Photos and stories of death row innocents
By Alice Kim | September 19, 2003 | Page 9
Photographs and interviews by Taryn Simon, The Innocents, with commentary by Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck. Umbrage Editions, 2003, 136 pages, 34.95.
THE INNOCENTS features photographs and interviews with 45 men and women who share the common experience of wrongful convictions for crimes they did not commit. Those featured in this book collectively served nearly 560 years in America's prisons and were later exonerated by DNA testing--in most cases, many years later.
"Without warning or just cause, all were one day swept off the streets, forcibly separated from their families and friends, and ultimately bound over into a maddening nightmare," write Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, co-founders of The Innocence Project. The book was timed to appear on the tenth anniversary of the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal clinic that handles cases in which post-conviction DNA testing proves innocence.
The collection comes at a time when the U.S. criminal justice system is on trial--and the issue of innocence is at the center of the debate. It's an expression of a growing movement against a deeply flawed criminal justice system that artists like Taryn Simon--known for her edgy photographs in glossy magazines like The New Yorker, Vogue and Vanity Fair--are seeking new venues to bring attention to social issues.
It is the stories and lived experiences of the wrongfully convicted that make this collection so compelling. Simon uses the photographs of the wrongfully convicted to further expose the injustices inflicted on them.
In the cases of the men and women featured in her collection, mistaken identification was the primary cause of wrongful conviction. "Photography offered the criminal justice system a tool that transformed innocent citizens into criminals, assisted officers in obtaining erroneous eyewitness identifications, and aided prosecutors in securing convictions," writes Simon. In many of the photographs, the wrongfully convicted are posed at the scene of the arrest, the scene of the crime, the scene of misidentification or at the scene of the alibi.
Take the portrait of Troy Webb, who served seven years of 47-year sentence. Dressed in a gray pinstriped suit and tie, Webb stands among the spiny, bare pines of Virginia Beach, the scene of the crime.
Through the tree trunks, you can see houses and glimpses of a cloudy blue sky. The photograph exudes a feeling of isolation, and one can't help but to think that a violent crime took place here. And that the man in the photograph became the "culprit" in a crime that he had nothing to do with.
In reading the case profiles that accompany the photographs, it's evident that photographs played a significant role in their initial convictions. In this case, police provided the victim with a younger picture of Webb when she told them he looked too old. Simon's portraits are a stark contrast to the mug shots and composite sketches that were used to convict many of the men and women whom she photographed.
The photographs draw a great deal of power from the voices of the wrongfully convicted themselves. "They wouldn't even ask for the death penalty of O.J.," says Ronald Jones who served eight years of a death sentence for a crime he did not commit. "But why was that? Because O.J. had money, he was a celebrity. But me? I couldn't even afford an attorney...You're not gonna see no rich people on death row, very few of them even go to jail...It's two types of justice: there's poor man's justice and a rich man's justice...I'll never be able to feel free. Because as long as I'm poor, the same thing that they did to me in 1985, they can do it to me again."
Marvin Anderson, who served 15 years of a 210-year sentence, says, "I'm disappointed. Disappointed in the way the system is set up...I used to make myself look at the world as being total darkness and me the only person being in it. That's basically what being incarcerated is." In his portrait, Marvin, looking very polished in a dark suit and tie, stands in the center of the slick courtroom where he was convicted. The irony is telling.
The Innocents puts a human face on a penal system that now incarcerates more than 2 million people. The photographs and the interviews evoke the intensity of the experience endured by the innocents--men and women who were victimized and betrayed by our criminal justice system.