There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
In Hollywood movies, prison inmates who are found innocent are released to cheers and surging violins. In real life, people convicted of murder or rape and then cleared by DNA evidence often remain incarcerated, as authorities desperately try to convince judges that they got the right guy, or even that blameless men should remain behind bars on procedural grounds. Enter the Innocence Project, founded by New York lawyers Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck. (The latter was on O.J.’s defense team, although that’s not mentioned in this film.) After Innocence, Jessica Sanders’ galvanizing if incomplete documentary, follows the project’s attorneys and about 10 of the men they’ve helped, most of whom had already been released when first filmed. More than 150 people have been freed by DNA evidence, and the ones featured here were clearly chosen to illustrate various points. Vincent Moto was cleared, yet Pennsylvania refused to expunge his record without a $6,000 payment. Scott Hornoff is a Rhode Island cop who won reinstatement after exoneration but is still battling for his job and back pay. Nick Yarris, another Pennsylvanian, did 23 years on death row, mostly in solitary, and is now campaigning to get the real killer’s DNA entered into the national database. North Carolina’s Ronald Cotton has become friends with the woman who came to realize she was mistaken when she identified him as the man who raped her. And Wilton Dedge, who was still jailed in Florida when filming began, was held for three years after DNA evidence revealed his innocence. Like most cinéma vérité documentaries, Sanders’ film elides certain issues and sometimes allows erroneous statements to go unquestioned. Thus the scene in which former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who commuted the sentences of everyone on his state’s death row, greets a man he pardoned. It’s a warm moment, but the film doesn’t mention that Ryan was driven from office for corruption, nor contradict the gov’s inaccurate claim that the United States is the world’s only democracy that still imposes capital punishment. Nonetheless, after encountering the travesties of justice revealed in this movie, only the most bloody-minded viewer could argue against Ryan’s basic point: The system doesn’t work.—Mark Jenkins