Working in collaboration with former O.J. Simpson attorney Barry Scheck's nonprofit Innocence Project, Sanders and partner Marc Simon have pieced together a strikingly varied collection of individual stories with a chilling common thread: the ease with which the criminal justice system can and does fail law-abiding, innocent Americans each and every day. What's never explicitly mentioned on screen, but which is implicit throughout, is the role of socioeconomic status. These are, by and large, men from modest and poor backgrounds without the means to take full advantage of their presumed rights. The cynical but unavoidable conclusion is that there really are two different legal systems -- "innocent till proven guilty" for those with means and "guilty till proven innocent" for everyone else.
Generally speaking, the subject of wrongful imprisonment is rarely raised without capital punishment coming in the next breath. But "After Innocence" touches only briefly on the subject since penalties and punishments are largely beside the point. The issue here is not so much the correctness of the punishment but the tragedy of any punishment at all being meted out to the innocent.
Of the film's seven featured stories, the one most likely to raise the hackles of viewers is that of Florida's Wilton Dedge who, as the film begins, remains imprisoned some three years after his DNA exoneration. The how and why of this incomprehensible miscarriage of justice is woven throughout the picture as a kind of narrative through-line, creating an almost narrative sense of suspense as to whether Dedge will, indeed, be rewarded his freedom as well.
Sanders, the daughter of Oscar-winning documentarians Terry Sanders and Freida Lee Mock, has clearly learned a thing or two from her parents and, come Oscar time, could conceivably capture another award for the family. But other collaborators have left their mark as well, most notably editor Brian Johnson whose contribution here is easily on par with his previous award-winning work on the Oscar-nominated "Buena Vista Social Club." Whatever the ultimate division of labor, the triumvirate of Sanders, Simon and Johnson have delivered something that may well prove to be more than a movie. For the nameless innocents who continue to languish in prison, "After Innocence" provides a vital glimmer of hope. Featuring Calvin Willis, Wilton Dedge, Nicholas Yarris, Scott Hornoff and Ronald Cotton. Directed by Jessica Sanders. Written and produced by Jessica Sanders and Marc Simon. A New Yorker release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 95 min