THE AFTER LIVES

What’s your worst fear? Loss of income? Separation from family and loved ones? Public embarrassment?

How about all of them simultaneously, which is what Herman Atkins went through when he spent nearly a dozen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Atkins is one of seven “exonerees” profiled in Jessica Sanders’s devastating and disturbing documentary “After Innocence,” which examines the life after release of men who spent up to 22 years behind bars after being wrongfully convicted of horrifying crimes.

Exonerations isn’t a purely new phenomenon, but Sanders’s documentary provides a different perspective. While the public generally considers exonerations to be success stories, wrongs that have been righted, Sanders – who was nominated for an Oscar for her documentary “Sings” – delves into the stories that follow. Sure there’s the issue of their struggle to have new evidence heard, DNA tests that could prove their innocence and put an end to their Kafka-esque ordeals. But physical freedom is only the first step. The men – among them a white Rhode Island police officer and Army sergeant – were released without compensation or counseling, thrust back into society with even less support that the government gives guilty parolees.

The film evokes feelings of queasiness, anger and sadness – and that’s just what the viewers go through. What’s astonishing is that those emotions don’t seem to be shared by the wrongfully convicted. Instead, what they share are positive attitudes and a desire to move forward, to get their records expunged, to be made whole again and to help others in the same situation. The calm and deliberate pace of the film echoes the men’s own demeanor; in fact, the parents and friends waiting for their loved ones’ release seemed more agitated than the incarcerated men. The tone makes the film a deeply troubling portrait of a criminal justice system that doesn’t work and doesn’t know how to fix itself.

Both Sanders and Atkins will participate in a Q&A session following a May 11 screening of the film, which won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance in 2005 and is being co-presented by COPPAC, USCB’s Center on Police Practices and Community. I spoke with each of them individually via telephone.

Herman Atkins

Q. How did you get involved in this film?

A. Actually, the movie was partially inspired by my story. When I got out, I went to New York to thank the students who had helped on my case. Mark Simon (the co-producer) was trying to get me to go to a meeting which was at a restaurant three blocks down, but I wouldn’t go by myself because of fear. He realized that what happens after you are released was as interesting as the process of getting released. We sat down and talked and came up with the idea of doing the movie.

Your case was different in that your family didn’t support; your dad – a police officer – thought you were guilty. What was that like? How did you patch things up?

I never knew he had felt that way until I saw the picture. But it explained his actions towards me when I got out. What he experienced was like a slap in his face. He had dedicated his life to law enforcement only to turn around and have it dictate his thought process toward those he loved. As he stated, he was trained to go with the evidence, even if it was falsified. I understand that he is a police officer, and was trained to respond as one. So I can understand his thoughts. He still feels that I harbor resentment toward him for that, and there’s nothing I can do to assure him it’s not true. And that’s in spite of us talking every day. I’m blessed just to have him alive.

Jessica Sanders

Q. Watching the film, I found myself crying and getting angry at the same time. Was it hard for you to be around these people emotionally?

The only hard part was with Wilton Dedge, who we didn’t know if he was going to get out, and then how the film was going to end. But I met with one hundred exonerees. They’re very focused on moving forward, and that’s what I was drawn to and why it wasn’t depressing but was enjoyable and inspiring. There are parts that angered me but in general I don’t feel sad for them because they don’t for themselves.

What did you learn in this project?

There are so many more stories to explore. There are two million people in jail in this country, so it’s not the end of my relationship with the justice system. But they’re using this movie now as a political tool, showing it to legislatures, police officers, prosecutors. You’re in Montecito, we’d love Oprah to see it and get her behind the issue. She can get laws passed, get things changed.