Outside Looking In: After Innocence

21 12 2011

I just watched a documentary called After Innocence which tracks a handful of exonerated, or potentially exonerated inmates circa 2004. As the title might suggest, the film also gives a fair amount of face time to The Innocence Project, an organization co-founded by attorney Barry Scheck, who is arguably most noted for his work as a defense attorney for OJ Simpson.

For the purposes of this article, I am going to put aside any further mention of Barry Scheck as I don’t want this to devolve into a dissertation about the OJ Simpson trial and whether Barry Scheck was the “bad guy”, or one of them.

In my forays into learning more about the US criminal justice system, I have wondered when, or if, inmates ever truly get out of jail. Sure, officially, even here in Wisconsin, inmates in all levels of the prison system get “released”. But what then?

Even with the knowledge that the film is taking a strong advocacy position for exoneree’s rights, I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning more about the effects of incarceration, and how we as a society treat the “released” inmate, whether exonerated or having done his or her time.

The film does a very good job of showing how families serve a sentence too, not just the inmate. Even though the thrust of this article concerns wrongfully convicted persons, families suffer even when the guilt is real and proven. This is time that parents lose a child. Or children lose a father or mother. Or communities lose a neighbor.

It was good to see that advocacy groups do exist for exonerees, but it was also apparent the uphill battles that they are still fighting today. Being exonerated is not simply a case of saying “oops” and ostensibly giving someone his or her life back. Not everyone wants to admit error. A common theme through the film was the assertion that if someone is in jail, he or she must have done something to deserve it. And being released from jail just means that the former inmate is now a ticking time bomb, ready to commit crimes more terrible than the last, real or imagined.

One former death row inmate does appear to be a ticking time bomb, but not as a “repeat” offender. I got the impression that he was suppressing an enormous amount of rage, and as is often asked through the movie by others, “wouldn’t you be angry if this happened to you?” I believe I would be, yes. But what I did with that anger would be pivotal. To this man’s credit (at press time), he chose to channel that anger into making a difference and advocating for other falsely accused inmates.

This film has me thinking a length about my biases about accused criminals, the inherent “goodness” of law enforcement, the efficacy of prison, and how I would or should interact with ex-convicts.

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