SundanceTV's Rectify premieres its second season Thursday, June 19, at 9:00pm ET/PT. The first season is available on Netflix.
"Exoneree" isn't a word in the dictionary, but it should be. Spell-check still picks it up with that red squiggly line, as though the more than 1,300 known men and women who have been exonerated of crimes in the United States had never existed.
Apart from media coverage about wrongful convictions -- and the multi-million dollar settlements some have won -- little is known about how exonerated prisoners struggle to reenter society and rebuild the lives they lost.
That's what makes SundanceTV's Rectify so bold. It deals not in prison-show clichés, but in painstaking realism, albeit through a fictional account of one exoneree.
The drama series centers on a man named Daniel Holden, played by Aden Young, whom I interviewed for this blog post. In Rectify, Daniel has spent 19 years on death row when his murder conviction is vacated by DNA testing.
Season one patiently takes us through Daniel's first week back on the outside. He is bewildered, overwhelmed by the stimuli of his new reality. And he is sleepy.
"He's very much a baby being born again," Young says about his character's development in the first season. "We follow him on that daily journey of discovery."
This is the experience of many exonerees, including three real-life men whose journeys I have been following for my "Exoneree Diaries" series on Chicago Public Media's WBEZ.org.
One of the men I write about, Antione Day, was released from prison without any money or clothes. He had to pluck some stinking garments from a pile in the jail, articles left by men entering the system.
Another exoneree, Jacques Rivera, slept with a knife under his pillow for months after his release. He still has the frequent nightmare of the detective in his case shooting him in the back.
James Kluppelberg, an exoneree who left prison with $14 and some change inside a sweatpants pocket, had no place to call home until his estranged son found him at a TV station giving an interview.
Like these men, many exonerees encounter a world where they may have no place to sleep and no way to feed or clothe themselves; where family and friends have grown up, grown apart or died; where only 29 states and Washington, D.C., have passed compensation statutes, and even some of these laws fall short; where they continue to experience the stench of lockup and struggle to overcome years of institutionalization, often wrestling with post-traumatic stress disorder. On top of this, in many states, exonerees' convictions are not automatically cleared when judges overturn them, interfering with the ability to find work and become part of a community.
They are survivors, which isn't lost on Young as he portrays Daniel in Rectify. He says the character is an amalgam of other trauma victims he has played, including a World War II soldier struggling with PTSD and a man sentenced to live on an island for stealing sheep.
"You have to examine it with a strong microscope of truth because people have existed through those horrors," Young says. "With Daniel, I have to do the same thing."
Where season one crawls through the first week of Daniel's new life, season two presents a more expansive timeline. Days pass. Weeks pass. And his actions are no longer infantile.
"They're much more akin to an adolescent," Young says. "He wants to explore."
In the show, Daniel sets out to Atlanta. In real life, at least in "Exoneree Diaries," it was a motorcycle trip for Antione, a voyage to the Grand Canyon for Jacques and a tour of Tombstone, Arizona, for James.
Rectify also addresses a messier part of the exoneration story -- whether Daniel, despite the new evidence, is truly innocent. He remains a suspect in his community and in his own family. "Did he beat the system?" we are left to wonder.
For the exonerees I know, this is a question that further victimizes them. Some have moved to new communities to avoid the sideways glances. Others have applied for jobs, been fitted for work uniforms and have provided urine samples, only to be told, "We don't hire convicted murderers."
But for Daniel, this question lingers as he begins a trail of destruction in season two, challenging our idea of innocence. Here again, Rectify doesn't allow Daniel to be a stock character. He's not a brave martyr or an angry advocate. He is a man trying to find meaning in his life.
Rectify is entertainment, yes. But as innocence lawyers and journalists continue to expose flaws in the criminal justice system, we need artists to tell these stories too. We need actors like Young to help us understand how petrifying life after exoneration is.
We need a way to define "exoneree" when the word doesn't exist, but real exonerees do.
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