And has life "After Innocence" become a mere afterthought as exonerated felons find the mean streets they face no more humane now that they've been declared innocent?
Both questions are examined at length in the compelling "After Innocence," which opens in the area Dec. 2.
The camera follows the unsteady lives of a magnificently maligned seven – men convicted of feral crimes to be exonerated by DNA evidence after years of incarceration – as they try to blend back into a society that still treats them as if they were in prison garb, forever chained to crimes they didn't commit.
Indeed, it is the "guilty as charged" afterlife that charges this phenomenal documentary, whose co-producer/writer Marc Simon says quite a bit about tarnished innocence, and the prospects of true rehabilitation in a ruthless and unrelenting society.
"Once someone is proved innocent, then you start the second battle [of putting] the exonerated back into society," says Simon, whose own sense of social justice stems from an education at the University of Pennsylvania and Yeshiva University, of whose law school he's a graduate.
The fairy-tale-like retelling of those men and women exonerated by their DNA oftimes fails to illustrate that the magic dust sprinkled on their story blinds the eyes of society to the truth – that freedom does not guarantee liberty from the past or hardships from the present.
"The unfortunate misconception in some sections of our society," says Simon, "is that if people are arrested and proved innocent after is that they must have done something wrong to begin with. That they must have been convicted of something else."
Objection! "A majority of those [wrongfully found guilty] have not committed any crime in their lives. In many ways, they had the misfortune of trusting the system."
And it proves a system not of checks and balances but hit and miss at times. Even if the system errs a miniscule amount of the time, says Simon, that still means many thousands of lives are upended needlessly.
In the run for their life post-prison, these exonerated often barrel into barriers constructed at every turn and step.
"They have huge obstacles," relates Simon, who worked for exonerated as part of the nationally known Innocence Project, "and these are obstacles that may not be overcome in a week, a year … or a lifetime."
For many, the past becomes a life sentence of second thoughts and dizzying doubts. "All of them had points where they lost hope," says the producer, who cites one exonerated, from Philadelphia, "who asked to be executed."
It's really no surprise that Simon has executed such a multiple award-winning film, which did the winner's dance at Sundance, among other festivals. What is more surprising is how well he worked the system – the film community – in bringing such a serious topic to reel light. "I needed all the diplomacy aspect I got from Penn" – his major was diplomatic history – "to get this film done."
And he's not finished, especially when it comes to cajoling those states that still don't have compensation laws on the books for the wrongfully imprisoned to pass them. "And the first state on the first [stop] for exhibiting this film – Pennsylvania – is one that doesn't have such a statute."
How does a filmmaker compensate for such inertia over innocence? "The only way to create a change is to let the public know about the issue."
And today's issue of this newspaper can provide a freedom forum for those still serving mental jail time. After all, says Simon, what tarnished innocents have to endure has catholic appeal.
"There are the Jewish exonerated facing this," says the filmmaker, including one, although not in the film, "released just a month ago – before the High Holidays – who's now speaking out on the subject."
Speaking on the subject comes naturally to Simon, whose Jewish roots may have had him rooting for the underdog early on.
Is it any wonder that the diplomatic history major who also took film courses at Penn cites "Rocky" as the rock he counts on? "That film had the most profound effect on my career," says the native of Livingston, N.J.
Gotta fly now … and as Simon takes off to talk elsewhere about his film, he distills the dynamics of what he has chosen to do and get done as part of the Chosen People. "On Yom Kippur, the discussions we had often dealt with how we're all here for such a short time, and how important it is to leave our footprints," says the filmmaker.
He has walked in the shoes that shine with success. And "After Innocence" may be just the post-tzedakah fulfillment he needs.
"I have led a full life, and it's not just about the money aspect," he says. "Now, something in me wants to have an impact."