Anyone who has read this blog knows that I am a critic of the justice system and capital punishment. I am especially drawn to stories of the wrongfullyy accused. This film looks at seven cases of wrongful convictions and what happens to the men after they are freed and returned to society.
Jessica Sanders, the writer and director, was fortunate to come up with the idea for this film around the same time as the ten year anniversary of the Innocence Project. The Innocence Project is the organization started by lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufield to free innocent people from prison through the use of DNA evidence.
It was at this event that Jessica met the men who would later be profiled in the film. In addition to telling the stories of the freed men, Jessica smartly frames the film around the efforts of the Innocent Project to free Wilton Dedge, who was wrongfully convicted of rape. She could not have picked a better case to profile. Wilton was convicted primarily on the victim’s identification and hair evidence found at the scene. When the Innocence Project lawyers proved through DNA testing that the hair evidence did not belong to Wilton Dedge, the prosecutor refused to release Wilton and instead delayed a hearing on the case for three years.
The only thing worst than losing your freedom is to lose your freedom after having been wrongfully convicted. In the case of Wilton Dedge, he spent over 22 years in prison. When the prosecutor in the case is interviewed, he proudly displays a police composite picture made by the victim to that of a picture of Wilton Dedge as if to say here’s all the proof you need. Forget the fact that he didn’t fit the physical description of the attacker given to the police by the victim. Forget the fact that he had alibi witnesses. The prosecutor had his picture. His attempt to keep Wilton Dedge in prison despite evidence of his innocencee is truly pitiful.
As bad as it is for innocent men and women to be wrongfully convicted, what happens afterwords is often even more tragic. For one, the people who made the mistakes that led to the wrongful convictions rarely admit to their errors. In fact, they go out of their way to suppress evidence, delay hearings, and whatever else it takes to keep the truth from getting out. Even when the truth is presented, they steadfastly hang on to their belief that the men are guilty.
To make matters worst, many states have no compensation laws for those wrongfully convicted. Can you imagine spending decades in prison for a crime you did not commit, and then upon the conviction being overturned you are not even offered as much as an apology? How is that possible? Sorry, we made a mistake. Good luck with everything. Then when these men take their cases to court to fight for compensation, the compensation laws that are passed are not retroactive.
Not receiving compensation is bad enough, but it doesn’t end there. Many of these states don’t offer these men any help once they’re released. No help with employment, housing, training, therapy, health care. The filmmakers point out that paroled offenders are treated better. The states often refuse to expunge the records. In one case in the film the state would only expunge the record for a $6,000 fee. Then, as an added slap in the face, the courts responsible for the wrongful convictions refuse to enter the new DNA evidence into the FBI data base. Why? Because they might have a match, which would be even more irrefutable evidence that they made a mistake. So they’ll let a guilty man go free just to cover their own buts.
This film was originally released in 2005 as a Showtime special. I had to wait three months for Blockbuster to get me the film, which means they only have few copies on hand. Too bad, because this film needs to be seen by more people. The DVD had some nice extras including updates on the men in the film.