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After Innocence

by Pat Hartman

Generally speaking, law-abiding folk who wind up in prison face a much worse time than the career criminals. We know this. But imagine, first, being accused and convicted of a heinous crime you didn’t commit. Then, for the rest of your life as an inmate, imagine being hounded, under the guise of rehabilitation, to make a confession. For the innocent, one of the worst ordeals is that the staff won’t let you just do the time, they’ve got to mess with your head. When the administration regards you as its number one challenge, and years of “therapy” are aimed at making you admit that you did something you didn’t do, that pretty much qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment.

When I get that I’ve-lived-my-life-all-wrong feeling, and think about untrodden paths, the one that inspires the most regret is that I didn’t go to law school. It takes a village-equivalent of attorneys to spring an innocent person from prison. I should have been one of those pain-in-the-ass lawyers.

Of course, documentation doesn’t hurt, either. Jessica Sanders wrote, directed, and produced this film; Marc Simon wrote and produced it. These stories are only a few from the 150 people the Innocence Project had helped to free, when After Innocence was made. Apparently, the exonerees are a very lucky subclass, because at least their cases did involve some kind of biological evidence, whereas many cases don’t. If I understand this correctly, only a fraction of those who want to contest a wrongful conviction are able to, because DNA evidence would be their only hope, only no DNA samples were taken. Then, it seems they are a fortunate subgroup again, because the DNA evidence was actually preserved long enough, and conscientiously enough, to be still useful. In many jurisdictions, the survival rate of evidence is not good.

One guy reacquaints himself with the world only to find that, after 23 years of breathing a recycled processed atmosphere, he’s allergic to fresh air. One told the judge that the administration of justice in their state is a crock of shit. One says he had “the worst lawyer on the planet.” There’s a guy whose father, a highway patrolman, wouldn’t visit him in prison. Another is a former police officer, and he believes thousands of people are incarcerated who should not be. In one case, the guy’s freedom literally hung by a hair. Another says, “I’m one of the strongest human beings ever created. I know that now.” One guy amazingly keeps a sense of humor, joking about reporters who ask, “Are you angry?”

Well, they have every reason to be angry. They would be serving life sentences, or dead by execution, if not for the Innocence Project, founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. The men whose stories are told here were cleared, or at least freed, by DNA evidence. A lot of times, exonerees can’t even get their records expunged. That’s one of the problems with life after innocence – there’s always residual trauma.

The system’s refusal to back up and correct its mistakes is only one of the many ugly offshoots of the basic problem, namely, too many wrongful convictions. I mean, one is too many, but this is getting ridiculous. The system is so recalcitrant, even people who have been proven innocent can’t get out.

And why should the establishment be so damn stubborn? After all, who benefits when the wrong person is convicted of a crime? Certainly not the victim of that crime, whose rapist or killer goes unpunished. Not the other, future victims of that criminal. And it creates another whole group of victims, the innocent person who is put away, and the family, and anybody else who depended on them. The only benefactor is the corporation that gets paid by the taxpayers to keep this person locked up. What kind of a way is that to run a justice system?

In this film we see parents who thought they would never hug their sons again, which is always nice. We see drawers full of letters from those the Innocence Project is unable to help. You say to yourself, “How could there be that many wrongly convicted people?” But, knowing that DNA is considered infallible, why would any convict with certain knowledge of his own guilt, bother to request DNA testing? We see clips from the Phil Donahue show, and an interview. His huge fanbase helped a lot in raising public awareness of this problem. Publicity is important not only to help the imprisoned innocent, but to spread the word about the possibility and consequences of wrongful conviction to potential jurors, which includes just about everybody.

Anger is only one of many emotions felt by exonerees. Some try to understand the greater purpose behind so much pain. I would imagine that for someone freed after a couple of decades, there would be a very strong impulse to create distance from the experience and try to move on. Even so, for many victims of the system, to move on is to take up the cause and become activists. When they were inside, they hoped someone outside would take an interest. Now that they’re outside, they do take an interest in the wrongfully convicted who have, so far, been left behind.

