Injustice for All
What's wrong with this picture? A black man and a white woman pose formally -- incongruously -- on a muddy riverbank surrounded by scraggly brush, brown water and sand. The man, tall and broad and dressed in a sweater and tasseled loafers, wraps his left arm around the woman's back. His jaw is set, as if in anger or defiance. His right hand hangs at his side, fingers splayed, thumb hooked awkwardly into the pocket of his black dress slacks. The woman, whose blond head meets his shoulder, folds her arms tightly across her chest. Deep, vertical creases run from nose to forehead and press outward from her frowning mouth. Her eyes appear perpetually sad.
The question presented by this image, which appears in Taryn Simon's new book of photographs, "The Innocents", is answered on the facing page. Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton are not lovers. What binds them together is one violent act and its eternal repercussions. Nineteen years ago Thompson accused Cotton of robbing and raping her in her North Carolina home. She based her unwavering claim in large part on a mug shot shown to her by police. She was wrong. As the book title suggests, he was cleared of the crime -- but only after he had served 10 and a half years of hard time. Thompson's account of her mistake, which appears in the book alongside the portrait of the pair, is a chilling testament to the frailty of memory and the power of a photograph to supplant it.
"By the time we went to do a physical lineup . . . I picked out Ronald because subconsciously, in my mind, he resembled the photo, which resembled the composite [sketch], which resembled the attacker," Thompson said. "All the images became enmeshed into one image that became Ron, and Ron became my attacker."
The story of this false identification and its tragic consequences is one of 46 recounted in "The Innocents," a collaboration of Simon, a 28-year-old photography wunderkind, and the Innocence Project, Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck's New York-based effort that employs DNA testing to free the wrongly convicted. In the 11 years since its founding, the project has helped secure the release of 127 men and women. All 45 men and the one woman featured in "The Innocents" were freed with the help of the project, which provided some funding for the book as well as case narratives and a brief opening commentary by Neufeld and Scheck.
But the bulk of the work for the book fell to Simon. With the help of a Guggenheim Fellowship, she spent three years crisscrossing the country, interviewing and photographing the book's subjects, whose wrongful convictions occurred in 18 different states, from California to Kentucky, Texas to Indiana.
Simon, who spoke about "The Innocents" by phone from her Manhattan apartment during a pounding rainstorm, said that it began several years ago as an assignment to photograph a number of exonerated men and women for The New York Times Magazine. She was struck by the number of instances in which photographs were misused to win the faulty convictions. "As I was listening to their stories, I realized that the photography kept coming up again and again and again as a factor that led to what happened to them," she said. "I had never imagined such a thing, and it really drew me in."
"The Innocents" tells the stories of these unwilling participants, in their words and in Simon's images. There is little overt emotion here, but the magnitude of the tragedy quietly builds, page by page. One man, Walter (Tony) Snyder, was convicted of raping a neighbor in Alexandria, Virginia. Police had shown the victim a photo array that included a snapshot of Snyder. The victim did not identify Snyder as her attacker. But later that day, when she returned home, she saw Snyder washing his car across the street. She remembered seeing his photo at the police station and accused him of the assault. Snyder served seven years of a 45-year sentence before DNA testing set him free.
In another case, Herman Atkins was accused of raping and robbing a shoe-store clerk in the Riverside County community of Lake Elsinore after the clerk saw a wanted poster with Atkins' image at the police station. Atkins served 11 and a half years of a 45-year sentence.
In a third case, Tim Durham was accused of raping an 11-year-old girl in her back yard in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His conviction was based on her description of the attacker as a short man with red hair and her identification of a photograph. Durham served three and a half years of a 3,220-year sentence.
All told, the men and woman portrayed in "The Innocents" served nearly 560 years for crimes they did not commit. By visual count, it appears that 28 are black, 14 white and three Latino (one of the subjects is not pictured). Judging from the case summaries and interviews accompanying the portraits, all are lower-middle-class or poor. Many lack formal education.
For these men and woman, whose only official record was a criminal one, Simon set out to create a historical document of a different sort, one that would be as different from the original specimens as technologically possible. "The photography that was used in misidentification was always very degraded, with a sort of blurring of the details," she said. "I used large format so the resolution is almost more than the eye can see. You see every single detail. That was important." She paused. "It was also important for me to have the images be very beautiful, if I can say that, and very respectful and quiet."
The result is something far removed from classic photojournalism, or even traditional photo portraiture. The stillness of the images -- bordering on aloofness -- and jeweled shades of red, green and yellow, seems more aligned with Hopper than Leibovitz. In many instances, especially those shot at the scene of the crime, the combination of light and posture suggests that the subject is superimposed on the background, an effect Simon consciously sought. "I was really hoping to create that sort of distance, an impersonal feeling," she said. "For many of them this is a place they had never been before. It is this fictional setting in their heads, one that was with them constantly, whether in court or in their quiet time in prison. It's always there, but they have no sense of what it is because they've never been there."
