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

Filmmakers discuss the power of documentaries in freeing the wrongfully accused.

Nov. 7, 2007 — -- 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.

"I think the film had a lot to do with finding new evidence," Berlinger said. "The films have been instrumental in finding flaws with the case. There is a huge, direct link with what has happened with the new evidence, and the making of these films. The money and support, needed to re-examine the case, came from interest and support for the movie."

The new evidence, however, is far from an exoneration, a fact that weighs heavily on the director.

"I firmly believe that these films have kept these guys alive because of all the attention," Berlinger said. "At this point, I don't think the state of Arkansas would have the courage to execute [him]."

"One of my biggest influences for being a filmmaker was 'The Thin Blue Line,'" said Berlinger. "That movie got a guy out of jail in a reasonable amount of time. I am still utterly dumbfounded that the first movie didn't create the same result."

Ofra Bikel, a producer for the PBS award-winning series "Frontline," has worked on documentaries that have led to the exoneration of 14 people.

"Innocence Lost," a "Frontline" documentary, follows the case of Bob Kelly, who, along with six other defendants, was accused of sexually abusing 29 children at a day-care center in Edenton, N.C. Eight years and three "Frontline" programs later, all of the charges against Kelly were dropped.

"We didn't have confidential informers, we weren't rifling through people's drawers in the dead of night. We just looked at the evidence," said Bikel. "All anyone had to do was look, and they would have realized something was wrong."

Part of the reasons these documentaries resonate with viewers, Bikel said, is because of the power of film.

"When you read there are 100,000 people dying of hunger, you have a very different reaction than when you see, with your own eyes, just two of those children dying."

The Internet

Making a film is costly, but increasingly, the families and advocates of the accused are turning to the Internet to garner support, by making small films, and posting them to sites like YouTube.

"We have seen a real increase in people turning to YouTube to get these stories out into the public," said Ferrero.

One year ago this month, Eric Volz, a 27-year-old Nashville, Tenn., native and magazine editor, was accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend inside the clothing store she owned in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

Volz's family and lawyers insist he was not even in the same city, and argue that anti-American sentiment led to his conviction and 30-year sentence.

A short video posted to YouTube in March, which ends with Volz's parents finding out he has been convicted, has been viewed more than 156,000 times. That figure has buoyed the family's hopes that, as people learn about Volz, his chances of being released increase.

"We'd be lost at this point if we didn't have the Internet," said Volz's stepfather, Dane Anthony. "It would be incredibly difficult to garner support in the way we've been able to without the Internet."