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With: Herman Atkins, Dennis Maher, Vincent Moto, Nicholas Yarris, Calvin Willis, Wilton Dedge, Scott Hornoff, Ronald Cotton, Jennifer Thompson-Canino
Written by: Jessica Sanders, Marc Simon
Directed by: Jessica Sanders
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 96
Date: 01/01/2005

After Innocence (2005)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Jail Tales

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Many of the documentaries on the Academy's short list for award consideration this year -- including Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Mad Hot Ballroom, March of the Penguins, Murderball, and Rize -- have opened over the past year to critical acclaim and enthusiastic audience reaction. (Far and away the year's most acclaimed doc, Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, is not on the list, but that's another story.)

Come Oscar night, Jessica Sanders's After Innocence, which opens today in Bay Area theaters, will almost certainly trump them all. It's not necessarily better than any of the others, but its call for social awareness rings out bolder and rises higher.

Indeed, like many past Oscar winners, it consists more of heart than of mind, as its treacly piano score attests. But after looking into the haunted eyes of the eight subjects interviewed herein, only the most black-hearted person could remain cynical.

After Innocence charts the efforts of The Innocence Project as along with several other individuals who have been working to free wrongly convicted prisoners based on new DNA evidence. Dennis Maher, for example, served 19 years for various rape charges. Sanders shows him upon his release, overjoyed, moved to tears.

But we also meet him later, living with his parents, celebrating his 43rd birthday sitting cross-legged on the floor, defeated. Later, he lands a humble job and even finds a girlfriend through online dating. These baby steps seem like major victories.

Simply being exonerated sometimes isn't enough. Vincent Moto was mistakenly identified by a rape victim and served just over ten years for this crime. His sister, in an interview, says, "People didn't know he's out because he's innocent. People just know he's out. As far as they know, he could be a rapist. It's ten years later..."

By far the most harrowing story belongs to Nick Yarris, a death row inmate who served 23 years in solitary confinement. He describes first walking out into the real world and being overwhelmed by the awesome noise, as well as his first gulp of non-filtered air.

Most of these men are articulate and thoughtful, and not at all thuggish. One man, Scott Hornoff, was a cop who had an affair with a woman who was murdered. He served six and a half years before his exoneration. Once out, the Rhode Island police department reinstated him, but he had -- understandably -- lost his passion for the job.

Sanders goes one more than simply interviewing the exonerees; she puts on a show for us. Another man, Ronald Cotton, served 11 years after being wrongly accused of rape and actually faces his accuser, the attractive blond Jennifer Thompson-Canino, on camera. Amazingly, Cotton does not hold a grudge; the two become friends and both join in the fight to free more innocent men.

The movie's biggest coup, however, comes with the case of Wilton Dedge, who at the beginning of the film has languished in a Florida prison for three years after DNA evidence proved him innocent. The local District Attorney apparently pulled out every bit of red tape available to keep him there. But Sanders' camera is there when Dedge finally gets his day in court, and there's not a dry eye in the house.

Dedge still has his steely, guarded "prison eyes," but the film magically captures the other men as their eyes eventually soften and learn to trust again.

And it's perhaps not surprising that many of these men become activists toward the same cause. Nevertheless, After Innocence contains some shocking facts. We learn that eyewitness identification accounts for something like 78-88% of all mistaken convictions. There are thousands of unopened letters from inmates that volunteers simply do not have time to process. Many states do not have programs in place for these men, and indeed, many of them still have the false crimes on their records.

Sanders's reporting is far from objective, however. She paints the legal system as a horrible monster unwilling to admit its mistakes, and the few insiders she interviews seem to confirm this.

Additionally, of its eight subjects, exactly four are African-American and four are white, and the film very specifically says nothing about race. Does Sanders wish us to believe that DNA exoneration works equally for both? It's already clear that the legal system is biased in that regard, but does the Innocence Project program correct this?

After Innocence might have been a more powerful film if it had followed a single, charismatic subject rather than casting its wide net over many faces. The handsome Vincent Moto would be the obvious subject, judging from his unflaggingly bright demeanor, the way he walks down the street with his young daughter, and the way she beams up at him. Moto even inspired the film's Oscar-friendly title with a song that runs over the closing credits.

Moto tells his story for the camera, how, merely walking down the street, a woman pointed at him and called him a rapist. It's a terrifying reminder that this could happen to anyone at any time, and the court system could fail as easily as it could succeed.

DVD Details: New Yorker's DVD comes with perhaps the most important extra of all: updates on the lives of the film's exonerees. But it also includes filmmaker interviews, deleted scenes, trailers, all types of press coverage and more information as to how viewers can help. Most amazingly is a live performance by Pearl Jam, performing "Last Kiss" with two of the exonerees.

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