“The justice system is geared towards conviction; it is not geared towards the truth.” This is one of many gripping, unforgettable statements made during last week’s screening of “120 Years,” a student-made documentary that covers the story of Scott Lewis, a New Haven resident who was wrongfully convicted of a double homicide that set into motion a series of events that would change his life forever.
When he was stopped by traffic police for turning on a red, Lewis expected a ticket. Instead, he was told that there was a warrant for his arrest. Lewis was framed for murder by Detective Vincent Raucci, a New Haven police officer who happened to be on the payroll of the same drug ring Lewis had been attempting to leave.
The story of Lewis’ conviction begins at a red light; the documentary begins the same way. The powerful parallels between what the viewer is seeing on the screen and the occurrences in Lewis’s life are immediately striking. With the voiceover spoken by Lewis himself, the documentary carries a level not only of authenticity, but also of sincerity and candidness.
Filmmakers Matt Nadel ’21, Lukas Cox ’19, and Keera Annamaneni ’20 allow Lewis’ inspiring story to tell itself. There is an evident trust that his actual life does not need embellishment in order to be affecting. They lead the audience through the important questions the documentary is addressing with text across the screen. The pace is perfect, the music riveting and emotional and the heavy subject is never overwhelming.
Instead, the film is filled with lighthearted moments. In scenes where an exonerated Lewis looks back on his imprisonment, he exasperatedly reflects on the unfairness of the original 120 years he had been assigned. The audience laughs, but the scene is followed by powerful moments that remind viewers of the film’s serious subject matter. During a moving scene, Lewis’ old boss retells his unsuccessful attempt to defend him and is told by an official to distance himself from the case because Lewis is “just another black guy.”
Aware of his innocence, Scott Lewis did not settle in jail. He made time to read through textbooks within the jail’s law library. He spent nearly four hours a day studying briefings and cases, contacting law professors and attorneys. The letters he wrote these people, only partially shared in the film, are beautifully written and extremely persuasive.
Lewis defended himself and filed his own appeals for 13 years. “I always told myself: I am not in prison, I am at work,” Lewis remarked. He worked tirelessly until Brett Dignam, Vice Dean of Experiential Education at Columbia Law School, decided to take on the case with her law class. At the time, she was working at Yale Law School.
“120 Years” captures Lewis as a person through the voices of others. As the story progresses, the interview segments get longer and more numerous. These segments include conversations with Dignam, Lewis’ children and others who were involved in the case.
At the documentary’s climax, Dignam retells the story of Lewis’ miraculous release. She cries; the music stops. The value and talent demonstrated by Nadel and Cox is represented in moments like this. After Dignam wipes her tears, the camera lingers, giving the audience a chance to absorb Lewis’ incredible story. The simplicity of the scene, in the plot’s most pivotal moment, was powerful.
After 20 years in prison, Lewis is granted freedom, but he is not given a fairy tale happy ending. He is faced with the challenge of reintroducing himself to the adults who were once his children. Within the documentary, this was the scene that touched me the most. Lewis patches his life together, piece by piece, but the film does not absolve the court system that stole 20 years from his family.
The 20 years Lewis had to spend away from his family sit in the auditorium like dead weight. This is the moment that the documentary drives its message home. There is tension in the auditorium, a loud frustration that is felt uniformly, at the criminal justice system and at ourselves for allowing it to be run this way.
Perhaps the most laudable choice made by the creators of this film was finding Lewis and deciding to tell his story. This protagonist is charismatic, enticing, fascinating and inspiring. He is a hero, working to improve conditions for poor New Haven families and other victims of false convictions. After the screening of “120 Years,” over 200 people left Luce Hall completely in awe of Scott Lewis. This, perhaps, is the film’s biggest indicator of utter success.
All donations collected at the screening benefited The Innocence Project, an organization that works to assists other victims of false convictions.
Razan Sulieman | firstname.lastname@example.org