Dennis Maher, a 43-year-old ex-army sergeant with a trim mustache wearing
a purple Garfield T-shirt, was the first exoneree I met in June 2002
in New York at the tenth anniversary of the Innocence Project. This
was the kickoff for the Life After Exoneration Program (LAEP). Dennis
had spent 19 years in prison for three rapes he did not commit and was
proven innocent by DNA evidence. He was the 127th exoneree and had only
been out of prison for one month. I was struck by how composed he was,
how he wasn’t a bitter, broken man. He had a plan—to live
with his parents until he got back on his feet, to find a job, to find
a wife, to start a family, to get compensated by the state of Massachusetts
and to prevent what happened to him from happening to other innocent
At this event Dennis was surrounded by 30 other exonerated men and
their families who had come from all over the country for the Innocence
Project’s anniversary, to bring attention to the injustice they
endured and to bring attention to the fresh injustices they face upon
their release from prison. For instance, very few states have compensation
laws and most exonerees can’t even get their records cleared.
They do not get housing, job placement and social services that guilty
people are provided. They are an embarrassment to the judicial system.
Rarely does an exoneree receive an apology.
During this four-day event, which became the opening scene of After
Innocence, I felt privileged, with my producing partner Marc Simon,
a former Innocence Project law intern, to be part of this emotional
reunion of such diverse people who could relate to one another in a
way that only someone who has been wrongfully convicted can truly understand.
These men and their families were also deeply grateful to the pro-bono
attorneys and law students who believed in them and worked on their
cases for years when no one else would. Many were meeting their “angels”
for the first time.
The artistic and thematic approach of this film was influenced by this
first meeting, where I could see the emotional rawness but also the
hopefulness of these innocent men. Because we had the support and blessing
of the Innocence Project (founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter
Neufeld), we were allowed into the lives of the exonerees with open
arms. This intimacy is reflected throughout the film. The exonerees
and their families participated in the film because they saw it, like
their experience, as larger than themselves, and felt that their story
could help others and enlighten the public about gross injustices in
It has been two and a half years since I first met Dennis. His hair
and beard have grown progressively longer and shaggier. He always has
a different gimmicky T-shirt (if it’s not Garfield, it’s
“What color does a Smurf turn when you choke it?”). He has
now been compensated by Massachusetts (how do you put a price on 19
years of your life?). He lives with his fiancée and a second
baby is on its way.
There are now 162 people exonerated by DNA testing, with more innocent
people getting released from prison every week. There are 2.2 million
people in prison in America. With a 1% error rate that’s over
20,000 innocent people in prison. How many innocents like Dennis are
still in prison fighting? How many don’t have the benefit of DNA
evidence in their cases? (Only 20% of cases have biological evidence
With this film we wanted to bring a dramatic story that shines light
on some of the flaws in our criminal justice system with the hope that
they will be corrected. The experiences of the exonerated deserve to
be recognized and studied as a way to bring social justice. Our society
owes these men not only an apology but also ways to help them start
their lives again after so much loss.
We end the film with a quote from the sweet, jive-talking Eddie Joe
Lloyd, who spent 19 years in prison for a child murder he did not commit:
“DNA—deoxyribonucleic acid—is God’s signature.
God’s signature—it’s never a forgery and his checks