'Burden of Innocence'
With Ofra Bikel
Friday, May 2, 2003; 11 a.m. ET
In recent years, media headlines have trumpeted the release of more than 100 longtime inmates who have been exonerated by DNA testing. But what happens to these wrongly accused inmates after the media spotlight turns elsewhere and they must attempt to rejoin a world far different from the one they left behind?
FRONTLINE's "Burden of Innocence," airing on Thursday, May 1, at 9 p.m. ET, on PBS (check local listings) examines the challenges facing exonerated inmates, the vast majority of whom must re-enter society with no financial or transitional assistance whatsoever.
Award-winning documentary filmmaker Ofra Bikel was online to talk about the exonerated on Friday, May 2.
The transcript follows.
Bikel is known for looking at the U.S. criminal justice system and has a hand in the exoneration of the defendants/convicts she reports on. She was online in January to talk about her film, "An Ordinary Crime," and her 1999 documentary "The Case for Innocence" profiled several men whose claims of innocence seemed to have been confirmed by DNA testing of trial evidence but who remained in jail. They were eventually set free, as were all of the defendants in the Little Rascals Day Care trial, whom she profiled in her "Innocence Lost" trilogy. The series, which included "Innocence Lost" (1991), "Innocence Lost: The Verdict" (1993), and "Innocence Lost: The Plea" (1997), won awards including an Emmy, two duPont-Columbia Silver Batons and a duPont-Columbia Gold Baton.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Vineland, N.J.: I was sadden and made ashamed of our justice system after viewing the documentary on PBS. In the wake of that the next question and challenge for us as Americans is to make sure that when we see or come in contact with someone like the persons seen on the TV program is to assist them. Really we should form a coalition for the clearing of the wrongfully accused. Can we do this and is it being done? If it is, how can I help?
Ofra Bikel: It's a good question. I don't know that there is a coalition, but there are a lot of different ones, but obviously, one has to do something for these people. One of the things to be is to urge your congressman to pass legislation so they have some money and some therapy. But I'm not aware of a coalition. It doesn't mean there isn't time to start one. Basically, there's the Innocence Project, but they deal with DNA. There are people who deal with mandatory minimums. But once they're out no one pays attention to them. They are not on the radar screen.
Washington, D.C.: Do you think that federal legislation being considered, like the Innocence Protection Act (H.R 912) is sufficient with its compensation clauses? And if not, what would you suggest people, on a grassroots level, do to support increased protection for the innocent?
Ofra Bikel: Exactly, this is great, but its not enough and its shameful that only 17 states have passed laws. In every state this happens, why don't we pass laws? People don't know there aren't laws. In Texas, the law is $25,000 a year for 10 years. That's not much, but it is a start but also saying I'm sorry would help, to exonerate. What does it mean? You've been in prison for 15 years. I know it's not enough, but we do have the knowledge that a mistake was made.
Arlington, Va.: I was moved by this report. I am glad that the difficulty in recovering damages from the state were explained in detail. It was also accurate in reporting that while race is factor in many legal injustices, poverty also plays a significant role. The states could not have done what they did if the defendants had the ability to pay for strong legal defense, DNA testing, and investigators. Americans should be outraged. Keep up the great work on your high quality reporting.
Ofra Bikel: Thank you and no question about it, it's right. The lawyers said in the show, this doesn't happen to lawyers or doctors, but to vulnerable people. It is right, what you said is on the nose, we should be ashamed of ourselves.
These are our weakest citizens and they are very badly off.
Kent, Conn.: Do you have even a wild guess as to the percentage of persons convicted annually of major crimes who are actually innocent of the crimes that led to their convictions? I have seen estimates ranging from half of one percent to five percent. Even one percent of two million convictions would make it 20,000.
Ofra Bikel: It's very difficult to know. The Innocence Project people say there are thousands. The state doesn't exactly announce the numbers of the wrongfully convicted -- they fight their release. Don't forget, we know only of the DNA where that exists. Imagine how many crimes are without DNA at all and extrapolate.
San Francisco, Calif.: Dear Ofra, Thank you so very much for your documentary! I missed it on cable so looked it up on pbs.com and was able to watch it in "live" format on my computer. Are you going to do a follow up on the victims in years to come?
Ofra Bikel: I haven't thought about that. I hope that there is something to do, that there is a change. I'm very glad you could watch it on the Web. That's the first time you could watch it. Just going to the computer and watching it is great. We had parts that couldn't make it to the show because of time.
