By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The result is something far removed from classic photojournalism, or even traditional photo portraiture. The stillness of the images — bordering on aloofness — and jeweled shades of red, green and yellow, seems more aligned with Hopper than Leibovitz. In many instances, especially those shot at the scene of the crime, the combination of light and posture suggests that the subject is superimposed on the background, an effect Simon consciously sought. “I was really hoping to create that sort of distance, an impersonal feeling,” she said. “For many of them this is a place they had never been before. It is this fictional setting in their heads, one that was with them constantly, whether in court or in their quiet time in prison. It’s always there, but they have no sense of what it is because they’ve never been there.”
Simon’s first choice was always to photograph the subjects at the crime scene. But many of the men were reluctant to visit a place that had played such a terrible role in their lives. She also photographed the books’ subjects at the scene of the alibi, at home, or at another location they were comfortable with. Sometimes that alternate place suggests another story, one totally apart from the details of the crime. For Cotton and Johnson, for example, the river’s edge is irrelevant to the story. It was, Simon explained, simply a place that was convenient for both to meet. Simon does not consider herself a photojournalist in any conventional sense, and she’s comfortable with that degree of artistic license.
Most other portraits are set in locations with a direct connection to the case. Walter Snyder is photographed in his living room standing against a mirrored wall that reflects the building where the rape took place. Durham, who had 11 witnesses testify to his presence at a skeet-shooting contest at the time of the crime, sits amid a thousand blasted red clay targets. Scattered over a grassy field, the shards suggest the poppy field from The Wizard of Oz, though Durham’s worried expression and the cocked shotgun in his hands tell another story. Herman Atkins stands against a bare concrete wall wearing a football-practice uniform and gripping a signed football. As it turns out, he is enrolled at Los Angeles Southwest Community College, where he plays on the football team. When the reader arrives at Atkins’ page, which appears about two-thirds of the way through the book, this scrap of positive news stands out: He is one of the few in this book with anything going for him. But even he talks of his frustration over the years he lost. “I’m always going to be a step behind,” he said. “You can’t catch up.”
Many of the others are consumed by anger, resignation and despair. Among the more disturbing is Ron Williamson. A former minor-league baseball player who suffers from mental illness, Williamson was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a barmaid in Ada, Oklahoma. Williamson had been drafted by the Oakland A’s before his arrest. He spent 11 years in prison. This is what he told Simon, and what she recorded next to his image, his face twisted into a grimace as he stands, hands stuffed in pockets, on a red baseball field: “I asked myself what was the reason for my birth when I was on death row. What was even the reason for my birth? I almost cursed my mother and dad — it was so bad — for putting me on this Earth. If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t be born.”
Ron Williamson served 11 years
Richard Danziger, thrown into prison for life for the rape and murder of a Pizza Hut manager in Austin, Texas, served 12 years. During that time, he was attacked, his skull bashed in by other inmates. He survived a weeks-long coma, but now, at age 32, he suffers from seizures, mental problems and partial paralysis on his left side. His sister, who is his legal guardian, says: “The only difference from being in jail is that now he has people who care about his well-being. Which is better: a place where you eat three meals a day, shower, sleep, make no decisions — or the unknown named freedom? Will Richard ever have freedom, or has the justice system robbed him of that opportunity forever?”
This from another “freed” man, Frederick Daye: “If I sat down with a person and emptied my heart out and let them know everything I’ve been through, he’d be stark raving mad.”
Perversely, these are the lucky ones. Only about 20 percent of serious felony cases involve the kind of evidence that can be DNA-tested to prove guilt or innocence, according to Scheck and Neufeld’s commentary. And in only a fraction of those does the evidence ever get tested. How many other men and women locked up in our prisons are innocent?
The cover of The Innocents features a grid of head shots — or “free-man mug shots,” as one of the men joked to Simon — reminiscent of a page in a yearbook. In many ways these innocents are in a class apart. Their cases were among the first to be championed using a newly sophisticated technology that did not exist at the time of the crime. Since then, the depth of understanding of the uses — and abuses — of DNA testing has grown tremendously.
William Gregory served 7 years