Saturday, 20 January 2007

The stories After Innocence were horrifying - case after case of wrong imprisonment

January 18, 2007

Last night's TV

Lucy Mangan, The Guardian (UK)

In 1981, in Philadelphia, Nick Yarris was convicted of the rape and murder
of Linda May Craig. He was exonerated by DNA testing in 2004. The 23 years
in between he spent in solitary confinement on death row, in a US prison
condemned by the UN for its use of torture. "Now I'm Ebenezer," he said to
the documentary crew of True Stories: After Innocence (More4), as he stared
at his childhood home after his release. "Walking around, a ghost in my own
life." He looked enough like one - lean, pale and drawn - and was amazed by
the noise and the smell of the outside world. Never mind the roar of
traffic, he could hear the tyres crawling on the road and at first it hurt
him even to breathe the non-recycled air. For the first two years of his
incarceration he was not allowed to speak. He is making up for it now,
spreading the word about his own innocence, and that of others he met on
death row, and working for an anti-death-penalty advocacy group. Oh, and
campaigning for the recovered DNA of the real killer to be added to the
national database - a procedure, the film's coda informed us, that has yet
to take place.

After Innocence won the Sundance Film Festival special jury prize in 2005
with the story of seven men exonerated by a combination of DNA evidence and
the hard work of the Innocence Project, a not-for-profit legal clinic set up
in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, with the aim of overturning
wrongful convictions by using the then-new science of DNA testing. It also
campaigns for reforms of the criminal justice system that will help to
reduce the ease with which they can occur in the first place.
Wilton Dedge received two life sentences for rape in 1982. Testing of two
hairs found at the scene of the crime exculpated him in 2001, and his
parents readied the spare room and its neat white bed in preparation for his
homecoming, but Florida's judiciary ruled the evidence inadmissible on a
technicality. Dedge proved his innocence for the second time in 2004. The
judge ordered an additional test and then, with the greatest possible
reluctance, let him go home to his waiting parents and the bed that had been
kept ready for three years.

Most of the exonerated have to go home to their parents (if the parents are
still alive) because they have nowhere else to go. They are not entitled to
compensation or help with finding work. As Yarris pointed out: "If I was
guilty and out on parole, I would be entitled to healthcare, job training,
housing, placement in society . . . I got five dollars and 37 cents and let
loose." Vincent Moto would like to repay his parents the $150,000 (£76,000),
their retirement savings, that they spent on lawyers' fees because they knew
he was innocent - he was having dinner with them at the time of his supposed
crime. Not, of course, that any amount of money can compensate for some
kinds of suffering. "I miss my mom," said policeman Scott Hornoff
(reinstated and awarded backpay time in prison, but the city is appealing
against that decision). "I miss the woman she was. I have an edge to me, but
what this has done to her breaks my heart."

Nor do they automatically get their criminal records expunged, which
naturally creates difficulties when job seeking. Dennis Maher got lucky
(relatively speaking) with his boss. "I told him I didn't care what happened
to him as long as he could fix trucks, because that's what we do here," he
said. "[Dennis] is a good worker, he's from the old school." Possibly, of
course, because Maher's skills and work ethic had been preserved in aspic
for 19 years, since 1984 when he began a life sentence for a rape he did not
commit. He was the only one of the seven to get any kind of apology from
anyone involved in his wrongful conviction. It came from the prosecuting
district attorney. "It was a heartfelt apology," said Maher, "A real
apology. That felt good."

At times it felt to me that the film, while certainly moving, horrifying and
inspiring by turns, spread itself too thinly. I understand that you need
multiple examples to establish the endemic nature of the criminal justice
maladministration, but seven was possibly too many. A sharper focus on three
or four of the main stories and a closer look at the chain of events that
led to each faulty conviction would have made it an infinitely more
rewarding and powerful film. As it was, the cases and backgrounds were never
explained or examined fully enough, and you occasionally felt required to
take a little too much on faith. This is not to question the men's innocence
in any way, or to deny that the system failed them and doubtless thousands
of others who have yet to be identified, but just to acknowledge the danger
that an over-simplistic approach can sometimes raise unnecessary doubts and
questions in a viewer's mind, and ultimately weaken a case.


Source : The Guardian,,1993082,00.html

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