'After Innocence': DNA's Role in Freeing Wrongly Accused

Madeleine Brand speaks with Jessica Sanders, director of the documentary After Innocence. The film follows the stories of seven men convicted of felonies, sent to prison and later exonerated by DNA evidence. Sanders tracks the lives the men through different stages of re-settlement into society.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

(Soundbite of "After Innocence")

Mr. WILTON DEDGE: I was locked up when I was 20 years old--just turned 20 years old, and I'm 42 now. So I've been in a little over 22 years, convicted for rape and sentenced to two life sentences. I really don't understand how I was even brought to court, much less convicted.

BRAND: That's Wilton Dedge, a Florida man jailed for 22 years for a rape he didn't commit. He's one of seven men profiled in a new documentary called "After Innocence." The men were exonerated after DNA testing proved their innocence. The movie follows these men after they've been released and chronicles their attempts to put their lives back together. Jessica Sanders is the filmmaker.

Ms. JESSICA SANDERS (Filmmaker): Well, the first exoneree that I met was Dennis Maher. He was an ex-Army sergeant. He spent 19 years in prison for three rapes that he didn't do. And because it was three rapes, he actually had a lot of therapy 'cause he was considered a high-sex offender. And he was out for less than a month and he was just the nicest, sweetest person. And he had a plan. He said he wanted to get a job, find a wife, start a family and get compensated and prevent this from happening to anyone else. And he's one of the only people in the films that got compensated.

(Soundbite of "After Innocence")

Mr. DENNIS MAHER: They were weeklong trials. Most of it was just the victim saying, `He did it.' It felt bad, because I could see the pain that the women were in, and I know I didn't do it, and they were saying I did. I had never seen these women before. I was in shock, because I got found guilty. You know, and then he sentenced me to all that time, and I didn't know what to expect in prison. You know, I expected to be beaten, be raped. I expected to die in prison.

BRAND: Another point that your movie raises is the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, which is interesting. You have actually a woman who is a rape victim coming out and saying her testimony was wrong.

Ms. SANDERS: Well, we know that 80 percent of the wrongful convictions are due to mistaken eyewitness identification, and we know that it's the most unreliable evidence, and in the film, Jennifer Thompson was raped, and she ID'd a man named Ronald Cotton, and he was later proven innocent by DNA. But she had met the real rapist, and she didn't recognize him when she saw him. Eleven years later, you know, the DNA tests proved that Ronald was innocent, and they're actually now friends, and they speak out against wrongful misidentification. And they're just an amazing story of forgiveness.

(Soundbite of "After Innocence")

Ms. JENNIFER THOMPSON: So I knew that I needed to somehow apologize, but I didn't know, of course, what you were going to say to me.

Mr. RONALD COTTON: Right.

Ms. THOMPSON: It took you, like, two seconds--two seconds to forgive me.

Mr. COTTON: Well, you know, I prayed over that issue, you know, while I was incarcerated. I thought about you. Also I know I can't make up for lost time. I wouldn't even attempt to, you know. I just have to live, forgive and keep moving on.

BRAND: Are these men bitter? Are they angry at the system?

Ms. SANDERS: The surprising thing that I learned in making this film is that--I mean, yes, they have their moments where they are angry, but the overlying theme is that they're actually all really positive and they want change, and I think that if they stayed angry and bitter, people in prison, they would never get out, because you need that hope and positiveness to get you out of prison and to, you know, write as many letters to lawyers and have family members visiting you. And that same positiveness and hopefulness is what, you know, permeates them on the outside and keeps them going. So I was really struck by how they were not bitter and not angry.

(Soundbite of "After Innocence")

Mr. DEDGE: After being gone for 22 years and coming home and staying with my grandmother. I'm 45 years old, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #1: We know after 22 years that you've been locked up and (unintelligible) long time, could you tell us, are you angry?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #1: I mean, you know, would you be angry?

Mr. DEDGE: You know, anger stagnates a person's growth.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. DEDGE: I can't allow myself to be angry.

