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The blind side of justice

The Innocents, Photographs and interviews by Taryn Simon, Commentary by Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, Umbrage Editions: 104 pp., $34.95

June 01, 2003|Jon Caramanica | Jon Caramanica is a writer whose pieces have appeared in GQ, Mother Jones and the Village Voice.

In 1984, after Jennifer Thompson was raped in her home in Burlington, N.C., local police sat her with an artist to develop a composite sketch of the attacker. Then they presented her with an array of mugshots, one of which, Ronald Cotton's, was a dead ringer for her sketch. She identified him as the assailant -- wrongly, it turns out -- and years later, interviewed for "The Innocents," she explained how photography can just as easily reinforce wrong memories as validate real ones: "[At the lineup], I picked out Ronald because he resembled the photo, which resembled the composite, which resembled the attacker. All the images became enmeshed."

Most of the time, no accurate visual record of a crime exists. Worse still, eyewitness accounts are often the only method available to link a suspect to the crime, and recent legal research has done much to undermine the utility of eyewitness testimony, especially in cases of cross-racial identification. Through photography, though, something approximating truth can be conjured. In setting out to photograph people exonerated by DNA evidence, Taryn Simon isn't only seeking to poke holes in the fairy tale that is the infallibility of the justice system, she's also questioning the integrity of photography itself. When abused and misappropriated, photography becomes something other than a value-free art. Sometimes the image lies. Sometimes the person who takes it does. In either case, what appears as unassailable truth is not.

This stark tome, produced in concert with Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld's Innocence Project, serves as both a preventive, educational tool and as advertorial. Dozens of freed inmates owe their recovered lives to the work of Scheck and Neufeld and their team, whose work is beyond commendation.

Lending the struggle a visual component is shrewd indeed. Simon is a gifted photographer, with credits in the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, and has a flair for lighting and composition, rendering even mundane locations -- a grocery store, a bare hotel room -- cinematically. Some of her shots are stunning of their own accord: a Gurskyesque portrait of redheaded Tim Durham, cradling a rifle, sitting amid a field of shattered red clay pigeons; Warith Habib Abdal, who converted to Islam behind bars, kneeling on a prayer mat on a Harlem street corner.

But it's those images that underscore photography's inability to capture truths that grate hardest. Ten of Simon's shots were staged at the scene of the crime, places Simon describes as "arbitrary and crucial: a place that changed [the subjects'] lives forever, but to which they had never been." By inserting these subjects (all are men save one) into a crime scene with which they have only a mistaken relationship, Simon creates a false truth, creating a record of something that never happened as a commentary on the ease with which ideas can become facts.

In all of these shots, though, the innocents exude defiance. (The book doesn't say whether other subjects refused to be photographed at the scene of the crime.) You can't keep us here, their steady gazes say. And after the camera completed its work, they simply walked away.

The impact that incarceration had on their lives, however, remains indelible. Even more harrowing than the photos are the testimonials, most not more than a few sentences, in which the former prisoners ruminate on their reentry into society. These victims are, in the words of Scheck and Neufeld, disproportionately "poor, black, brown or mentally disabled." Most had precious little going in and even less upon their release.

Most troubling are the few for whom the daily regulation of prison has become a matter of course, as natural as waking up or going to sleep. "I'm not used to this much freedom," says Neil Miller, freed after 10 years of incarceration. Anthony Robinson, wrongly accused of rape, has gone so far as to keep a logbook of his daily activities and receipts to ensure against future wrong-place-wrong-time identification.

For others, never previously accused of a crime, time in prison normalized violence. In the words of David Shepard, "All the things you're taught as a child -- be nice, be courteous ... you lose all that ... because there's no place for it." Cotton tells of how, after being forced to live in the same housing unit as the man who, later investigation would show, had actually committed the crime Cotton was incarcerated for, he considered revenge, going so far as to fabricate a shank from a T-shirt, a loose piece of metal and duct tape.

In "The Innocents," the only shot of an exonerated person appearing with the victim he was said to have attacked is of Cotton and Jennifer Thompson. In the photo, he's embracing her, the woman who wrongly identified him more than 15 years prior, both of them freed by the truth. Here, one hopes, is a photo that doesn't lie.

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