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By KJ Doughton | November 8, 2005

Let’s say you’re unjustly convicted of a felony crime – a rape, perhaps. You spend a decade or more behind bars, wilting and warping in a claustrophobic, criminal subculture. Maybe you have a family on the outside. Your children and significant others go about their lives, which you relish only vicariously, through phone calls and postcards. Soccer games and band performances don’t have the same immediacy when you’re confined miles away, collecting ground under your wheels for the misdeeds of someone else.

Feel angry? Violated? Uncomfortable? Good. It’s this same sense of outrage that drives some filmmakers to max out credit cards, quit jobs, and essentially put their conventional lives on hold to make movies. Take Raven-haired, L.A.-based Jessica Sanders, whose film After Innocence was fueled by this urgent emotional push. Her movie is a startling examination of unjustly convicted men exonerated by DNA evidence, and it stings like a nest of angry hornets.

After working as an associate producer and camera operator for NBC’s “Crime and Punishment” series, Sanders felt a growing skepticism over America’s sentencing process. “I really had seen how adversarial the system was,” she revealed to a sold-out crowd at the 2005 Seattle International Film Festival.” I did see some defendants whom I thought were being unfairly sentenced. I started to see how complex the system was.”

“After Innocence” is a well researched, emotionally wrenching insider’s look at several men convicted of crimes ranging from rape to murder. All were subsequently proven innocent by DNA evidence, or by admissions of guilt from those truly responsible. The subject matter is so volatile that it stands on its own – there’s no need for fancy artistic flourishes or Michael Moore-ish narrative irony to beef it up. In an inspired move, Sanders takes us beyond her subjects’ releases from prison and into their lives beyond incarceration. What is it like to re-enter society with the scarlet letter of “pseudo guilty” forever branded on your face?

Take North Carolina’s Ronald Cotton, identified from a police line-up by rape victim Jennifer Thompson-Camino as her attacker in 1984. Over a decade later, DNA evidence confirmed that it was Bobby Poole, not Cotton, who had committed the crime. “After Innocence” informs us that this type of visual misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful conviction. Meanwhile, with years of Cotton’s police photos burned into her brain, Thompson-Camino admitted that a permanent correlation between the innocent man and her attack had been forged. “Cotton’s face was so ingrained in my memory,” she recalls in the film, “I didn’t even recognize Bobbie Poole.”

“It was important to have a victim’s perspective in this story,” asserts Sanders. “Misidentification is a huge factor in many wrongful conviction cases. Over time, the actual person who committed the crime becomes a fading memory. By the time (Thompson-Camino) actually saw the rapist, she could not recognize him.”

The film’s objective reporting on these cases is interesting on its own. But the more intimate human dramas surrounding the men’s courtroom vindications make up the heart of “After Innocence.” While Cotton may never regain the years that he spent behind bars, he did win the respect and friendship of his one-time accuser. Thompson-Camino has become a close comrade, and when the film captures both of these traumatized souls walking together as understanding chums, we admire their forgiveness and strength.

Then there’s Massachusetts-based Dennis Maher, a gentle giant whose bushy moustache and working-class manner bring to mind Dennis Franz (“LAPD Blue”). Convicted of three unrelated rape counts in 1984, Maher spent 19 years in prison. Understandably, his family was shattered. “When he got arrested,” says his father in the film, “I felt like I got arrested with him.”

While locked up, Maher persisted in his efforts to bring the truth to light. After viewing an episode of the Phil Donahue show in which DNA testing was explained, he sent the T.V. talk-show host a letter from prison, outlining his story. Maher was referred to the Innocence Project, a charity-based legal consultation service coordinated by Barry Sheck (yes, that Barry Sheck, from the O.J. Simpson defense team). In April of 2003, Maher was exonerated by DNA evidence.

Maher pulled his life back together, obtaining steady employment and starting a family. During a telephone interview, Sanders suggested two factors impacting his success. “Dennis’ prosecutor apologized to him,” she explained. “This might seem so simple, but it was a huge part of his healing process. An apology from the person who put them behind bars goes so far. And Dennis can cry. He’s in touch with his emotions. He’s a dad now. That’s what he wanted.

“Dennis was also unique in that he was the only one from the film who had the benefit of prison therapy. These guys come out damaged. They’re still institutionalized, in a way. However, Dennis is an example of how positive opportunities that exist in prison can make incarceration time productive.”

