Ever since Jessica Sanders’ After Innocence debuted at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, her documentary about the tough, post-prison lives of seven wrongly incarcerated men has played to two kinds of audiences: film festival–goers and, in private screenings, legislators and public-policy makers, who often come away chastened by the searing message onscreen — that most U.S. states treat criminal ex-cons better than innocent ones. With the help of Sanders’ film and others working on the issue, the policy is starting to change. Last month, Florida bestowed $2 million in compensation to one of the exonerees profiled in After Innocence: Wilton Dedge, who spent 22 years in prison for rape until a DNA test proved they’d jailed the wrong man.
Recently, Sanders, 28, sat down for a late breakfast at Swingers coffee shop near her home in Santa Monica. There she talked about her purposeful, no-frills documentary, which opens Friday at the Nuart theater.
L.A. WEEKLY: Explain how the social services offered to the guilty are different from those an innocent person gets when he or she is exonerated and leaves prison.
JESSICA SANDERS: Guilty people get parole, which is set up to help people get housing and jobs, therapy. Because innocent people aren’t eligible for parole, they don’t get anything. For instance, Nick Yarris, who spent 23 years on death row in solitary confinement and was the first DNA death-row exoneree, was given $5.37 and literally just let out on the street. Luckily, he had a family to pick him up and take him home. But a lot of exonerees don’t have families [and end up] on the streets, homeless.
How did you end up making a film about this subject?
My best friend’s sister went to law school with my producing partner, Marc Simon, who was a student [intern] with the Innocence Project. He just kind of e-mailed me randomly and was like, “Oh, I have this idea . . .” Then I started reading about these cases. I learned that they still have criminal records, can’t get jobs; they’re treated worse than guilty people, who get services and help. That’s the story that hadn’t been told. As a filmmaker, I thought it was an amazing story.
You didn’t have full financing when you started filming.
I was pretty naively gung ho about it. It’s a documentary. You can’t wait to get money. It’s happening. You’re going to miss it. So I just jumped on a plane to film [outgoing Illinois Governor George Ryan as he commuted the sentences of all of the state’s death-row inmates]. A couple of months later, after I started writing a treatment, I filmed the first scene of the movie, where 30 DNA exonerees got together for the 10th anniversary of the Innocence Project. I cut down [the anniversary footage] and put together a promo piece. That’s how we got all of our grants. The funny thing is that [the footage] was very similar to the film. The whole opening I cut on Final Cut Pro at home is actually the opening to the film.
How did you pick your subjects?
Geography and diversity were important. So were different types of experiences that reflected the universal experience. We made a chart and tracked people: Were they compensated? Did they have families that believed in them? I wanted to get a death-row person in there. When I met Scott Hornoff [a white police officer who served six and a half years of a life sentence for a murder he didn’t commit], I thought, “If it could happen to him, it could happen to anybody.” That’s a theme throughout the film: These guys could be anybody. They just happened to be, like, wearing the wrong sweatshirt.
You worked on an NBC documentary series called Crime & Punishment, which followed the prosecution side of criminal trials. What did you learn about that side of the justice system?
I was a producer [as well] as a camera operator in the courtroom, and I filmed over 40 brutal trials. I sat there for hundreds of hours through horrible stuff — murder trials, rape trials. It’s easy to point your finger at these bad people. But the flip side is that they often get the wrong person or there’s overzealous prosecution or police work. I saw people high-fiving each other when they’d get someone the worst sentences possible that didn’t necessarily reflect the crime. I just saw that it was about winning.
In After Innocence, an exoneree named Dennis Maher — who was wrongfully incarcerated for 19 years — speaks to a class taught by his Innocence Project attorney, Aliza B. Kaplan. His obvious gratitude toward her makes it one of the most unexpectedly moving scenes in the documentary.
[Dennis and his girlfriend] are having a baby, and they’re naming it after Aliza. He’s one of the sweetest guys because he had so much therapy while he was in prison. He’s so in touch with his emotions. He cries a lot in the film. It’s amazing. When he got out, he even had his family go through therapy.