After InnocenceReviewed By Scott Weinberg
Posted 01/29/05 15:04:04
SCREENED AT THE 2005 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: Just imagine what it must feel like to spend more than two decades in jail for a crime you didn't commit. I suspect that none of us truly can. The anger, the desperate frustration, the soul-sinking misery of it all would be too much for most of us to bear. And yet that's precisely what the subjects of Jessica Sanders' fantastic "After Innocence" have gone through...not to mention the hundreds of other inmates around the country.You just gotta respect a documentary filmmaker who makes their controversial points through well-conceived arguments and plain, simple facts. It's clear to me that Jessica Sanders is a firm opponent of the death penalty, but her film is entirely free of chest-thumping superiority or holier-than-thou diatribes. Instead she presents us with a dozen cases of formerly-incarcerated men who were recently found absolutely NOT guilty - all thanks to the modern miracle known as DNA testing.
If you had asked me a week ago if I was a believer in the death penalty, I'd have said "Yeah, I think so, but only in cases where there's absolutely no shadow of doubt." (Since I'm not a politician, I guess it's pretty easy for me to hedge my bets in this fashion.) But after being absolutely entranced and fascinated by the case studies Ms. Sanders has presented, I'd have to admit that I'm changing my tune just a bit. And if just one movie can alter the perceptions of a stubbornly opinionated guy like me, well then that's a documentary that's making its points clearly, concisely and with a solid sense of unimpeachable truth.
I believe that if even ONE person is mistakenly executed for a crime he did not commit, then the death penalty needs to be demolished. Like, tomorrow. And After Innocence tells me that, yes, many people certainly have been undeservingly put to death over the years. And that's something that just cannot be allowed to happen anywhere in the world - let alone in the self-proclaimed cradle of world freedom!
What's most amazing about the subjects of After Innocence is that, after spending several years in a jail cell they didn't earn, these men emerge back into the sunlight with very little rancor or hatred. You'll see more wide-eyed gratitude and stunned relief from these "exonerees" than you will fury and bile. Sure, they're pissed off, but perhaps being robbed of a huge chunk of life has forced these men to simply appreciate the second chance they've been given. Life's too short and all that jazz...especially when 1/5th of that life has been stolen away!
It's easy to feel sympathy for those recently exonerated of their alleged crimes, but the real heart and soul of After Innocence comes in the form of the lawyers who work their asses off to clear these innocent men. We all know the jokes and the cliches about lawyers being soulless, greedy monsters - but if that's ALL you know about lawyers then you should immediately find yourself a copy of After Innocence and be prepared to change your tune. The lawyers who work on the "Innocence Project" are not wealthy and they're certainly not in it for the glamour. But just imagine you're the lawyer who helped a wrongly-accused convict to leave prison after 15 years of wholly undeserved incarceration. It must be an indescribably beautiful feeling."After Innocence" is the best sort of documentary there is: it educates the viewer while inspiring him to perhaps think a little bit harder about what he believes in. The points are made by way of truth and tragedy, as opposed to the loud-mouthed ascension of a soapbox. It's touching and true and it couldn't be more timely. And if this film is able to save just one more innocent life, then I'd say Ms. Sanders has a whole lot to be proud of.
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