Burden of Innocence
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Longtime FRONTLINE producer Ofra Bikel talks about the making of "Burden of Innocence."

What prompted you to explore these stories of exonerated men?

Well, I wanted to get into exoneration because we've done so many shows trying to help people to get out. It's natural to want to follow their stories and find out what happens afterward -- when the celebrations are over, the television cameras are gone, and they are marching toward their freedom. I was in touch with Clyde Charles' family, and had heard from them that he wasn't doing well, so I wanted to go down and see for myself.

Were you surprised at how difficult life was for the exonerated men after their release?

Yes, yes, I was definitely surprised at how hard it was for them, because there's so much hope when they get out. There's promises. They're so happy, and the families are so happy. But I think it's very, very tough to come out of prison and do well. Everything is against you.

Do you think the transition to the outside world is different, or harder, for these men than for someone who wasn't exonerated, a regular parolee?

I don't think it's much easier for the people who were not exonerated. But the people that were exonerated feel such a deep bitterness; not only were they in prison for something they didn't do, but nobody recognizes it. Nobody. All of them said, "I thought I would get an apology. I want an apology." They don't get an apology. They don't get bus fare. They don't get anything.

People who were guilty are slightly better off once they're out; they get more resources. There's more support. There are more organizations. The exonerated belong to no one. As Neil Miller said in the show, "People look at me when I say I'm exonerated, and they've never heard the word." What does it mean to the man in the street when you say, "I'm exonerated. I've been in prison for 10 years, or 20 years, but I really didn't do it"? Who believes it? For 20 years, and you didn't really do it?

And the state doesn't even give you money. Most people really believe that the people who are wrongfully convicted and then exonerated, get money. They don't.

It's confusing -- and shocking -- that most states provide little or no compensation for the wrongfully convicted. Why aren't states behind it?

Well, there are a few reasons. First of all, there are so many things that we need. We need victims' rights; we need to help so many people. This is not the most popular cause, especially because we are not talking about huge numbers of people who've been exonerated by DNA evidence. Because the technology is new, and because it can only be used in certain cases, there aren't thousands and thousands of people that have been exonerated by DNA evidence. We're talking about hundreds, not thousands. Basically, it's not on anybody's radar. And because most people believe, wrongly, that exonerated prisoners get compensation, there's no grassroots movements pushing for more laws.

People are surprised because they think that everybody gets money when they're wrongfully convicted. I mean, this is a country where, when you're burned by coffee at McDonald's, you get millions of dollars. But when you're sitting in prison for 20 years, in order to get money, you have to prove that there was misconduct, that there was malice, that things were hidden by the authorities. Otherwise, you can't sue. The state is immunized in most cases. You can't sue just because the jury made a mistake.

"Burden of Innocence" is the latest of Ofra Bikel's many programs in recent years on America's criminal justice system. During the 1990s she produced the "Innocence Lost" trilogy: three films detailing charges of sexual abuse at a day-care center in Edenton, N.C. and the subsequent trials and post conviction appeals. The series won numerous awards, and resulted in the release of all seven defendants.

In 1999, Bikel's "The Case for Innocence" profiled three longtime inmates fighting for DNA tests that could prove their innocence. Within 18 months of the broadcast, all three had been exonerated and freed. In January 2002, Bikel's "An Ordinary Crime" told the story of a North Carolina teenager whose only crime may have been that he had the wrong name. And in April 2002, her "Requiem for Frank Lee Smith" detailed the story of how Smith ended up on death row - and died there - for a crime he didn't commit.

For her body of work about the U.S. justice system and wrongful convictions, Ofra Bikel was honored in 2000 with the "Champion of Justice" award given by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Most recently, she received the 2003 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for "An Ordinary Crime."

How were the prison experiences of the exonerated men you talked to different from those of prisoners who didn't believe that they were innocent?

Well, it's very, very hard because most of them were there for rape, and people who are in prison for rape are at the bottom of the ladder. Anthony Robinson said that for the first year, he told everybody that he was innocent. Everybody he met in prison. And then someone -- a guard or some security official -- said, "Stop saying that because you'll get killed. If you didn't do it and you're in prison, that means that you are weak. And they'll kill you. So, just stop saying that." And Anthony said, "You know, I've never thanked him. But I know he saved my life. And I just stopped saying it."

Because there is some way that, if other prisoners believed he had done it, he would have been regarded as stronger and tougher?

Yes. I mean, the ethos of jail is terrible. And the rapists, they were fair game for everybody. For everything.

That struck me as interesting, too, because in order to get exonerated, you need this physical evidence for DNA testing, and rape is obviously one of the crimes that it's easiest to get physical evidence from.

That's right. So, most of those people were there for rape. And usually with mistaken eyewitnesses -- women who said, "I'm sure it's him. I know it's him." And, of course, it's not.

Have any of the men contacted, or been contacted by, the victims?

Most of the victims don't want to be involved. Many of them still believe they were right.

How can they still believe they were right in the face of scientific evidence?

They say, "I know, because it was me he raped. He was there for one hour. I saw it. I can't make a mistake. I don't care about the DNA." The DNA that exonerated Neil Miller, for example, matched somebody else who was in prison in Massachusetts for something else. But the woman just said, "I don't care. I'm not participating in another trial." They told her, "Look. We have to let him go. Now that we know who the real guy is, we are letting him go because we can't charge him with rape." The man can say it was consensual, unless she comes and says, "I was raped."

It's hard. Don't forget, those people went through hell, those women. The police show them a line-up of pictures, and the victim can't identify anybody. And they say, "OK, we'll show them to you a lot." But then they'll bring pictures of five other people, and the only person the victim has seen twice is one person, so he looks familiar and she identifies him. After a while, I guess you can't live with doubt. And so you get more and more and more and more sure.

Are you hopeful for any of these men?

It's very hard. Some of them, I think, are very broken, very broken. They can't live on their own. They live with relatives. They don't have work. They feel like nothing. I think what they should get is money, enough to live on their own.

Do you think they have the emotional wherewithal to live on their own?

Well, that's the thing. I think they do. I think they should have enough money to rent an apartment by themselves. I think they should get a job, and if they can't get a job, they should get enough money so they don't need a job. After a while, I don't really know how they even have the energy to look for work.

Are any of them getting any kind of therapy or counseling?

Well, that's another thing that it's very hard to get when you don't have a job and you don't have insurance to pay for your therapy. It should be in the law that they must get therapy. Sometimes, they go to a sort of free clinic, but there's nothing really prepared for them. Look what they're doing with the POWs that were in Iraq for three weeks, and then think of those people who were imprisoned for 20 years in this horrendous, horrendous, place.


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published may 1, 2003

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