After Innocence

The subject of After Innocence is the Innocent Project’s work to exonerate wrongfully-imprisoned people in the United States. Composed of mainly civil rights lawyers and others sensitive to how much wrong the “criminal justice” system can do, the Project tries to provide legal assistance to people in prison who they believe have been incarcerated based on faulty evidence. After a widely-broadcast Phil Donahue episode about a wrongfully-imprisoned man, many prisoners began writing letters professing their innocence to the Project. We are shown file cabinets full of letters that Innocent Project members have yet to even read due to the overload of requests. While audiences are not shown how these requests are filtered and vetted in order to determine which cases to pursue and support, it is clear that the Project does gets a lot of assistance from sympathetic law students (which is great, as it rescues them from a career path of working as corporate lawyers).

The Innocence Project estimates that many thousands of prisoners in the US are innocent of the crimes they were convicted for. DNA testing technology is the main tool used to help investigate the accuracy of these convictions. Unfortunately, DNA testing can only be done if physical evidence from a case still exists—if it has been destroyed or is missing (a pretty common occurrence), then it is impossible to verify if the convicted actually did what they were sentenced for, and thus to be exonerated. Audiences see a half-dozen examples of wrongfully-imprisoned men go through a long process of trying to prove their innocence, or see them interviewed after they have been released. These men are emotionally damaged by their experiences of imprisonment as well as their faith in the justice of “the system”. Interestingly, many of these men remark that they didn’t think the system could commit such injustices (prior to it happening to them). Thus, the more-appropriately-identified “deviance response system” (the label of “criminal justice system” does not seem to be accurate) is voracious and out-of-control. While the men are harmed by their experiences, it is unclear if the system itself is sorry for its actions: a judge and a prosecutor apologize (authentically, it seems) to those they wrongfully sentenced, but audiences don’t know if these powerful men plan to change their future behaviors.

Further struggles exist once people are released from prison. It is challenging for innocent “ex-convicts” to get their records expunged. Surprisingly, it is even difficult for a police officer who was wrongfully-imprisoned to get his benefits and job back. Suing for damages is even more difficult, as it would imply that there were mistakes made in the way that prosecutors aggressively pursued convictions at all costs. It would, obviously, require prosecutors to only prosecute where appropriate—this contradicts typical convention, as prosecutors work to create reputations as “tough on crime”, so they can climb the occupational ladder and eventually become judges. The arrogance of some prosecutors becomes pretty clear. One remarks that the system didn’t do anything wrong, even though it wrongfully imprisoned someone. Another prosecutor gets heated in the court room and condescendingly tries to dismiss and accuse the Innocence Project of being bias (too “pro-convict”), due the organization’s name. Of course, this prosecutor is unreflexive of the bias implicit in the title of his own occupation—“to prosecute”—and does not want to own up to the fact his position makes him automatically skeptical of every defendant.

Curiously, although After Innocence is a film about the wrongfully-imprisoned in America, so much of it could also apply to those who are guilty of the crimes they were convicted. The lives of non-exonerated ex-felons are very similar to the men featured here. They all have difficulty getting jobs, convincing others to trust them, and dealing with intensity of the outside world (one remarks that everything is so loud outside of prison).

There were a few things in After Innocence that made me uncomfortable, even though I am in complete support of the Innocence Project’s work to release wrongfully-imprisoned people (and even my belief in releasing supposedly “correctly”-imprisoned people). I have a feminist concern about the over-presentation of rape cases in the film. Perhaps DNA evidence lends itself most to this type of legal case and evidence, but I was unnerved by the conclusion that many might take away from the film. I’m concerned that over-skepticism of the testimony of rape victims may cause people to disbelieve women who are assaulted. During a hearing to release man wrongfully-convicted of rape, new evidence was offered that the female victim had four different men’s sperm in her vagina, as if to suggest that she was of questionable trustworthiness. Given the scary levels of women who experience sexual violence in their lifetimes, I am uncomfortable with anything that makes people less likely to believe women. There needs to be a way to discuss why wrongful identifications are made or why inaccurate evidence is used in court. I think even presenting statistics on rape (and the prosecution of rape) would help to contextualize this part of the film more.

Additionally, I would like to know why so few murder cases—which also involve physical evidence in which DNA testing is relevant—were included in After Innocence. Those cases are the ones that I had presumed were most common. As such, I wanted to hear more about how and why the Illinois governor halted all death row executions a number of years ago after it was shown that many death row inmates were innocent of the crimes they had been convicted of. The governor actually appears briefly in the film, but little is said about his role in this phenomenon.

One final element would have helped to strengthen After Innocence: all that research that shows jury prejudice (especially in regards to race inequality) and faulty eye-witness testimony (including police testimony based on memory). Given how much of such scholarly research has been done, this would have been a ideal way to bolster the DNA-based evidential claims of wrongful-imprisonment. By showing how “the system” gets it wrong so often would be valuable in fostering critical thinking, and healthy skepticism of how the legal system functions and is prone to convict regardless of evidence and reality. Some of these arguments were indirectly referenced in the film, but a few legal scholars would have helped drive the point home better. Still, After Innocence is a film that will illuminate the “mistakes” that the system can commit and will hopefully attune audiences to challenging it more in the future.

Topics: crime, law, justice

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