Does Innocence Matter?          

By James J Murtagh, M.D.

Warning: movie spoiler alert. If you have not seen After Innocence, consider seeing the film before reading further.

69% of Americans in a 2004 Harris poll supported the death penalty. However, 0% would support the death penalty for the innocent accused.

Why then is the death penalty a hot-button in the culture wars? No one is deterred by the execution of innocents. Both conservatives and liberals must abhor the unbridled power of Big Brother to execute the innocent.

Every American needs to see the film “After Innocence,” depicting seven men found guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt. They lived for years and decades on death row, could have been executed, but instead were found completely innocent.

Most wrongly convicted are minority and poor, but not all. Nick Yarris spent 23 years behind bars, some in brutal solitary confinement, forbidden even to speak, and on death row, for a murder he did not commit. DNA testing proved his innocence. Upon his release, he was given no money, no training, no therapy. And no apology.

Even a policeman and an Army sergeant can be wrongly convicted by brothers in blue. Scott Hornoff, a white former Rhode Island policeman, served 6 ½ years for murder and was freed only after the real killer confessed.

More than 175 wrongly convicted persons have been set free since 1992. A landmark Department of Justice study estimates a 5% failure rate in the U.S. justice system, suggesting as many as 100,000 falsely convicted prisoners. Other reports place the estimate as high as 10%.

Most shocking, innocents remain in prison for additional years due to mindless system brutality, even after iron-clad DNA exoneration. Prosecutors, embarrassed by exonerations, actually declare on film that “the finality of the system,” “closure for the victims” and “expediency” is more important than the actual guilt or innocence of the convicted.

Many prisoners are filmed counseled by psychologists to accept their guilt and move on. The goal of prison officials is to break the prisoners’ spirit. Shades of the “re-education room 101” where Winston Smith famously learned to “love Big Brother” in Orwell’s “1984.”

Growing up, we believed America’s justice was the envy of the entire world. Can we credibly preach human rights and democracy while torture is part of not just our system in Guantanamo, but also in New York? Can faulty middle east intelligence surprise us when we cannot discover (let alone correct) the errors of our own police departments?

To paraphrase George Bailey, not “every heel” (or every evil-doer) is overseas working with the enemy.

“The Exonerated,” a predecessor to “After Innocence,” has already shown the powerful possibilities of art based on fact bringing social justice.  Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan Ryan saw a special performance in Dec. 2002, and was so moved that he commuted the sentences of 171 inmates on death row.

New balance is needed in our popular culture. Americans love “lock ‘em up, throw away the key, make my day, Hasta la vista,” films. But can we handle the truth? Should we presume people are “scumbags” before being proved innocent? Can we forgive the brutal police of NYPD Blue because they appear to get results? In reality, our constitution and due process work better than short cuts. Due process keeps citizens safer, as well as protect rights.

Years ago, popular culture icon Perry Mason freed the innocent. “The Fugitive” ran from the awesome power of the state to find the true killer.

When Court TV shows heroes cutting corners, Americans believe justice in the end is done. But how would we feel about a cop threatening “make my day” to an innocent? Or NYPD Blue’s Sipowicz  “putting a beating”  to torture an innocent to confess falsely?

Could any innocent look down the barrel of Dirty Harry’s 44 Magnum without falsely confessing?

Was Andy Dufresne from the “Shawshank Redemption” pure fantasy? Was the Jim Crowe-wrongly convicted Tom Robinson from “To Kill a Mockingbird” ancient history?

What is rare is the courage of the real-life Andy Dufresnes. The exonerated are really fighting for the rest of us. No one can feel safe in a society that convicts innocents. For every person wrongly convicted, an actual criminal goes free to terrorize other citizens. Tony Soprano remains free while Dufresnes is framed. Enron criminals manufacture the California energy crisis and remain jail free while Tom Robinson hangs himself. Famed criminal justice reformer Frank Serpico should have been made NYPD chief instead of being exiled.

No one wants to fear the knock on the door, “After Innocence,” shows the exonerated are a unique resource in improving our system to make prosecutions more just and our society more safe.

The time has come not just for a moratorium on capital punishment, but also for a moratorium on this corner of the culture war.  Until we can be sure that the system is error-free, both conservatives and liberals must agree that the innocent have a right to life, and must not be put to death.