Ms. SANDERS: What I also found astonishing was they had trouble actually expunging their records, that they need to pay in order to have a clean record. I think the system is not set up for innocence. Even though they've been technically exonerated, in order to clear their record, you have to go through a whole other legal battle, and a lot of these individuals are told that they have to hire lawyers and try to clear their records when all they're trying to do is get back on their feet and start their lives again. And because they have criminal records, even though they're innocent, they oftentimes can't get jobs.

BRAND: Some of these men, though, find it very difficult to put their lives back together. I'm thinking in particular of the police officer who was convicted of murder.

Ms. SANDERS: Yes, Scott Hornoff--he's a white college-educated police officer who was wrongfully convicted of murder and spent eight years in prison. And he, I think, is the one who's the most troubled because he was on the other side of the law, and his own police force, they actually ended up convicting him through faulty evidence and actually framing him. So he is struggling more so than anybody, I think, 'cause he feels betrayed on a different level.

(Soundbite of "After Innocence")

Ms. SANDERS: He'll just kind of be slumped over and he'll just say, `I never thought I'd say this, but in a lot of ways it was easier in prison,' And that is heartbreaking.

Mr. SCOTT HORNOFF: This was my city, and a lot of times, I feel like a foreigner. I feel out of place, but it's like, God, I miss those days, and I miss, you know, being a part of that. And even though I've been ordered reinstated, I haven't been back to work yet.

Ms. SANDERS: Right now he's getting his degree in criminal justice, 'cause he wants to teach and use his experience on both sides of the system to really help create change.

BRAND: So you came away from doing this film thinking what about the American justice system? Are you now cynical about it?

Ms. SANDERS: Well, after doing this film, I know that there are certainly a lot of flaws in the system, but there are also easy reforms that can be made to improve it. You know, what is troubling is that there is a resistance, especially on the part of prosecution, to, you know, allow DNA testing and to re-examine some of these cases, although, because over the last 10 years and DNA evidence being now widespread, and I think a lot of it is about saving face.

BRAND: Tell us a little bit about Nicholas Yarris. He spent, I think, 23 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, and not only in prison but in solitary confinement.

Ms. SANDERS: Nick is just one of the most outstanding individuals that I'd met. Every Monday he goes out in front of the courthouse that convicted him, and he asks for the DNA evidence in his case to be put in the national databank so they can find the real killer. Because in all of these cases, when there's an innocent person put away, we know that the real perpetrator's still out there.

(Soundbite of "After Innocence")

Mr. NICHOLAS YARRIS: Could you imagine being accused of the worst thing you can imagine, be sent to a prison up in Huntington, Pennsylvania, that was condemned by the United Nations for its practices of torture, and then be told you're not allowed to speak? That's true. For the first two years, I wasn't allowed to talk. I remember when I first got out of prison, how loud the world was. I mean, oh, my God. I would hear the tires on the cars of the street. I wouldn't hear the engines and the horn. I would hear the tires, it would be so loud. And I was amazed by the smell of what the world was because I had been breathing refiltered air for 20-some years. You know when someone says something to you and they say, `You know, you're wrong'? And you know that truth and it gives you that incredible sense of peace because whatever they said, it doesn't matter. That was my greatest strength. They could do whatever they wanted to me. I'm one of the strongest human beings ever created. I know that now. And I say that without an ounce of ego because I've paid for it.

Ms. SANDERS: He's just an amazing person, and he's now living in London, just got married, is having a baby. So like all these wonderful guys, they're all moving forward with their lives, even though he hasn't received an apology, any compensation, and they still haven't tried to find the real killer.

BRAND: Jessica Sanders is the director and co-producer of the documentary "After Innocence." It's showing in Los Angeles now and will open in other cities soon. To find out more, go to AfterInnocence.com.

Jessica, thank you very much.

Ms. SANDERS: Thank you so much, Madeleine.

BRAND: More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: