Worse than Guilty

After Innocence Focuses on the Post-Prison Lives of the Wrongfully Convicted

by Sam Kornell

After Innocence, a new documentary by the filmmaker Jessica Sanders, tells the less dramatic — but equally poignant — story of what happens to American prisoners after they are exonerated by DNA evidence. Sanders follows seven men as they try to reenter society after decades in prison. In the process, she reveals the often shocking lack of support provided by the criminal justice system that wrongfully convicted and imprisoned them in the first place. Sanders (interviewed below) and exoneree Herman Atkins will present a screening of After Innocence at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Thursday, May 11, at 7:30 p.m.

What do audiences find most surprising about the film? Not so much that there are people who are wrongfully convicted, but that when they’re released from prison they’re treated worse than guilty people. They still have criminal records even though they’re completely innocent of the crime. So when they’re trying to start their lives again they can’t, because they can’t get jobs with a felony criminal record. Guilty people get social services in ways that exonerated people get absolutely no financial or social service help.

You document how prosecutors are often reluctant to overturn cases where DNA evidence clearly proves a wrongful conviction. That’s a shocking thing. To learn that someone’s in prison and they’re able to obtain DNA evidence that could prove their innocence, yet there’s huge resistance from police officers and from prosecutors to help aid these people or reopen cases. One of the main stories in our film is a man who spent 22 years in prison for a rape he didn’t do, and he fought from day one trying to prove his innocence. Fifteen years into it DNA came along and he tried to get a DNA test, they refused, and it took him 10 years to get a DNA test, and even after he was proven innocent they still kept him in another three years fighting his release. So the resistance that those prosecutors put up is shocking.

Why is that resistance is so endemic? Well, of course there are good prosecutors out there. But, sadly, I think it has to do with that human need to not be proven wrong. … In this case, the stakes are just too high for personal pride to take precedent over doing what’s right by these prisoners.

Is the film having any kind of political effect? It has become a political tool, which I didn’t expect. It was shown in the California state Legislature to help pass a bill to put a moratorium on the death penalty, and also to help reform the compensation bill for the wrongfully convicted, because right now it’s not a very fair bill. California does compensate, but it’s a very hard battle to get it. And in Florida one of the main guys got $2 million after the film was shown to state legislators.

4•1•1 After Innocence screens at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Thursday, May 11, at 7:30 p.m. Filmmaker Jessica Sanders and exoneree Herman Atkins will be in attendance. Call 893-3535.

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