Friday, November 9, 2007

?After Innocence,? then what?

Documentary follows ?exonerees? who turn activists

Express Staff Writer

Jessica Sanders interviews Nick Yarris, who spent 23 years on death row in solitary confinement for a murder he did not commit. Courtesy photos: American Film Foundation

One of the biggest nightmares a person can live through has to be being arrested, tried, convicted and jailed when you are in fact totally innocent. The long battle to prove your innocence can steal years away from you. For many people who died in jail before DNA testing was available, the battle became a life sentence. Today, DNA testing is one of the most effective means of proving innocence other than having the real culprit confess.

However, despite the widespread acceptance of DNA testing as a reliable form of forensic evidence, many prisoners don't have the means to secure testing on evidence in their case. Sometimes that comes down to the state in which a person is convicted.

As of July 1, 2007, 42 states have some form of law permitting inmates access to DNA testing. The other eight states have no law granting such access.

OK, let's say you are exonerated, based on DNA testing. Then what happens?

"After Innocence," an award-winning documentary directed by Jessica Sanders, tackles just this touchy subject. Hosted by The Community Library, it will be screened at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 11, at the Magic Lantern cinema in Ketchum. The Community Library hopes that high school students will make a point of attending this important film. The proceeds will benefit the Ketchum library.

"Most of these guys went in (to prison) right after high school at 19, 20 years old," Sanders said. "I say to students, 'Imagine the duration if from now on you were locked away.' It could happen to anybody. It really can happen. When students have seen it, they're really angered by the way our system works. You see it in a really intimate fashion."

The film tracks the lives of seven men through different stages of their resettlement into society. Dennis Maher of Lowell, Mass., spent 19 years proclaiming his innocence for three rapes in Massachusetts. Calvin Willis of Shreveport, La., spent almost 21 years in prison. Scott Hornoff of Providence, R.I., was a cop when he was arrested for murder. Released in 2002, after the real killer confessed, he was sent to Afghanistan last week to help train Afghanistan solders.

Sounding concerned, Sanders said, "It's very dangerous." She has remained in touch with the men featured in the movie and involved in their lives and battles to some degree.

Vincent Moto, of Philadelphia, who was released after more than 10 years, was never compensated nor granted an apology by the state of Pennsylvania. He was convicted on the basis of eyewitness misidentification, said to be the most common reason for mistakes made in wrongful arrests and convictions.

"Right now we're doing a fundraising effort for him," Sanders said. "His neighbor's house burned down and burned half his house too. He needs money to rebuild. He's a single dad and a great person. He's had so many unfortunate things happen."

Nick Yarris, also of Philadelphia, now lives in London, and has a book deal with Harper Collins, Sanders said. "He's doing really well."

Herman Atkins, another former prisoner, just received $2 million in compensation from the state of California.

The only man still in prison during the filming of "After Innocence" and ultimately released is Wilton Dedge, of Cocoa Beach, Fla. The first exoneree in Florida, he still has a criminal record.

"If he didn't have his family he'd literally have been homeless," Sanders said. "The Florida Legislature passed a private compensation bill just for him and recently gave him $2 million dollars.

"So he's fighting on behalf of other others. Everyone continues to fight the battle and trying to help others. We're part of this larger community. A couple months ago we all celebrated the 15th anniversary of the Innocence Project. Fifty exonerees were there at a big gala event in New York City."

Sanders will be in attendance to answer questions following the screening of the film at the Magic Lantern. Along with Marc Simon, Sanders also wrote and co-produced the film in association with The American Film Foundation.

At the time, Simon was a student the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law who was working with the Innocence Project. He brought the idea to Sanders. Lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, founders of the Innocent Project—which has helped to exonerate more than 150 people through the use of DNA testing in the last decade—are featured in the documentary, along with human rights activist Lola Vollen, co-founder of the Life After Exoneration Program.

The film doesn't delve deeply into the political nature of the situation but rather explores the human toll that wrongful imprisonment can have on people, both within prison and once outside, after being exonerated.

"The main idea is that innocent people get nothing," Sanders said. "Not even an apology."

One of the most dramatic stories in the film is that of Dedge.

"He fought for 15 years to get DNA testing done," Sanders said. "The prosecutors resisted. Even after he was proved innocent, he still sat in prison another three years. The DNA proved he was innocent but once you're convicted it's very difficult. You get nothing; guilty people get more social services (when released) than the exonerated."

"After Innocence" premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2005 and won the Special Jury Prize. It also won top awards at the Seattle Film Festival, Boston Independent Film Festival, Nantucket Film Festival, Newport Beach Film Festival, and Full Frame Documentary Festival.

"The fight continues on, on a more national level," Sanders said. "The film has been used as a major educational tool by different states, and law schools. It's helping to open dialogue. When we stared there were 127 exonerees. Now there are 210."

In 2002, Sanders produced the documentary "Sing!" which was nominated for an Oscar and Emmy and aired nationally on PBS. Her next project is a film she will be shooting in Brazil about community samba schools that participate in Carnival, Brazil's annual festival.

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