For proof – as if any is needed – that television is overwhelmingly a right-wing medium, one need only contemplate the manner in which DNA evidence is cited in the glut of true crime shows that crowd A&E, CourtTV, and other networks. Almost without fail, DNA is shown being used to convict the guilty. It is presented as proof that the legal system – with scientific help – is just and right.
Jessica Sanders’s new film, After Innocence, is devoted to the kind of true-life stories you probably won’t find on Cold Case Files. The DNA evidence here exonerates men who have been sentenced to life, men who’ve already spent decades in prison on false charges. With this type of subject matter, Sanders can’t help making an emotionally affecting movie.
But After Innocence also looks beyond the entwined grief and relief in these men’s lives to the bullheadedness of the system that put them there. For example, in the case of at least one of the film’s subjects, a prosecutor continually refutes seemingly irrefutable evidence because he can’t face up to the fact that he made a – knowing, not innocent – mistake at trial.
I’ve read reviews of After Innocence that complain that Sanders doesn’t stick to her theme – that her dedication to these men’s lives after imprisonment wavers, giving way to an advert-like portrait of prisoner’s-aid group the Innocence Project. These complaints from a too-literal view of Sanders’s title. After Innocence is by no means perfect, but its name refers not only to the lives of those exonerated but also – and just as crucially – to the actions of the criminal justice system. How will it treat a prisoner after his (or her) innocence has been established?
The answer isn’t a satisfying or inspiring one – it’s maddening. Quite often robbed of more than half their lives, the men of After Innocence are expected to be grateful that they’re "free" today. Compensation? Not a chance. Rather like a certain commander in chief, the legal and criminal-justice forces at play here consider themselves above even having to make an apology. (Johnny Ray Huston)