A groundbreaking, first-of-its-kind film course examines the criminal justice system

FILM 171S-02, a two-quarter college course taught by UC Santa Cruz Film Professor Sharon Daniel, is not your average film school fare. Reasonable Doubts: Making an Exoneree is a course that aims to free wrongfully convicted people who are currently incarcerated in American prisons.

Making an Exoneree, which is now in its 12th week, pairs UCSC film and digital media majors with Georgetown University undergraduate students who are working together as investigative journalists, documentarians, and social justice activists to make the case for the innocence of five people who are currently in prison.

The students are reinvestigating the original crimes and convictions, documenting the main issues, challenges, injustices, and stories involved in each case, and creating short documentary films, interactive documentaries, and social media campaigns to provide humanizing portraits of incarcerated people’s lives and complicated legal cases.

“Media plays a critical role in work like this,” says Daniel, whose own artistic work has long focused on the criminal justice system. It exposes itself. It generates public documents. It has the ability to persuade. To overturn a conviction, so many resources are necessary, and a high profile is one of them.”

Daniel is teaching the seminar with Georgetown University Professor of Government and Law Marc Howard and his boyhood friend, Adjunct Professor Marty Tankleff, who was falsely convicted and imprisoned for nearly 18 years before being exonerated. In 2018, Howard and Tankleff founded Georgetown’s Making an Exonoree program, which has already resulted in the release of three individuals and considerable progress in the legal cases of numerous more.

After developing a close bond with Timothy James Young, who has been on Death Row at San Quentin State Prison since 2006 and was introduced to UCSC faculty and staff through the Institute of the Arts and Sciences’ groundbreaking Visualizing Abolition initiative, Daniel approached Howard and Tankleff. Artist Jackie Summerl established the participatory public sculpture and garden project Solitary Garden at UCSC’s Baskin Arts Studios in 2019 as part of this ongoing series of exhibitions and programs focused on prison abolition, collaborating with Young, who directs the garden and its plantings through letter exchanges with students and volunteers that continue to this day.

Young’s letters include personal observations on his experiences in jail and previous to that, as well as plant lists and garden ideas. His friendships with Arts Division faculty and students have become stronger, and a strong network of friends and supporters has formed at UCSC, with Daniel among them. Young was a key contributor to Daniel’s interactive video EXPOSED, which focused on COVID-19 in prisons.

After evaluating strong evidence of official malfeasance in the case, Daniel persuaded Howard and Tankleff to take up Young’s case for the 2022 Exoneree course. She’d also wanted to teach a class like this for a long time, and the Georgetown team was excited to work together. The partners plan to make it an annual event.

“Working in this world is tremendously useful for the students, and the course has had a significant influence on them,” Daniel adds. “They’ve all said they’re going to keep working on these initiatives once it’s over.”

Allison Dean, a film major who is part of the team working on Young’s case, is all in. “I’m definitely going to keep doing it after the course,” she adds. “It was simply so poignant the first time I got a letter back from Tim, saw his handwriting, and had someone read his questions for me. This man has put his faith in me to undertake this critical task, so I’ll keep working to ensure that his story is heard.”

Sullivan Gaudreault, a fellow film major, agrees. “This was a chance to work on something that had the potential to transform someone’s life.” “Making something for a grade is so much more significant,” he explains. “My short-term objective is to get Tim’s voice out to as many people as possible, but in the long run, I’m looking forward to the day when Tim can visit his garden here at UCSC.”

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