Documentary about men who had been incarcerated, some for 20 years or more, awaiting certain execution on death row, who subsequently have been exonerated after their convictions for capital crimes were overturned as a result of new, DNA-based evidence proving their innocence.
These conviction reversals are, almost without exception, the result of pro bono legal assistance provided by the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal clinic established in 1992 at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City.
The two founders of the clinic, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, have waged a relentless battle to aid wrongly convicted men facing execution, in the process encouraging the development of similar clinics in 30 states. To date, 175 persons have been exonerated through these efforts.
Former Illinois Governor George Ryan was so impressed by the likelihood of error in capital convictions that, shortly before leaving office early in 2003, he commuted the death sentences of all convicts awaiting execution in his state.
This film focuses on several affected men, exploring the events and circumstances that followed the demonstration of their innocence. Exoneration brings no assistance to these men. For example, even the expungement of the conviction from the criminal justice record is not automatic. It must be applied for through a convoluted paper process. In one state, the exonerated individual must pay $6,000 in fees to gain an expungement.
Whereas guilty felons placed on parole may be entitled to many services and sources of aid for things like education, employment and heath care, exonerated persons receive no such entitlements. No state has arranged a program to offer compensation to any of these people. In nearly every instance, they don't even get an apology from the State for erroneously taking away their freedom for years upon years.
We also are reminded of bad things we already knew from other films, namely, that prosecutors and judges are often loath to accept the DNA evidence, insisting, if you can believe this, that because a case was tried fairly, i.e., the trial met acceptable prosecutorial and judicial standards, the convict should continue to be incarcerated and even executed, despite proof of innocence!
In one man's case that we follow throughout this film, prosecutors stalled for three years after DNA testing had proved that he was not the perpetrator, during which time the man remained in prison, before Innocence Project lawyers prevailed in bringing the DNA evidence to court and winning an acquittal. Interviewed for the film, one member of that prosecuting team justified the effort to keep the convict on death row on the basis that "the victim's family needs closure."
Not every case reveals such perversely twisted sentiments. In a heartwarming example of the opposite reaction, we see a prosecutor embrace another newly released, exonerated man, apologizing for the hardship caused by his false conviction and incarceration.
We see in this film stories of success and failure after release of these men from prison. One gets a good job from a sympathetic truck repair shop owner. Another successfully pursues his dream of becoming a psychotherapist, first obtaining an A.A. degree, then his B.S. in Psychology. But others fail to find decent work, their records still blemished by unexpunged information regarding their false convictions. One man dies of a heart attack a few years after his release. A successful support group is formed in one locale, and we learn of various efforts now underway to seek compensation, though none has so far succeeded.
Some sobering comments on the problem of false conviction are offered by Barry Scheck and others along the way. The exonerated persons represent the tip of a huge iceberg. The various Innocence Projects around the country receive hundreds and hundreds of requests for aid, far more than they can even answer, much less take on. We are shown files drawers full of unopened envelopes, letters from convicts seeking the help of Scheck and Neufeld's clinic. Scheck says that DNA analysis is possible in only about 10% of the cases they do review. In the other 90% of cases, materials on which DNA analysis can be performed were either absent, were rendered unusable because of botched evidence collection, have been destroyed or lost in the years since the trial.
Scheck also tells us that eyewitness reports constitute the sole evidence base for successful prosecution in 78% of capital crime convictions among persons now on death row. This despite the fact that a huge body of psychological research, conducted by experts like Elizabeth Loftus at the University of Washington (now professor at the University of California, Irvine), has demonstrated the frequent unreliability of such evidence.
One exonerated man's story, followed in this film, has, since his release, brought him into contact with the rape victim who erroneously identified him in a police lineup, the sole basis of his conviction. He and the woman that he did not rape have become friends, and they share a common goal of improving the evidence base relied upon by prosecutors.
This film is extraordinary insofar as its subject - life in the community after exoneration - has not previously been explored in any depth, factual content is lucidly presented, the men featured are articulate, highly interesting individuals (almost all, for example, are remarkably free of hostility about their experiences), the talking heads are informative and kept to an essential minimum, and the photography, editing and continuity are first rate. Jessica Sanders makes her debut here as the (co)writer-director of a feature length documentary. It's a splendid beginning. My grade: 10/10
A gripping, emotionally charged film that follows wrongfully convicted men freed by DNA evidence after decades in prison as they struggle to transition back into society.
Uploaded By: FREEMAN
July 11, 2021 at 01:18 PM