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Freed by DNA, but still shackled by society

You've spent two decades in prison for a crime you didn't commit. You've just been exonerated thanks to DNA evidence. You're free. Now where are you going to go?

Certainly not Disneyland, as ''After Innocence" shows with bleak and patient sympathy. Jessica Sanders's documentary, a special jury award winner at Sundance in 2005, focuses on a group of men who have been released with the help of the Innocence Project, an organization formed in 1992 by Peter Neufeld and ex-O.J. Simpson attorney Barry Scheck for the express purpose of springing the wrongfully convicted. The process of rejoining the living isn't easy before the cell doors open, and it's not easy afterward.

Nick Yarris, a soft-spoken but eerily intense man who spent 23 years on death row for a murder he didn't do, points out that he'd have had more access to social services if he'd been guilty and paroled; instead, he received $5 and a handshake from the state of Pennsylvania. That embarrassed institutional response is common to all the exonerees profiled in ''After Innocence." In many cases, the men's criminal records still stand, making it nearly impossible to find employment. On the most prosaic level, their lives remain crippled. ''People don't know he's out because he's innocent," says the mother of Vincent Moto. ''They just know he's out."

The film's eight subjects are as varied as Sanders and her producer and co-writer, Marc H. Simon, can make them. Scott Hornoff is a white former Rhode Island policeman who served 6 1/2 years for murder and was freed only after the real killer confessed; Hornoff has had to fight, successfully, to win reinstatement and back pay. Ronald Cotton, an African-American who spent 11 years in prison for rape -- he's a mug-shot double for the man who actually did it -- has forged a unique and lasting friendship with victim Jennifer Thompson-Canino. The two now speak publicly about the perils of eyewitness identification, and Thompson-Canino is touchingly blunt about working off her guilt.

The most troubling subject is Wilton Dedge, whom the state of Florida refused for two years to release from life in prison for aggravated sexual battery, despite DNA proof it had the wrong man. The film follows his court appearances alongside Innocence Project attorney Nina Morrison, other lawyers, and Dedge's steadfast parents as they all fight upstream against incomprehensible bureaucratic intransigence.

As with many of the subjects, Dedge's lack of anger and capacity for forgiveness seem astounding to an outsider. After 22 years in jail he's finally freed, but the filmmakers have made their point: State prosecutors will do anything to save their conviction rates. Says Louisiana assistant district attorney Hugo Holland of exoneree Calvin Willis, ''The system worked the way it was supposed to, even if he was innocent." The willful institutional blindness on display here is breathtaking.

''After Innocence" isn't bravura filmmaking, and it doesn't have to be -- this is one of those documentaries where the subject is compelling enough to do the legwork. Sanders is more interested in specific human struggles than in larger political points, but she knows these men form a mosaic with a message that's unmistakable. (Her mother is Freida Lee Mock, Oscar-winning director of ''Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision," so maybe Sanders has documentary chops in her own DNA.)

The film ends on both uplifting and disturbing notes. Massachusetts passes a bill providing compensation for exonerees, prompting gruff ex-con Dennis Maher to burst into tears. Herman Atkins is studying for a psychology degree and has reconciled with his California patrolman father, who once believed in his son's guilt.

Vincent Moto's criminal record is still on the books in Philadelphia, though. No one knows how many innocents languish in American prisons without DNA evidence to acquit them. And the file drawers of the Innocence Project bulge with letters from men who insist they didn't do it.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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