Friday, January 27, 2006

"After Innocence" -- out of the mouths of babes...

Just when you thought you had it all wrapped up, and the younger generation pegged, those under 30 anyway, you encounter a 22 year old who works the box office at a theatre, in San Francisco, who totally turns your head around.

Just the other day, I decided to take myself to an afternoon matinee of an independent film you may have heard of, "After Innocence," which deals with several exonerees who were wrongly convicted, then vindicated by DNA. It was a cold, dreary day which, of course, is nothing unusual for January in the Bay Area. When I got off the train, I virtually ran to the theatre where I was greeted by the most delightful young man, Matt, the box office boy, who was thrilled to see a live human being, and greeted me with an enthusiastic "hey dude!" an expression which, I confess, unnerves me being of the female persuasion. "One for After Innocence," I proclaim greedily. "By the way, have you seen it?"

As it happens, in addition to being adorable, our keeper of the box office is also an accomplished film critic. "I caught glimpses of it here and there," he tells me. "What did you think?" "Oh, I think it's ecclesiastical." "Ecclesiastical," I gulped. "Yeah, you know, religious." Mind you, it's not that I'd never heard the word before. After all, in my day, we read the Old Testament -- now, of course, they're waiting until it comes to DVD. I was simply stunned that a reference to Ecclesiastes could come from the mouth of one who, minutes earlier, yelled out "hey, dude."

An interesting dialectic, I mused, as he proceeded to tell me how he had a hard time working up sympathy for a bunch of guys who were accused of rape, and murder, and who didn't look like poster boys for rehabilitation. "Besides," he adds, "they got something like $550,000 compensation for being locked up." At this, I stare at him roundly "Okay, how old are you?" "Just turned 22," he says. "How about if I give you $5 million, would you be willing to spend the next 23 years of your life on death row, in solitary confinement, for a crime you didn't commit? You'd be all of 45--relatively young, and a rich man, when you get out." He laughs, and agrees that no amount of money is worth giving up time. "Yeah, there's no getting the years back. If only I knew at 10 what I know now." It took everything in my power not to laugh outloud. "Are you against the death penalty," he asks. "I don't even want to go there. I'm against wrongful conviction, and the wanton disregard for innocence routinely displayed by this government." Up walks the theatre manager, a boy of about 25. "Oh," Matt says hurriedly, "I don't like political conversations; enjoy the movie."

Must say this about our box office critic, he hit the nail on the head when he called "After Innocence" ecclesiastical. This wasn't a movie for the "lay person" in that it was clearly preaching to the choir. There was no attempt to make an argument, or pry you loose from any preconceptions you had about the American system of jurisprudence. If you went in believing strongly in capital punishment, odds are this film won't change your mind, but I can say this--if you see this film, and then sit on a jury, you'll think long and hard before convicting the defendant.

As Innocence Project attorney Peter Neufeld suggests, if nothing else, the debate about wrongful conviction, and the death penalty, will remind us of a simple truth that most of us in this country seem, sadly, to have forgotten: a person is innocent until proven guilty, and not the other way around. If not in our lifetime, then maybe in the lifetime of our twentysomething friend, we will use DNA to convict, and not to vindicate following wrongful conviction. Better still, we may yet progress to where we ban the death penalty unless, and until, it can be proven, by DNA, that the person charged has been rightly, and not wrongfully, convicted of the crime for which he, or she, is paying the ultimate price. After all, if future generations come up with a sequel to this movie, we wouldn't want the title to be "After Ignorance."