After Innocence (documentary)

“After Innocence” is a documentary torn from the headlines. It reports that more than 150 convicts in the U.S. have had their sentences overturned after being proven innocent by DNA evidence. The film wants to know what happens next, when these innocents are returned to society.

You see, if you serve out your sentence and are released, the government helps you out with job training, health care, and so on. But if your sentence is overturned because it turns out you shouldn’t have been convicted in the first place, the government pretends the whole embarrassing thing never happened, and you get nothing. Except it DID happen, and when you fill out job applications, you have to answer “yes” on the part where it asks if you’ve ever been convicted of a crime. (“Were you later released because DNA proved your innocence?” is not a follow-up question, unfortunately.)

“After Innocence,” directed with compassion and outrage by Jessica Sanders, focuses on a half-dozen men convicted of various combinations of rape and murder. In each instance, DNA evidence recovered at the crime scenes was eventually subjected to tests not available at the time, and the men were exonerated. Some are bitter about it, others are philosophical. After a while the anecdotes become the same, which is too bad, since they individual stories are so very human in their nature. Perhaps a more in-depth focus on fewer men, rather than glimpses at several, would have been better.

There is a stand-out, though, and it is Wilton Dredge. When the film begins, he has been in a Florida prison for 22 years, and in fact has been proven innocent for three — yet he remains incarcerated. Over the course of the film, we see him go through the process of appeals, reopening the case and testing the evidence. The prosecutor is blithe about the possibility that DNA will prove Dredge innocent beyond all question; he keeps pointing to other, more circumstantial facts as “evidence” that Dredge is guilty — that, and the fact that hey, a jury convicted him, didn’t it?

Dredge’s story has power because it has somewhere to go. The other men have already been released and are struggling to make progress without specific goals — intriguing raw material for a film, perhaps, but lacking in anything approaching a “plot.” Dredge’s story even has supporting characters, including his good ol’ boy father, a big Southern man who says, with heartbreaking emotion, “We’re ready for our boy to come home.”

B- (1 hr., 35 min.; Not Rated, probably PG-13 for a little profanity, some 'Law & Order: SVU'-style descriptions of rape.)