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Injustice for All 

Taryn Simon and The Innocents

Thursday, May 15 2003
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What’s wrong with this picture? A black man and a white woman pose formally — incongruously — on a muddy riverbank surrounded by scraggly brush, brown water and sand. The man, tall and broad and dressed in a sweater and tasseled loafers, wraps his left arm around the woman’s back. His jaw is set, as if in anger or defiance. His right hand hangs at his side, fingers splayed, thumb hooked awkwardly into the pocket of his black dress slacks. The woman, whose blond head meets his shoulder, folds her arms tightly across her chest. Deep, vertical creases run from nose to forehead and press outward from her frowning mouth. Her eyes appear perpetually sad.

The question presented by this image, which appears in Taryn Simon’s new book of photographs, The Innocents, is answered on the facing page. Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton are not lovers. What binds them together is one violent act and its eternal repercussions. Nineteen years ago Thompson accused Cotton of robbing and raping her in her North Carolina home. She based her unwavering claim in large part on a mug shot shown to her by police. She was wrong. As the book title suggests, he was cleared of the crime — but only after he had served 10 and a half years of hard time. Thompson’s account of her mistake, which appears in the book alongside the portrait of the pair, is a chilling testament to the frailty of memory and the power of a photograph to supplant it.

“By the time we went to do a physical lineup . . . I picked out Ronald because subconsciously, in my mind, he resembled the photo, which resembled the composite [sketch], which resembled the attacker,” Thompson said. “All the images became enmeshed into one image that became Ron, and Ron became my attacker.”

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The story of this false identification and its tragic consequences is one of 46 recounted in The Innocents, a collaboration of Simon, a 28-year-old photography wunderkind, and the Innocence Project, Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck’s New York–based effort that employs DNA testing to free the wrongly convicted. In the 11 years since its founding, the project has helped secure the release of 127 men and women. All 45 men and the one woman featured in The Innocents were freed with the help of the project, which provided some funding for the book as well as case narratives and a brief opening commentary by Neufeld and Scheck.

But the bulk of the work for the book fell to Simon. With the help of a Guggenheim Fellowship, she spent three years crisscrossing the country, interviewing and photographing the book’s subjects, whose wrongful convictions occurred in 18 different states, from California to Kentucky, Texas to Indiana.


A.B. Butler served 16½ years

Simon, who spoke about The Innocents by phone from her Manhattan apartment during a pounding rainstorm, said that it began, several years ago, as an assignment to photograph a number of exonerated men and women for The New York Times Magazine. She was struck by the number of instances in which photographs were misused to win the faulty convictions. “As I was listening to their stories, I realized that the photography kept coming up again and again and again as a factor that led to what happened to them,” she said. “I had never imagined such a thing, and it really drew me in.”

The Innocents tells the stories of these unwilling participants, in their words and in Simon’s images. There is little overt emotion here, but the magnitude of the tragedy quietly builds, page by page. One man, Walter (Tony) Snyder, was convicted of raping a neighbor in Alexandria, Virginia. Police had shown the victim a photo array that included a snapshot of Snyder. The victim did not identify Snyder as her attacker. But later that day, when she returned home, she saw Snyder washing his car across the street. She remembered seeing his photo at the police station and accused him of the assault. Snyder served seven years of a 45-year sentence before DNA testing set him free.

In another case, Herman Atkins was accused of raping and robbing a shoe-store clerk in the Riverside County community of Lake Elsinore after the clerk saw a wanted poster with Atkins’ image at the police station. Atkins served 11 and a half years of a 45-year sentence.

In a third case, Tim Durham was accused of raping an 11-year-old girl in her back yard in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His conviction was based on her description of the attacker as a short man with red hair and her identification of a photograph. Durham served three and a half years of a 3,220-year sentence.

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