By the time Vincent Moto became Pennsylvania's first convicted felon to be exonerated by DNA testing, he had served more than a decade in prison. Years later, the Philadelphia man who spent his 20s wrongfully incarcerated has a 7-year-old daughter, no steady work and a record he still struggles to prove is clean. "What's different," says Moto's sister, "is he knows 'fair' doesn't exist."
Jessica Sanders' documentary After Innocence focuses on Moto and six others who were cleared by DNA evidence -- but who are also still coping with the years of injustice piled on them.
Moto's stretch, however appalling, was relatively short: Calvin Willis, of Louisiana, did 22 years; Nick Yarris, of Pennsylvania, spent 23 years on death row. Then there's Wilton Dedge, whom we meet, still in stir, 25 years after a rape conviction -- and three years after DNA testing cleared him but failed to convince Florida officials that innocence was sufficient grounds for release.
Simple fairness seems the plea of After Innocence. Inspired by the New York-based Innocence Project, the film serves as a survivors' gallery -- and as a cry for the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of innocent people now jailed because DNA testing isn't practiced properly or widely enough.
More than 150 Americans have been freed from jail thanks to DNA testing. Sanders' seven also include Scott Hornoff, a cop who did six-and-a-half years for a murder somebody else later confessed to; Dennis Maher, who largely fought his own case after hearing about DNA testing on Phil Donahue; and Herman Atkins, out after 12 years and trying to catch up on his education.
The first-person accounts are often moving, perhaps especially because of how the exonerees -- and often their now-elderly parents -- disavow bitterness. "Anger stagnates a person's growth," says Willis. Yarris, who calls himself "a ghost in my own life," is an anti-death-penalty activist. Maher, a mechanic, quietly toils to assemble the normal life he never had.
But if the film's portraits in redemption are appealingly terse, Sanders' summaries of her subjects' legal plights are sketchy. Exonerees' records, we're told, don't get expunged: Why not? And what's holding up the compensation legislation they campaign for? Adding further confusion are the sudden, final-reel appearances by a rape victim who reconciled with the man she misidentified as her attacker, and by former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who in 2003 commuted all his state's death sentences. These would be great topics for their own docs; Ryan's mission in fact inspired one. But in After Innocence, they just raise more unanswered questions. Aab
The 8 p.m. screening on Fri., Feb. 17, will be followed by a talk by Bill Moushey, director of Point Park's Innocence Institute. After the 8 p.m. screening on Sat., Feb. 18, Thomas Doswell, exonerated by DNA evidence after 19 years in prison, and law professor John Rago, will answer questions.