You don't need to rent The Shawshank Redemption to see a gripping tale of wrongfully imprisoned men fighting a corrupt justice system. The documentary After Innocence provides a glimpse into a relatively recent phenomenon: The scores of men exonerated from long-term prison sentences, often through new, advanced DNA testing of old evidence. Director Jessica Sanders doesn't pay lip service to the plight of the eight men presented here; her commitment to her subjects extends to their most intimate moments with their families, friends and even victims. It's the kind of film where you walk out feeling you know the people you've just seen.
Sanders makes her intentions clear: If you're poor, misrepresented or just happen to look like a criminal, the phrase "innocent until proven guilty" does not necessarily apply. She comes down firmly on the pro-appeal, anti-death penalty side of crime and punishment, and if you're not in complete agreement with her thesis at the beginning of the film, you might change your tune by the end. She begins with Philadelphia's Vincent Moto, a 10-year inmate whose 1996 appeal opened the door for scores of other wrongfully imprisoned men in the state. Now that he's out, though, the bright, gregarious Moto can't find a job, maintain a stable relationship or even rent an apartment due to his criminal record. "People don't know he's been exonerated, they just know he's out," his sister says mournfully.
The situation is similar with the other men, despite their race, social status or even profession. One of the most nightmarish tales involves Scott Hornoff, a police officer and father of two who was convicted for his mistress' murder. After six years in jail, a tearful confession from the real killer set him free, and now he's struggling to sue the state for reparations.
The humbling irony of the film is that many of the men aren't even concerned with paybacks; they're just happy to be free after all these years, and want to find the real perpetrators of the crimes that sent them to jail. Many of the stories center around wrongful identifications in brutal rape cases, and Sanders doesn't ignore the voices of the victims. Near the end of the film, there's a meeting between Jennifer Thompson-Canino, a rape victim whose description of her assailant eventually put Ronald Cotton in jail for 11 years. "In my mind, you had become my rapist," she admits. Now the two of them speak to law enforcement organizations about the potential for victim misidentification.
Touching, redemptive moments like these set Sanders' film apart from the well-meaning criminal justice documentaries you might see on PBS. The production values are low and the lite-rock piano score is a little cheesy. But that doesn't detract from the emotions on display, as when we see Massachusetts' Dennis Maher tirelessly promote a bill to expunge the criminal records of those proven innocent by new evidence. The hard-won tears on his face when the bill passes are reason enough to see After Innocence.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 3-4 and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, March 5. Call 313-833-3237.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.