“After Innocence” won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance and went on to claim the Women in Cinema Lena Sharpe Award at SIFF. And despite depicting Maher’s post-prison life as one of relative happiness, the film is quick to point out that struggles continue for these men, even after their convictions are overturned. Ever wondered what it might feel like to fill out an application for employment, reach the question, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime,” and not know which box to check? According to one subject, it requires $6,000 and considerable paperwork to expunge records of the crime, even after exoneration.

“One guy had to bring his exoneration papers to an apartment before they would accept him as a tenant,” describes Sanders. “There’s a lot of resistance to the concept of purging records. The system is not set up for innocent people.”

And what about compensation? Surely, states prioritize the need to reimburse these men for the years spent paying penance for the deeds of others… or do they? “Only seventeen people have been compensated for wrongful conviction,” says Sanders. “The film has been shown to legislators in Florida and Pennsylvania, with the hope of inspiring support for wrongful conviction legislation.”

Meanwhile, how does the stigma of perceived guilt impact family ties? Herman Atkins, who spent over eleven years in prison before exoneration, endured the pain of a doubting, law enforcer dad reluctant to accept his son’s innocence. “His father was a California Highway Patrol officer who did not believe Herman, and essentially disowned him,” explains Sanders. “He said, ‘My job is to put people in prison, not visit people in prison.’ I thought that was really unusual. Most men in the film survived because of amazing family support. But not Herman, whose dad didn’t believe him. His mom died shortly after his release.”

DNA testing might prove the catalyst for freeing many men mistakenly put behind bars. However, this process is not always available. Scott Hornoff, a Rhode Island police officer accused of murdering his girlfriend, was exonerated following another man’s confession thirteen years after the crime. According to Sanders, a botched investigation ensured that DNA evidence would not be an option. “The crime scene was literally trampled,” she describes. “There were footprints and things that were trampled over. DNA evidence wasn’t properly preserved.”

“After Innocence” is Sanders’ feature-length debut. But it’s not her first film as a director. “Los Angels,” a short narrative film directed and produced by Sanders, was released in 2000. A year later, the filmmaker produced “Sing!” Directed by Freida Lee Mock, this sophomore project celebrated L.A.-based children’s choirs and earned Sanders an Oscar nomination for Best Short Subject Documentary. It was her work on “Crime and Punishment,” however, that sparked Sanders’ interest in the theme of unjust convictions. “My producing partner on ‘Crime and Punishment’ came up with the idea,” she reveals. “I couldn’t believe that there had not been a film done on this subject. When I started the film, there were 127 exonerees. Now, there are 159.”

Perhaps aware of the inherent emotional charge carried within her material, Sanders wisely chooses to avoid arty camerawork or unnecessary clutter. Instead, she closes in on the sad, hangdog face of Wilton Dedge, who remained behind bars for three years following proof of his innocence. “After Innocence” concludes as Dedge is finally released. Sanders’ camera follows the man’s haggard form as he returns home after 22 years of wrongful imprisonment. There’s no hint of noble background music or preachy voice-over. All the same, the spent look in Dedge’s eyes is sure to elicit a thousand angry tears from filmgoers.

One might expect the men of “After Innocence” to be zombified, cynical, and seething with frustration after years spent wearing the weighty albatross of wrongful conviction around their necks. Surprisingly, Sanders’ movie unveils an astonishing level of goodwill among its subjects.

Some exonerees, like Nick Yarris, have established official web sites to tell their wrenching tales. Yarris served a staggering 21 year sentence before his exoneration in 2003. But instead of slinging arrows at those who did him wrong, Yarris rejoices in the recent laser surgery he received to correct his vision. He also uses his Internet site to lament the London terrorist attacks of early summer. “I know what hate is,” Yarris writes in response to the bombings. “I know what it is to suffer injustice. But God has no need of anyone to kill innocent humans to correct yesterday’s pain.”

Wrongful conviction is a scalding, ugly concept that no-one wants to face. “After Innocence,” however, refuses to deny its awful presence. “Audiences don’t know that it goes on to this degree,” says Sanders. “Hopefully, when (‘After Innocence’) comes out theatrically, the attention will result in some positive change.”

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