Accused of a Crime You Didn't Commit? Make a Movie

Every week, hundreds of requests from inmates across the country pour into the New York offices of the Innocence Project, an organization devoted to finding DNA evidence that could exonerate prisoners accused of crimes they did not commit.

Amid those letters are another kind of request — from documentary filmmakers, looking to comb the nearly 10,000 active cases the project is evaluating, in the hopes of finding stories that capture the drama of innocent people sent to prison, and the steps taken to set them free.

"Hardly a week goes by that I don't get a request from a documentary filmmaker with some idea," said Eric Ferrero, the project's director of communications. "Of those, we cooperate with only about one in 25, or one in 50."

The reason for the volume of requests is obvious. Few fears are as universal as the fear of being wrongfully accused and imprisoned, and few stories are as compelling as those about the failures of a justice system in which we put an incredible amount of faith.

Errol Morris' 1988 film "The Thin Blue Line" not only resulted in an overturned conviction, but inspired a generation of directors to use their movies to spotlight cases where they believed justice had been denied.

Since the advent of video-sharing Web sites like YouTube, a new wave of amateur filmmakers has turned to the Internet to showcase the stories of inmates they believe have been wrongly accused, and to garner support for the overturn of those convictions.

"The Thin Blue Line" has been credited with overturning the conviction of Randall Dale Adams for the 1976 murder of a Dallas police officer, a crime for which Adams was sentenced to death.

Morris meticulously reviewed the evidence, re-enacted the murder and interviewed the five major witnesses. In the end, Morris coaxed a confession from David Harris, one of the prosecution's star witnesses, who admitted he, not Adams, was the murderer.

"One of the reasons the film, at least for me, is successful, is because it led to Adams' conviction being overturned," Morris told "As a result of the film, there was no longer a case against him. In essence, he was exonerated. … The guy who really committed murder confessed to me to the murder of Dallas police Officer Robert Wood."

"The thing that I'm most proud about is that there are pieces of the movie that were submitted as evidence during his appeal," Morris added. "Many other movies raise questions, but this produced the evidence that led to his exoneration."

Raising Questions

"Paradise Lost" was another film that raised questions, but never led to exoneration. The 1996 film follows the trials of three teenagers accused and convicted of murdering and mutilating three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark., in 1993.

Defendants Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison, and the third, Damien Echols, is on death row.

Though no physical evidence linking the teenagers was found at the scene of the crime, defense attorneys last week submitted what they say is new DNA evidence connecting the murders to the stepfather of one of the boys.

Joe Berlinger — who, along with Bruce Sinofsky, directed "Paradise Lost" and its sequel — has no doubt that the West Memphis Three — as the teens became known — were wrongly accused. If not for the attention created by the film, and the questions it raised, Berlinger believes that Echols would have already been put to death.

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