On Taryn Simon’s The Innocents
The Innocents documents the stories of wrongfully convicted individuals and interrogates photography’s credibility as an arbiter of justice.
Peter J. Neufeld, Barry C. Scheck
Sep 27, 2022
Below is an excerpt from Peter J. Neufeld and Barry C. Scheck’s introduction to the expanded edition of Taryn Simon’s The Innocents, just out from MoMA publications. Read more and get the full book, and head over to MoMA PS1’s website to watch a series of videos from an evening marking the 30th anniversary of the organization.
Troy Webb. Scene of the crime, The Pines, Virginia Beach, Virginia. Served 7 years of a 47-year sentence. From Taryn Simon’s series The Innocents, 2002
Charles Irvin Fain. Scene of the crime, Snake River, Melba, Idaho. Served 18 years of a death sentence. From Taryn Simon’s series The Innocents, 2002
When Taryn began her research, DNA testing had been used to exonerate only eighty-two people nationwide; sixty-two of these individuals had been represented or provided legal counsel by the IP. Prior to the first two DNA-based exonerations just a decade earlier, DNA testing had been used solely to determine guilt.
We were witnessing an awakening of sorts—legally, politically, and culturally. Throughout American history, governing bodies have persuaded many Americans that the criminal legal system does nothing less than consistently uphold justice and ensure our safety. But new technology, positioned at the intersection of science and the criminal legal system, undercut that misplaced trust. DNA testing revealed that in fact the American criminal legal system often gets it wrong, and that its flaws are systemic and deep. The revelation of false guilt in case after case compelled more Americans than ever before to confront the deep cracks in the system. Through her portraits of the falsely condemned, Simon’s The Innocents documented this fractured system at a moment when science was confronting and challenging the self-professed infallibility of the American criminal legal system.
Spread from Taryn Simon, The Innocents, 2022
Twenty years later, our country’s reckoning with its profoundly flawed criminal legal system has reached a new critical moment. Following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black individuals by American police, a large sector of the American public is contending with these killings not as isolated events but rather as a part of this country’s long history of police terrorism against Black people. Thanks to the effective leadership of the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been a remarkable expansion in national awareness of the systemic racism that pervades all aspects of the criminal legal system, as well as of the legacy of slavery and genocide that continues to permeate to the core of this republic.
The small group of activists Simon and her colleagues first met at the end of the twentieth century has now grown into part of a powerful international human rights movement dedicated to freeing the wrongly convicted and reforming criminal legal systems around the world. There is a robust Innocence Network, comprising fifty-six organizations housed in law schools, public defender offices, and stand-alone nonprofits across the United States, as well as more than a dozen organizations in other countries. DNA testing remains critical to the enterprise. In more than 375 cases over the past three decades, DNA evidence has served as proof of innocence and secured the freedom of some small portion of those who have been imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. Even decades after a conviction, DNA testing of biological evidence can often produce a more reliable outcome than the original trial and even help to identify the person who actually committed the crime.
The United States has five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s imprisoned population.
We must always step back and reexamine the bigger picture of racial justice and the criminal legal system in America. The numbers remain both tragic and damning. The United States has five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s imprisoned population. America’s courts hand out sentences far exceeding the length of all other Western democracies. Its jails are crowded with people merely accused and not convicted, and our post-release systems of parole and probation are skewed to send the recently freed back to prison for nearly any cause. As this book goes to press, the already dire consequences of America’s propensity for incarceration are being further compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. Overcrowded prisons and jails have emerged as incubators for the spread of COVID-19, and significant numbers of imprisoned people are confined to dormitories where social distancing is impossible and access to personal protective equipment and quality hygiene is extremely limited. The virus is but another example of mass incarceration’s disproportionate damage to the poor and people of color.
Frederick Daye. Alibi location, American Legion Post 310, San Diego, California. Where thirteen witnesses placed Daye at the time of the crime. Served 10 years of a life sentence. From Taryn Simon’s series The Innocents, 2002
Innocence organizations and exonerated individuals are a few of the many players in the national effort to end mass incarceration and overcriminalization and, in the process, address disparity and intolerance. The legislative, executive, and judicial branches can take action to address many of these issues, but their efficacy is limited. Victories won today can be diluted or abrogated tomorrow in a new election or in a shift in the composition of an appellate court.
Enduring reform, which must include dismantling the carceral state and replacing it with restorative justice models, will come only from substantial changes in our thinking, assumptions, and beliefs. The hearts and minds of the people must progress away from the primacy of punishment and a reflexive fear of crime. The narrative of wrongful conviction plays a critical role in transforming the public’s understanding of America’s fractured criminal legal system. In Taryn Simon’s The Innocents, we bear witness to the forces that lead to immense injustice, and we are implicated.
Peter J. Neufeld and Barry C. Scheck are cofounders and special counsel at the Innocence Project, affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. The Innocence Project is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and other scientific means and reforming criminal legal systems to prevent future injustices. They are partners at Neufeld Scheck & Brustin (formerly Cochran Neufeld & Scheck), a New York City civil rights law firm.
Grief, Trauma, Love: A Discussion between Nicole Fleetwood and Pepón Osorio
Scholar and curator Nicole Fleetwood talks with artist Pepón Osorio about his work Badge of Honor and the scourge of mass incarceration.
Nicole Fleetwood, Pepón Osorio
Jan 10, 2022
The Voices of Marking Time
Nicole Fleetwood speaks with four artists featured in MoMA PS1’s new exhibition.
Nicole Fleetwood, Isabel Custodio, Hanna Girma
Nov 16, 2020