The suggestion blind justice may sometimes be too blind for its own good burns at the heart of “After Innocence,” a powerfully affecting documentary on the subject of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence. Raising awareness as it raises questions about the integrity of the American legal system, Showtime-produced feature (which collected a Special Jury Prize at Sundance) should draw sizable numbers of socially conscious viewers in both theatrical and small-screen settings.
Working together with writing and producing partner Marc H. Simon, Sanders turns her camera on seven wrongfully imprisoned men who have been belatedly exonerated as the result of DNA testing. Employing a direct, unfussy style, pic is structured as a series of first-person testimonials in which Sanders’ subjects recount the entire arcs of their cases, from the moment of arrest to the moment of release. What emerges is a complex and deeply troubling portrait of crime and punishment in America.
Perhaps pic’s most alarming tale — among a number of remarkable stories that highlight injustice, courage and endurance — is that of Florida inmate Wilton Dedge, who in 2001 used DNA evidence to prove himself innocent of sexual battery charges. Yet Dedge remained behind bars for an additional three years as local authorities fought to uphold his original conviction.
Such incidents are more rule than exception in “After Innocence,” and Sanders is particularly good at drawing attention to the bureaucracy that inhibits the swift execution of justice while maintaining a facade of infallibility. (One of the pic’s other subjects, falsely convicted rapist Vincent Moto, still awaits the expunging of his criminal record, some nine years after his exoneration.)
Yet the real focus of Sanders’ pic becomes not the harrowing path leading to exoneration, but the equally perilous one that follows from it. Unlike parolees, who re-enter society with an extensive network of social services at their disposal, exonerees are comparatively cut loose with no safety net; they are rejected by the system that imprisoned them, yet equally unwelcome by a society that continues to regard them as damaged goods. Though “After Innocence” is an unquestionably (and rightfully) angry film, rooted in that long tradition of activist agitprop, what impresses most is the manner in which it keeps its outrage (and that of its subjects) simmering just beneath a reasoned surface. At every turn, Sanders resists the impulse to appear overtly emotional.
And though many of the pic’s subjects would surely have been executed were it not for DNA, “After Innocence” refuses to narrowly focus on the death-penalty debate (though it does examine the work of the Innocence Project, the human rights organization co-founded by attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld). Instead, the pic sets its sights on something far more ambitious: the ideal of a nation that can effectively police its streets without turning into a police state.