Thibodaux, La.: Why are there laws that protect animals and none to protect humans? There is pain in every one of those men. What will the state do for these men who did not receive anything?
The DA and court officers should have to pay these families. What about the families? These families are going through hell, also.
Ofra Bikel: It's all true. Especially the one family from Thibodaux is going through hell. They're so -- they can't do anything. They can't even help, to a point, but after a while the person who was freed and lives at home is bitter and impatient and angry. It's hard for them, it's hard for the families. It's a real strain on all of us.
They should pay, first of all, but they should also immediately admit they made a mistake. They are completely immune. They don't even, most of them, even in cases where they're really at fault, most of them stay where they are. I'm much more modest, though. Just saying sorry. They should pay some price, I don't know if money.
Kenner, La.: Why did the burden of innocence story not mention relevant information in the Clyde Charles case? The DNA of the brother of Clyde actually matched the DNA of the rape victim in the Clyde Charles case. It was reported that after the rape of the woman allegedly by Clyde's brother, his brother asked Clyde to exchange clothes with him. Clyde's brother moved up north and allowed Clyde to remain in prison for the rape that Clyde did not commit.
Ofra Bikel: Because it wasn't about the story. This started with Clyde because we knew what happened to him. It was about how he was doing as a free person. To tell the whole story would have taken a whole other hour. Everything was just so hopeful and we wanted to see what happened. We didn't want to go into the question of the brother.
But the family claims its not the brother. It's a whole other story. Whatever, Clyde spent 18 years in prison and was totally unprepared to be free.
Harrisburg, Pa.: What types of prejudices are these released people finding? Are people still suspicious of DNA and think it is a technicality that led to their releases? Do people believe one becomes corrupted while in prison? What seems to be the reasons that motivates people to distrust anyone who was in prison, even if it turns out they were innocent?
Ofra Bikel: All of the above. They think that a technicality, or that if they were in prison they think there must be something -- that even if they spent 10 years with all those criminals, it certainly must affect you.
And you know, if one was an employer and you interview people for a job and someone asks what you did those 10 years and you say you were in prison, but exonerated -- also, you have no experience for those 10 years, so there's all that.
Vienna, Va.: Do you know of any programs that link the exonorees and/or their families into social services (counseling, housing, employment, etc.?)
Ofra Bikel: No, no! That's the whole point. There isn't. It exists for paroled felons, but not for the wrongfully convicted. They can't even go to the agency that helps felons because they don't belong there.
Toronto, Ontario: Dear Ms. Bikel,
First of all I must say I completely admire you and all your work. I was first introduced to your documentary "Innocence Lost" during a course taken in my second year of university. Since that time, I have been obsessed by all your work. May you receive many, many blessings for all the good that comes from the work you do.
My question is simple -- what was it like for you, the first time you walked into a prison to film a documentary? Are there unique emotional feelings tied up with being in that kind of environment? And if so, how can you best describe them?
Ofra Bikel: Well, I'm trying to think when the first time was that I was in prison... you feel unbelievably lucky that you can go out. That's my feeling, that I can get out. Leaving those people there -- it's just that you feel a bit trapped and so happy that you don't have to stay there. Basically, most of the time, they bring the prisoners to another room so you're not in a cell. But prisons are awful -- I don't know if its worse when they're dirty and horrible or antiseptic.
I don't remember the first one, but I remember mostly the feeling that I could get out. Very depressing.
Oakland, Calif.: Could you speak in general about the sense you get state-by-state or nationally of the reluctance of government to provide DNA testing and other aide in exonerated cases?
Also, any sense on your part or Barry Sheck/ Peter Newfeld's estimates of currently incarcerated innocents in the death row and mainstream prison populations?
Ofra Bikel: It's totally unexplainable to me. I don't understand it, nobody does. The system in the last few years went more conservative. The operative word is "finality." If there's DNA five years later, it's just too late as far as the state is concerned. It's absolutely unthinkable. There is DNA, it's possible this guy didn't do it and you won't do it? It really depends on the state and the DA in that state. Whenever people learn that there is DNA and they don't want to use it, it's very difficult to explain. Again, it's the finality. Some DA's make this a death penalty to make it too late. Evidence showing you may be innocence doesn't keep you from being executed. Why not is something everyone should ask. It could be the losing face and no one wants to be responsible for letting someone sit in prison for something they didn't do, so they convince themselves that the system does make a few mistakes, but it does generally work.
