Innocence does at least handle the situation well. It does a fine job of using the tools at its disposal to tell a story about an interesting and worthwhile subject.

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originally posted: 04/29/05 12:58:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Philadelphia Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Independent Film Festival of Boston. For more in the 2005 Independent Film Festival of Boston series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2005 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Chicago Film Festival For more in the 2005 Chicago Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2005 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/26/08 Charles Tatum Very compelling 4 stars
1/09/06 Jeff Marzick A weak death penalty supporter before film. Not anymore. A must see for all. 5 stars
2/02/05 Philip Taylor its ok 3 stars
2/01/05 Gladys Paradowski It is frightening to realize that there are individuals suffering the 4 stars
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  DVD: 06-Feb-2007



Directed by
  Jessica Sanders

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