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.
Was there a shot that you almost ?didn’t get?
The most important shot was one of the last — Wilton Dedge getting out of prison. The prosecution was so sneaky. He’d been cleared. But they held him in the jail for 16 hours because they didn’t want him to get out in the daytime, when there’d be media. They let him out at, like, 4 in the morning. He’d been sitting for hours in this holding cell. I was on the phone with a bailiff I’d made friends with. I said, “Can you please let our cameras get inside with Wilton when he walks out?” He said, “If you share that footage with the news people . . .” and I was like, “Okay.” So we got access because either Florida is very lax or we were very nice. That combination helped us get a golden shot.
Your parents are documentary filmmakers Terry Sanders and Freida Lee Mock, who won an Oscar for their film Maya Lin: A Strong, Clear Vision. And you produced your mother’s short-subject documentary Sing!, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2002. What was it like growing up in your household?
Our fridge at home didn’t have much food, but it always had film stock. They were the kind of parents who just slung their kids on their shoulders and went to work. I grew up traveling the world and meeting amazing people. There’s a film about Aaron Copland that features me at 1, sitting on his lap. What I learned [growing up in] a documentary family was that, with documentaries, it’s about trust, more than anything. And listening. You’re giving people attention, caring about them and their stories. You’re always a guest in someone else’s life, so act like a houseguest. Say, “Thank you.”
In 2003, the Wisconsin Innocence Project helped free a man named Steven Avery, who was found to have been wrongly convicted of sexual assault in 1985. Recently, he was charged with the murder of a young woman. Was this considered a blow for the Innocence Project?
Out of the 162 people, Steven Avery is one of only two people who committed a crime afterward. I think it’s damaging. But I’m surprised that you can spend 22 years in prison and come out okay. I mean, I’ve met about 60 of these people, and they’re for the most part incredibly positive, not bitter or broken.
Why do you think that is?
There’s a theory: What kept them going in prison, this positive “I’m going to get out, I’m going to research every option that I have, I’m going to the law library every day, I’m going to think of something to get me through this horrible experience” quality, that’s the same quality that stays with them on the outside. All of them say that if they were pissed, angry and broken, they’d have died in prison [years before they were exonerated]. You can’t survive like that. They’d have been eaten alive by depression. A huge part is that they all have family on the outside believing in them. If they came out a changed, broken person, then there’d be no point to even wanting to get out.
After Innocence had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. What was that like?
It was one of the most emotional experiences. I got into Sundance on a rough cut. No one except my producing partner, my editor, my parents and Showtime had seen the film before. None of the guys in the film had seen it. So they all flew out. Their families, girlfriends. You know, you make a film that you think works, but you don’t know how the people in it are going to feel. So I was sitting there at Sundance, and I looked down [the aisle] and they’re all crying. They’re on the big screen; their stories are being told. Afterward, they all got up onstage. One of them, [Los Angeles’] Herman Atkins, said, “I didn’t shed a tear for 13 years in prison, but I just cried like a baby for two hours.” This woman stood up, crying, and said, “I’m a prosecutor for the L.A. District Attorney’s Office, and on behalf of all of you, I want to apologize.” Someone asked me if she was a plant. I was like, “What!?”
For the most part, district attorneys and legislators, those who shape public policy, tend to be reluctant to admit mistakes. How do you get these people to attend your screenings?
My producing partner Marc Simon and I are working with the Innocence Project on its “Life After Exoneration Program,” and [another] group, called Active Voice, which helps organize outreach to universities and other groups that would be interested in the subject matter and helping to create change. We had a judge who’d seen the film at Sundance and felt passionate about having all the judges see it. We’ve had police officers who’ve seen it and felt that every police officer should see it. I invited [L.A. District Attorney] Steve Cooley to a screening and Q&A with me at the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences].
What did Steve Cooley say?
He expressed his concern about the injustice of the Florida prosecutors’ trying to resist [the release of] someone who is innocent. He also used the opportunity to say that L.A. is very progressive in its approach to the [DNA] requests of the innocent.
What’s the policy in California toward people who’ve been wrongfully ?incarcerated?
California has compensation, but it’s not necessarily adequate. You have to prove that you didn’t contribute to your conviction. I don’t even know what that means.
After your film was screened in Florida, the state finally did right by Wilton Dedge, with $2 million in compensation for his 22 years in prison. How did you learn about the decision?
I talked to Wilton two minutes after. I got an e-mail saying, “Great news!,” so I just called him and he was surrounded by press. He was like, “It’s really crazy here! I’m kind of in a daze!” He was given a private bill for $2 million. He’s giving 20 percent of it to his parents, who spent their life savings getting him out. Basically, the Innocence Project wanted to set the bar very high to set off a blanket compensation for all exonerees in Florida.
Does Wilton credit After Innocence?
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He’s like, “I’m surrounded by reporters and I’ve been telling them about the film! I’m plugging the film!” I don’t know if anybody sees it as a direct result, but it’s definitely part of the mix, and we’re proud of that.
After Innocence is one of 15 documentaries that have been shortlisted for an Academy Award. How did you hear about it?
I got a call on my cell phone. First, I told my parents. Then I called my producing partner. Now all the exonerees know, and they all want to go. First, you have to get nominated, and I don’t even know about getting tickets. But they’re all like, “We’re getting our tuxedos!”
After Innocence (New Yorker Films) opens at the Nuart Theater in Santa Monica on January 13.