Here’s a scary fact: the single leading cause of wrongful conviction is good old eyewitness identification. In a film which overflows with human interest stories, one of the oddest and most heartening is of the woman who apologized to the man imprisoned by her testimony. They got to be friends, and she became an activist too. She tells an audience, “Change one person’s life and you change the world.”

We need to get back to where “presumption of innocence” meant something, say the proponents of what some call the “new Civil Rights Movement.” We need legislation to make states submit the DNA they have, to the national database for comparison, which could find the real rapists and killers.

The truly guilty, having paid their debt to society, are released on parole, and society then performs its obligations to them. They’re entitled to a whole range of social services to help them get back on their feet. The exonerees get don’t even get that much.

One of the things they fight for is compensation, for themselves and others like them, who have had big chunks bitten out of their lives. It would be nice to just break even, to be able to pay back the $150,000 your parents took out of their retirement fund to finance your defense, for instance. You’d think someone in this situation would at least be owed the back pay for the jobs they were removed from.

There are some bright spots in the movie: a prosecutor asks for forgiveness from the guy he put away, and a judge smiles as he signs the order to vacate a sentence. A district attorney apologizes. A Department of Corrections director realizes that his regime has been part of the problem, and needs to take on some accountability. A governor commutes the sentences of all death row inmates.

And then there’s an official who insists that an exoneree’s innocence is irrelevant, because “the system worked exactly like it’s supposed to.” Well, duh! That’s what we’re saying – this is how the system is supposed to work, the very thing that’s wrong with it. When a violent crime has taken place, as long as the outcome is a that a body occupies a cell, it too often doesn’t matter which body. That’s a system which needs to be fixed!

Of course, as we now know, not every aspect of every DNA test is infallible, due to methodology and interpretation and one thing and another. At least, not every instance of DNA testing can infallibly prove what somebody wants it to prove or claims that it proves. But I appreciate the spirit behind what one of the exonerees says:

“DNA is God’s signature… never a forgery, and his checks don’t bounce.”

Related:
Free Tim Masters Because
Lights…Camera…Freedom?
The Innocence Project

Note: The After Innocence DVD includes “Pearl Jam performing with exonerees Wilton Dedge and Vincent Moto,” and footage from the film’s Sundance premiere.

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celebration

This subtitled Danish film is described on the box as a “viciously funny satire.”  Well, okay, but I wouldn’t want anyone to watch it with the expectation of laughing.

It’s kind of in the same genre as The Exterminating Angel, and Savages – where a bunch of high-class people are prevented from leaving a social occasion. It just goes on and on and becomes the dinner party from hell. Same genre too as Jacob’s Ladder, The Business of Fancy Dancing (to name only two that come immediately to mind) – where a scene may or may not be part of the narrative, the “real” story.  It might also be a hallucination of how someone wishes things would be, or how they could have been or would have been, or how they were on some archetypal, mythical level.

It’s also a prime illustration of how European cinema is different.  This thing starts off slow, you get lots and lots of character delineation, but no real clue about what’s going on except it’s some tycoon’s 60th birthday and the whole family is in the process of gathering.  So far it all seems kind of pointless.  An American film would have begun with artistically morphed footage of the dad molesting the twin children, starting off with a bang, right under the credits.  “Put the fire up front” is more of an American concept – it works well, but this slow approach works great too, if you’re willing to invest some attention and patience.

Still, I almost gave up on it – I think what kept me hooked was Michael’s outrageous behavior.  Then after a while, Helene started to captivate me – not what the character did, so much as the actress herself.  Great face.

And it becomes clear that another sibling, Linda, has recently killed herself.  So everybody’s tiptoeing around that, and apprehensive about what this loose cannon Michael is going to do because, knowing him, he is sure to find a way to ruin things.

But as it turns out, quiet, mild, reasonable Christian is the one who drops the bomb.  Standing to give a speech at the birthday dinner, he asks Dad to pick – he has a speech in each hand.  (You gotta wonder what the other speech said.  If the father had chosen that one, were they both the same anyway?)  Christian accuses the father of sexually abusing him and his sister when they were young.

Helene clinches it by reading Linda’s suicide note to the group.

The house staff contributes to the trauma by stealing everybody’s car keys so they all have to stay and witness the trouble.

Most memorable line of dialogue:  Christian says to his father “I’ve never understood why you did it,” and the answer is, “It was all you were good for.”

