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Life 'After Innocence'

A powerful new documentary explores the struggle of seven former prisoners, newly exonerated of horrible crimes.
 
 
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Perhaps it all started with Harrison Ford's role as "The Fugitive" in 1993. Or perhaps it's because in recent years almost 400 inmates have been proven innocent and released from prison after being convicted of crimes they didn't commit.

Whatever the reason, the idea that America's criminal justice system is insufferably flawed is steadily gaining traction in the public mind. It's due, in large part, to the work of activists like Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld (founders of groundbreaking legal clinic the Innocence Project), and artists like Taryn Simon (acclaimed photographer of The Innocents). The plight of these erstwhile "criminals" is also the focus of a new ABC television series, " In Justice," starring Kyle MacLachlan.

But what's been largely missing from the media's love affair with innocence is the soul behind this sensational story: the fact that behind each exonerated prisoner is a person with a life and a family beyond prison bars. The tragedy of post-conviction exoneration isn't just what it reveals about the grim state of our legal system, but the fact that after being released, many exonerees receive little more than an apology: no compensation, education, job training or emotional counseling. They're expected, instead, to walk away smiling from cells they didn't deserve to inhabit in the first place, grateful for the chance to re-enter old lives that, for many, feel as outdated as an ill-fitting high school sweater.

It's this struggle -- not just to readjust to life post-exoneration, but to win state compensation for wasted years -- that Los Angeles filmmaker Jessica Sanders attempts to capture in her powerful new documentary, " After Innocence," which premiered to wide acclaim at last January's Sundance Film Festival and opens in theaters nationwide today.

"Wrongful conviction can happen to anyone," Sanders reminded me during a recent telephone interview. "It's not just about race, or being poor. We are all potential jurors."

Sanders' feature-length film follows seven ethnically diverse male exonerees through their traumatic post-prison journeys. The men have little in common except their wrongful incarcerations: Scott Hornoff, a former cop from Rhode Island, served the least amount of time -- six and a half years -- behind bars; the longest sentence was the 23 years on death row served by Pennsylvanian Nicholas Yarris. After their exonerations, nearly all became politically engaged by the experience.

A bear of a man with a thick Boston accent, Dennis Maher manages to be both good-natured and indignant about the 19 years he served for three violent rapes he had nothing to do with. (The real perpetrator has yet to be found.) "The administration of justice in Massachusetts is a crock of shit," Maher pronounces at the start of "After Innocence," before repeatedly breaking down in tears during the film. Maher's quest to make up for lost time, and get married and have kids as soon as possible, is one of the movie's sweeter subplots -- he obsesses about his Match.com profile like it's his job.

Maher wrote to NYC's Innocence Project after seeing founder Barry Scheck interviewed on the "Phil Donahue Show" in 1993 and was freed via DNA evidence a long 10 years later. Both Scheck and Donahue, who are interviewed in the film, say they received countless letters from prisoners claiming innocence, like Maher, after the program aired.

In some ways, Maher is one of the luckier exonerees profiled in Sanders' film. Though he served a longer sentence than some of the other subjects, the state of Massachusetts passed an exoneration compensation law during the course of the film, granting Maher some financial recoup for his time served.

According to the Life After Exoneration program, only 20 states currently have this type of law -- and they have strict limitations; in New Hampshire, you cannot receive more than $20,000, no matter how much time served. And in California, exonerees could receive up to $36,500 per year, but they have only six months, post-release, to apply.

This state-sanctioned stinginess makes it even harder for exonerees to get back on their feet. Vincent Moto, an African-American father from "a good neighborhood and the best schools" of Philadelphia, was released from prison in 1996, after DNA proved him innocent of the rape for which he served ten and a half years.

Moto's return to society, as documented in the film, is anything but smooth. "Psychologically, something has happened to him," his sister says. He doesn't "feel able to be a man," he explains; he doesn't trust women anymore. Though he's understandably thrilled to be home with his kids, Moto is outraged by the treatment he's received from the state of Pennsylvania, which dumped him on the street with nothing by way of explanation or apology beyond, "We made a mistake. See you later; have a good life."

Since he didn't have a well-established career before his imprisonment, Moto finds it nearly impossible to land a job now that he's free. As his sister reminds us, "People don't know he's out because he was exonerated. People just know he's out."

Like some of Sanders' other subjects in "After Innocence," Moto channels his frustration into attempts to change the system. In the seven years since his release, he has been actively campaigning for the Pennsylvania legislature to enact compensation exoneration laws. But he still can't find a full-time job to support himself and his family (his parents, kissing 70, have returned to work to help pay off Moto's mountainous legal bills), and shockingly, his criminal record has still not been expunged.

But something as profound as freedom -- after decades of physical and emotional lock-up -- tends to engage even the most apolitical of sorts. Sanders was amazed to find that, despite the hardships of prison life, these men clung to a positive outlook. Some formed their own political movement for exonerees' rights.

Prior to the film, Sanders worked on a documentary series spinoff of "Law and Order" called "Crime and Punishment," where she became adept at capturing the intricacies of live criminal trials. The difference, she told me, was that on the show they focused "more on the side of winning than on justice." With "After Innocence," the opposite is true.

For her part, Sanders is thrilled with how the film turned out. She hopes "it will let audiences connect on a human level with the amazing and inspiring stories of people who managed to become positive and productive citizens" post-exoneration.

And in all likelihood, Sanders has nothing to worry about. Since its January 2005 premiere, "After Innocence" has won loads of accolades, from the Women in Film award at the Seattle International Film Festival to the Special Jury Prize at Sundance -- and the latter was an event in and of itself, Sanders recalls with a laugh. "We flew everyone from the film out to Sundance. No one had seen it yet," she says. "I was incredibly nervous. I was sitting next to the exonerees, and they were all crying. It's their film, their story. They're being seen and heard in ways they haven't before."

Laura Barcella is AlterNet's front page editor.