They would say thousands -- there were more than 200 exonerated so just imagine. They talk in the thousands, but you can't give figures really. They are very unreliable. A lot.
Tallahassee, Fla.: Often after a non-DNA exoneration, officials will insist publicly that the guy is still guilty, they just can't prove it -- does their immunity extend to slander and libel? After all, when a conviction is vacated the person is as legally "innocent" as if he had been acquitted at trial.
Ofra Bikel: Not legally, that's the problem. It's what I said before, there is a career involved, a whole life and it doesn't look good when people turn out to be innocent. They can say that, and do say that. In one instance, one of the people in the program, they had one DNA test and another and went to the victim and asked her 10 years later if they can test her boyfriend. They would do anything but not let that guy go. The victim said leave me alone.
You can sue the state when you can prove that people knew there was misconduct, that they hid stuff. But it is so difficult and so long and the victims have no money so lawyers don't do that. That's what Sheck and Newfield and Johnny Cochran did. They wanted to prove that you could sue them. They got him money.
Selinsgrove, Pa.: I am a former correctional officer and my husband is a retired police officer with rank. I believe that people in this situation should not need to report that they have been in jail, to enable them to seek employment. It is ridiculous to think they can't get jobs when it is proven that they did not commit the crime. For those who have, I have no pity. We need to do something to correct the doom innocent people face and money isn't the total answer.
Ofra Bikel: But they ask for a record. What are you going to say? I was on a cruise? It doesn't make sense. It isn't like its just seven months. Clyde was 18 years. Money is not everything, no -- when you have it. When you don't have money for a bus, though. Nothing can make up for what they've lost, but at least money is something. It would give them something so they can have a car, live on their own.
One of the guys in the program was getting married and he was homeless. So it's easy to say money isn't everything, but its a minimum.
So, it's hard to hide not being in prison for 20 years.
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Ofra Bikel: I don't have anybody in California, but thank you for this. How do you get to Des Moines to California when you can't get downtown.
One thing to understand is that these people are such broken people at this point. What they need more than anything is psychiatric help and some sort of self worth. A job would help, of course.
Ofra Bikel: Being independent, not relying on relatives who are willing to help the first six months. And you drink. It's very hard on the families and some of them are desperate.
New Orleans, La.: As you said, there are definitely no programs to help these people. A Louisiana bill will be introduced this session that would allow for compensation, but as your program showed, that doesn't help alleviate the psychological trauma. Where would you recommend one begin to try to find more information about the effects of wrongful incarceration and/or about setting up services specifically for these folks?
Ofra Bikel: I don't know what to tell you. There are no agencies for them.
Tomorrow on the 9th, they are having a 10 year celebration of the Innocence Project and they are in a lot of states now. I'm going to go and listen to the social workers and see what they say. When the project started freeing people they never thought about what they'd face. This took them completely by surprise that the job is not finished when they are freed. So that's what they're doing now. So that's a good place to start.
Austin, Tex.: I just wanted to particularly thank that last man interviewed. While they were all inspirational folks; much stronger than I am at times, the last guy's statement brought tears to by eyes. It was because of his, I know it is a very negative statement. My life is not the same as his but, I have, for my own reasons felt the same quite frequently throughout my life. He was the only other person, than me, that I have ever heard say that, and it made me feel more OK. So please tell him thank you.
Ofra Bikel: Thank you very much. I will pass that on. They look for reasons to live also.
Cincinnati, Ohio: I wasn't able to view the show on May 1st. It didn't air in my city. I have seen you're show "An Ordinary Crime." I want to know if you are planning to produce other programs on wrongful convictions. If you do would you please consider looking at a case that I'm working on?
William J. Mayo was wrongfully convicted in Georgia 3 credit hours from graduating from Morehouse University. Convicted of an armed robbery, where the two juveniles in the crime recanted their testimony indicating he was the mastermind. William Mayo is serving two life sentences plus 40 years. No one was murdered in this robbery and William had never had a police record.
You can read more about his case at WWW.FreeMayo.COM.
I would like to thank you for all the work you do in a area that not many will touch!
God Bless You.
Ofra Bikel: If you could send it to my attention at Frontline at WGBH we'll take a look at it.
Independence, Mo.: When a person is cleared of a crime they were previously convicted of, what role do you feel society should play in mainstreaming that individual?