Michael beats the crap out of father and finishes up by pissing on him.  It’s a relief to finally understand the anger of Michael.  He’s always known something was wrong in the family but could never get anybody to talk about it.  Maybe a little jealousy because he knows the twins were chosen for something he was left out of…..however, even he is not aware of this.

The final scene is a true work of art.  Everybody is gathered around the table for a sunny breakfast. Faces are soft and relaxed.   Helene is not a tortured, aging wild child, just a pretty lady.   Michael is still an obnoxious asshole, but not a truly hostile or violent one.  The father has one of the grandchildren on his knee.

All this is what Christian hallucinates when unconscious, or maybe a kind of group hallucination, shared among the siblings, of what their family life could have been. Here’s the way it should have been.

The father apologizes, and says he understands that none of them is ever going to want to see him again.  He says, “You’ll always be my children – and I have loved you and love you, no matter where in the world you are or what you do.”  Just what everybody wants to hear from his parents.  Now we know for sure this scene is a fantasy.

The father addresses Christian: “You fought a good fight, my boy.” Even in Christian’s own fantasy there is ambiguity. This line from his dad seems to be a compliment, but carries two stings in its tail.  First, it implies that Christian has lost:  “Good game” is, after all, something a winner says to a loser.  Christian lost because, while he may not have had the will to kill his father himself, he knew that giving Michael the information would get the job done.  So Christian is not as righteous as maybe he likes to think.  Also, there’s the sexual double entendre, as in “My butt-boy.”

Michael suggests that the father leave so the rest of them can eat their breakfast. The old man asks his wife if she’s coming. “I’ll stay here,” she says. Two layers: indicates she’s on the side of the rest of the family, united in shunning him.  And, she’s not going to commit suicide or die of grief on his account.  Dad exits through the patio doors where the flood of illumination is coming from – he goes into the light, get it?

Their names, as are appropriate in this genre, are symbolic –
Linda – beautiful.  At least her twisted father found her so, and later her brother
Christian – the one who tries to be forgiving and good. One who has fought the good fight, as even his father finally recognizes, in his fantasy anyway.
Helene – a character who makes her mark on history
Michael – an archangel – didn’t he slay a dragon or a demon something? Is Michael associated with vengeance in church mythology?

We’re not sure if Christian might also have made it with Linda. If he did, it was obviously consensual. Still wrong, but at least not rape or exploitation. Maybe it was just a fantasy – either way, good old straight arrow Christian would feel just as guilty anyway.

Or maybe most of the movie was Christian’s hallucination or fantasy. Maybe he chickened out and never read the accusatory speech at all. Maybe he did read the other speech, and it was different. Maybe the whole thing never happened.

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Documentary filmmaker Doug Block turns the spotlight on his own family and the psychic jolts his parents doled out to their three grown children. When Mina Block died suddenly, Mike Block quickly married a woman who had been his employee, decades before. The kids had varying degrees of difficulty in dealing with it.

Mina left behind voluminous writings, including several cubic feet of very frank journals. How shocked the children were to find out their parents smoked pot and had sex lives!

The part that strikes me most is when one daughter says, if you didn’t know their mother, and only read her poems, “You wouldn’t know anything about her, you would only know a little bit about the inner workings of her mind.” Huh? Seems to me, that’s a lot. Just about everything, in fact. What she means of course is, if all you knew of Mina was her poetry, you might never even guess that she was a mother.

Nobody likes to realize that she or he was not the most important thing in a parent’s life. And there is an almost overwhelming societal bias, in almost every time and place, in favor of the concept that blood is all. But to some parents, children are quite peripheral. Occasionally, you’ll find a person who simply isn’t that interested in either ancestors or progeny. Mina Block may have been one of them.

Even so, the Block kids couldn’t have suffered much harm, since they grew to adulthood believing that their parents’ marriage was an exemplary one. Whereas Mina, in her journal, reflected that if their marriage was supposed to be so great, she didn’t even want to imagine what would constitute a bad one.

Just for grins, compare and contrast the revelation process described here with the story of Guillermo Sebastian Morales Pagan, and what his mom and dad were up to. Lights… Camera… Freedom? at Earthblog.net

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