Simon's first choice was always to photograph the subjects at the crime scene. But many of the men were reluctant to visit a place that had played such a terrible role in their lives. She also photographed the books' subjects at the scene of the alibi, at home, or at another location they were comfortable with. Sometimes that alternate place suggests another story, one totally apart from the details of the crime. For Cotton and Johnson, for example, the river's edge is irrelevant to the story. It was, Simon explained, simply a place that was convenient for both to meet. Simon does not consider herself a photojournalist in any conventional sense, and she's comfortable with that degree of artistic license.
You Can�t Catch Up
Most other portraits are set in locations with a direct connection to the case. Walter Snyder is photographed in his living room standing against a mirrored wall that reflects the building where the rape took place. Durham, who had 11 witnesses testify to his presence at a skeet-shooting contest at the time of the crime, sits amid a thousand blasted red clay targets. Scattered over a grassy field, the shards suggest the poppy field from The Wizard of Oz, though Durham's worried expression and the cocked shotgun in his hands tell another story. Herman Atkins stands against a bare concrete wall wearing a football-practice uniform and gripping a signed football. As it turns out, he is enrolled at Los Angeles Southwest Community College, where he plays on the football team. When the reader arrives at Atkins' page, which appears about two-thirds of the way through the book, this scrap of positive news stands out: He is one of the few in this book with anything going for him. But even he talks of his frustration over the years he lost. "I'm always going to be a step behind," he said. "You can't catch up."
Many of the others are consumed by anger, resignation and despair. Among the more disturbing is Ron Williamson. A former minor-league baseball player who suffers from mental illness, Williamson was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a barmaid in Ada, Oklahoma. Williamson had been drafted by the Oakland A's before his arrest. He spent 11 years in prison. This is what he told Simon, and what she recorded next to his image, his face twisted into a grimace as he stands, hands stuffed in pockets, on a red baseball field: "I asked myself what was the reason for my birth when I was on death row. What was even the reason for my birth? I almost cursed my mother and dad -- it was so bad -- for putting me on this Earth. If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn't be born."
Richard Danziger, thrown into prison for life for the rape and murder of a Pizza Hut manager in Austin, Texas, served 12 years. During that time, he was attacked, his skull bashed in by other inmates. He survived a weeks-long coma, but now, at age 32, he suffers from seizures, mental problems and partial paralysis on his left side. His sister, who is his legal guardian, says: "The only difference from being in jail is that now he has people who care about his well-being. Which is better: a place where you eat three meals a day, shower, sleep, make no decisions -- or the unknown named freedom? Will Richard ever have freedom, or has the justice system robbed him of that opportunity forever?"
This from another "freed" man, Frederick Daye: "If I sat down with a person and emptied my heart out and let them know everything I've been through, he'd be stark raving mad."
Perversely, these are the lucky ones. Only about 20 percent of serious felony cases involve the kind of evidence that can be DNA-tested to prove guilt or innocence, according to Scheck and Neufeld's commentary. And in only a fraction of those does the evidence ever get tested. How many other men and women locked up in our prisons are innocent?
The cover of "The Innocents" features a grid of head shots -- or "free-man mug shots," as one of the men joked to Simon -- reminiscent of a page in a yearbook. In many ways these innocents are in a class apart. Their cases were among the first to be championed using a newly sophisticated technology that did not exist at the time of the crime. Since then, the depth of understanding of the uses -- and abuses -- of DNA testing has grown tremendously.
It's not so hard to imagine the book 10 years from now chronicling the next generation of abuse, one in which cases of false imprisonment are based not on misuse of photos but on DNA cheating -- planting of hairs at crime scenes, swapping of evidence. Indeed, it would be a huge mistake to think that DNA eliminates the necessity for constant vigilance. "We're in a dangerous area because we're dealing with 'science,' and people seem a little too comfortable eliminating the human discussion," Simon said. "I worry that we'll get to a point where the science will exist in a vacuum, and that's really scary."
In the meantime, as more and more men and women are freed, the problem of dealing with their ruined lives becomes ever more urgent. A Frontline documentary by Ofra Bikel that aired earlier this month (and featured some of Simon's photographs) chronicled the vast wasteland that awaits those who are set free. Most get nothing from the government by way of financial support, counseling or job training, and fall into poverty and depression. Simon hopes her book, and the accompanying show (which opened at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York this week but as yet has no L.A. venue), will heighten awareness of this growing concern.
The last photograph in "The Innocents" visits the tranquil scene of a long-ago crime: a doublewide trailer cast in a dappled glow, flanked by a bird feeder and a roof-high ladder. A TV antenna stands sentry on the roof, and a small American flag hangs out front. Unlike the rest of the photos in the book, this image shows no sign of human life. Kenneth Waters served 18 years of a life sentence for the robbery and stabbing death of a woman who lived in this Massachusetts home. Six months after his release, he fell in an accident and died. "Tragically," the book says, but one has to wonder just how tragic it is, considering the hell many of these innocents confront every day.
"The Innocents"; Photographs and interviews by Taryn Simon with commentary by Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck; Umbrage Editions; 104 pages; $35 hardcover