During a stretch of severe ‘cowboy policing’ in Bakersfield, California in the ’80s, several citizens were falsely imprisoned for molesting children — mostly their own. The overzealous Kern County District Attorney wanted to clamp down on those who abused children, and he didn’t let a pesky little thing like innocence get in his way. Long story short, all it took was this DA’s mission, a misguided social worker and police, and suddenly children in the neighbourhood were claiming they’d been molested. As it turns out, they’d actually been interrogated and forced into telling sickening stories that weren’t true. The kids ended up testifying in court and a lot of shocked (and innocent) adults were put behind bars.
Thanks to the Northern California Innocence Project — a guardian angel for the falsely imprisoned if there ever was one — the cases were eventually reopened, and the way the children had been coerced into giving false testimonies finally came to light. But the length of time these people spent in jail before their convictions were reversed is appalling. In the most extreme case, John Stoll, who’d been convicted of molesting his young son, spent 20 years behind bars. No, that’s not a typo. TWENTY YEARS.
I’ll let you watch the film yourself to get the full story, but wanted to share a moment from the Q&A after the film screened at TIFF. Several of the film’s subjects were on stage (while Sean Penn, who narrated and executive produced the film, remained seated in the crowd. I thought that was a nice touch since had he also come onstage, the audience would have presumably focused on him). Anyhow, when Stoll was asked how he’s so calm after spending two decades in prison for crimes he didn’t commit, he simply said “I had 20 years of being mad. Twenty years is plenty. Now I’m out and I want to focus on having a good time.” Can you blame him?