Former Rhode Island police Detective Scott Hornoff envisioned the day he would walk out of prison a free and vindicated man. The image stayed locked in his mind as he spent nearly seven years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
"My oldest son was 12;, and I always saw myself getting down on bended knee and him jumping in my arms when I was free," the cop said following his release in 2002 after the real killer confessed to the crime. "Now, he's 14. Six foot tall and 245 pounds. He was in the courtroom when I was freed. He picked me up.''
Hornoff is one of seven exonerated men featured in "After Innocence,'' an award-winning documentary which makes its Twin Cities premiere tonight in Edina.
"Every step of the judicial system failed me and my family,'' Hornoff says at one point in the film. "And if not for the guilt and remorse of the true killer, I would still be in prison.''
Compelling, emotional and often sad, the 95-minute film is required viewing for anyone brainwashed by mass entertainment into thinking that the criminal justice system is nearly infallible and that victims, cops and prosecutors always nail the right suspect.
Others who share their stories include former death row inmates, the son of a California cop, a former U.S. Marine and a Florida man cleared in a rape case after 22 years in prison.
"In most of our cases, the critical biological evidence has either been lost or destroyed,'' says Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the New York City-based Innocence Project, which has helped exonerate more than 160 men in the past decade through post-conviction DNA testing.
"But more importantly, 90 percent of cases don't even involve biological evidence,'' Neufeld adds in the film. "And what that tells us is there are obviously tens of thousands of innocent people currently languishing in prisons in the United States.''
The film goes beyond recording the obvious drama of the exonerations. It's key strength lies mainly in chronicling the struggles these men and others like them face as they go about landing jobs, raising families and rejoining a society that in some cases still harbors doubts about them.
"Every time I go for a job, (the application) says, 'Have you ever been convicted of a crime?' '' Vincent Moto says in the film.
"It doesn't say, 'Have you ever been wrongfully accused of a crime,' '' adds Moto, the first inmate in Pennsylvania to be exonerated by DNA after serving nearly 11 years on a rape and robbery conviction.
"The public views exonerations as success stories, but the nightmare of wrongful conviction and incarceration lasts far longer than the sentences served,'' says Erika Applebaum, executive director of the Innocence Project of Minnesota. "The exonerated face serious challenges in virtually every aspect of rebuilding their lives. Most don't have support systems in place; they can't get jobs; they have trouble finding housing; don't have access to medical care, etc.''
Last year the project, one of 30 across the nation modeled after the New York City group, has uncovered biological evidence for new DNA testing in three local criminal cases. The status of the pending cases varies between waiting on the results and working on getting the evidence tested.
The project conducts three "Innocence'' clinics, one at the University of Minnesota and two at Hamline University. It draws from volunteer law school students who helped review 120 requests for assistance received by the project last year.
Applebaum emphasized that other key efforts of the project focus on steps to improve the truth-seeking process that could help reduce the number of errors that could lead to wrongful arrests or convictions. One is a push to get more police departments to consider using sequential rather than simultaneous police lineups, which studies have shown are more accurate in identifying a suspect.
The film points out that false eyewitness testimony is the single biggest factor in wrongful convictions.
Applebaum credits the Twin Cities' two main prosecutors for their willingness to support needed reforms. Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar favors the lineup switch after launching a pilot program last year in which cops in Minneapolis and three other police agencies used the sequential method.
Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner recently completed a similar pilot program and anticipates making it a countywide policy in the coming weeks. In 2001, her office conducted a DNA review of selected cases and uncovered one in which a man was wrongfully convicted of rape. It is believed to be the first such exoneration in the United States as a result of a prosecution-initiated, post-conviction DNA testing program. The man exonerated already was serving time for an unrelated murder.
Applebaum also noted that the project supports a proposed law that would lengthen and make uniform the amount of time evidence in a criminal case should be kept before it is destroyed. Ramsey County adopted a uniform procedure two years ago. In cases of homicide convictions, the county's policy calls for authorities to hold evidence until the convicted person's sentence is completed or the inmate dies.
One of the most poignant moments in the film involves Herman Atkins, a Los Angeles man who was wrongly convicted of rape and served nearly 14 years in prison before DNA cleared him. Atkins currently is seeking a doctorate degree in psychology.
Atkins' father, a California highway patrol officer, said his training and experience made him doubt his son's innocence. The man also acknowledged that he never visited his son in prison, a regret he says he will carry with him for the rest of his life.
"I should have gone with the love of the child, rather than the evidence,'' he says.
Rubén Rosario can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org (mailto:email@example.com) or 651-228-5454.
If you go
"After Innocence" will show for a limited time at Edina Cinema, 3911 W. 50th St., Edina. Michael Cromett, an assistant state public defender, and others will answer questions following tonight's premiere at 7 p.m.