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Imagine spending decades of your life in jail for a crime you never committed. Since 1993, the admission of DNA evidence has helped prove the innocence of more than 150 men wrongly imprisoned for crimes of rape and murder. Heartbreaking and eye-opening, this film follows the exonerees as they try to rebuild the lives that were stolen from them. The film makes a case that the problem is bigger and more wide-spread than anyone could imagine, showing the defense team fighting to prove the innocence of many more prisoners. Winner, Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Award. Written and directed by Jessica Sanders.
 

  After Innocence

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 people.

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 our country.

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 to test.)

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 don’t bounce!”