Ofra Bikel: In an ideal world, give them therapy. Apparently the prisons, to be, what I found out that I didn't know before. To be innocent in prison is so traumatizing. Being in prison a long time is traumatizing. They don't want to talk about it. but part of this thing that hovered over the show yesterday is what --
They need therapy and help. They need understanding, jobs. I think think people -- we help refugees and victims of disaster. They are victims of disaster. That's what we should do for these people, support them any way we can. We put them in prison so we must insist that we the people try. Sometimes there's nothing you can do, but still they should be treated as victims of disaster.
Washington, D.C.: In Europe, they focused more on prevention. Here we do more on treatment (jail, punishment, etc). What's the best solution?
Ofra Bikel: Of course prevention. In health, everything. If you can prevent something -- you can never really correct wrongs done to anybody.
And always help. It used to be a word rehabilitation. You never hear that any more. It's not about that or prevention, but about punishment. Put them in jail, throw away the key.
Washington, D.C.: After watching this excellent documentary, I wondered why there was no discussion about the Innocence Protection Act? This landmark federal legislation almost passed last year and had bi-partisan support in the House of Rep's (250 co-sponsors) and in the Senate (30 democrats and republicans). Even though the documentary focused on somewhat similar legislation in several states, the states are looking for the federal government to take the lead!
What do you think is the role/responsibility of the Congress to "set a tone" for the states by passing the Innocence Protection Act?
Wayne F. Smith, Executive Director
The Justice Project
Ofra Bikel: I think you're very right. I think they should. It's very disappointing they didn't. Of course they should.
It's really time constrained. There were so many things that had to be cut out. The show was much longer. But an hour is so short, so you have to really sacrifice some things that are important.
Huntsville, Ala.: My brother was convicted in 1991 under the habitual offender act.
He was accused and convicted to life without parole for rape.
My brother claims the sex was consensual and she was upset because he did not have any more money to buy drugs.
The woman took a shower and brushed her teeth and changed clothes before going to the hospital.
The Rape test I believe did not show anything.
The woman's character, and the life she lived is questionable.
His lawyer at that time was state appointed and new on the job, he has admitted to being new on the job and having made some mistakes.
Can you offer some advice as to what to do?
Ofra Bikel: Well, he should try to get a public defender interested in the case and reopen it. Once there's a verdict, you are presumed guilty and you have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you're innocent. That's terribly hard. He's a victim of that. I mean, how was he convicted? Just by word?
Bethesda, Md.: You were very courageous to take on this issue. So as a woman, how you feel about the tremendous damage that your gender is causing men when falsely accusing them of rape? It is important to realize that the terrible injustice done to the men wrongfully accused and convicted of rape is due in great part to the fact that the US Judicial System has been greatly influenced by the man-hating deceiving rhetoric of radical feminists. After all, the radical feminist notion is that "all men are rapists and that's all they are," and that "the 'victim' should be believed regardless of proof." As a result, the men have to fight a totally prejudiced system that takes women's words at faced value. Hence, once accused of rape, the men are guilty for life, even when proven innocent.
Ofra Bikel: I don't know that it's radical feminism. I tried to get victims to talk and its very hard. They will not talk and sometimes that made me angry. I mean their testimony put someone in prison for life. But the trauma is so great, I don't think anybody -- rape, even as a woman I don't understand it. It is just unbelievable. I don't believe any woman would go and knowingly point to the wrong guy and say he raped me. Eyewitness testimony is unreliable and often the police have a big part in it. In the cases we showed, I don't think they did it because they were feminists, but because they're traumatized and the police are standing there. So, I don't think it's anything to do with feminism. It's very hard for people, when a woman comes to them crying and traumatized, not to feel compassion and sympathy. So mistakes are made all the time and the lawyers should know that. It's totally unreliable -- but I don't think it has to do with hatred, but the police nudging you because they want to close the case. A lot of time it's cross cultural too, so to the woman one black looks like another black.
Atlanta, Ga.: Just a comment:
Though not a "religious" person, I'd like to say "God Bless You." I had no one willing to assist or believe in me. I never was exonerated, but instead had to serve 15 years and then parole. I'm done with it now and by all outward indications, I'm "doing okay," but inside -- I know I'll never get over the scars, the fears, the distrust.
But it's good that you and your cause is helping some to some degree.
Atlanta, Ga. area
Ofra Bikel: Thank you so much and I know what you're going through and god bless you. It's so hard. I really wish you well and it's hard. I understand much more now than I did a year ago.
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