Wrongful conviction documentary by Yale undergrads is winning major awards
120 years. It’s the length of the “reduced” sentence that Scott Lewis was handed by the Connecticut courts when he was convicted for murder in 1991. It’s also the title of a 2018 documentary about Lewis’ wrongful conviction and ultimate exoneration, made by three Yale undergraduates: Lukas Cox, Matt Nadel, and Keera Annamaneni.
In late February, “120 YEARS” won Best Short Documentary Film at the 27th annual Pan African Film Festival (PAFF) in Los Angeles, beating out 44 other contenders. Co-founded in 1992 by actor Danny Glover, PAFF screens and awards films that “showcase the diversity and complexity of people of African descent.” PAFF is also an Oscar-qualifying film festival for the short documentary and narrative categories, meaning that if a short wins at PAFF, it will automatically be considered for nomination in the following Academy Awards cycle. (In October 2018, “120 YEARS” also won the Human Rights Award at the Mystic Film Festival. It’s still under consideration for at least a dozen more.)
“I found out about Scott’s story when I was reading the New Haven Register and came across a news piece about Scott’s settlement with the City of New Haven,” explained Annamaneni ’20, the film’s producer.
In 1991, Lewis was pulled over in Milford for failing to signal a left turn. Before he knew it and without being told why, he was being cuffed at gunpoint at the traffic stop. Lewis’ air-tight alibi notwithstanding, the Connecticut courts condemned him to life in prison for a double homicide he didn’t commit. Lewis had been framed by the initial arresting officer, a racist, corrupt New Haven police officer in the pocket of a crack-cocaine dealer who had it out for Lewis. With many years of his own hard work plus six years of help from a team of Yale and Columbia University professors and law students, Lewis was finally exonerated in 2015.
“The news story immediately piqued our interest,” explained Annamaneni, “but it focused on the economic ramifications of his wrongful conviction and failed to discuss the less tangible costs of Scott’s incarceration — 20 years with friends and families that cannot be replaced. We hoped that another story could shed light on these emotional and social costs.”
In a tight 35 minutes told entirely in the words of their subjects, the filmmakers don’t allow a second to pass where the viewer is not acutely aware of that stolen time and the attending personal toll it had on Lewis, his co-defendant, his family members, and his team of lawyers and supporters. Simultaneously, they succinctly relay the facts of Lewis’ case and his eventual exoneration, all without losing the story to dense legal jargon.
“After doing some preliminary research, I sent Scott an email to see if he’d be interested in meeting. I mentioned that we were interested in working with him on a documentary about his story,” said Annamaneni. “In 20 minutes, he sent back, ‘I’m in.’ A week later, we met with him in his office, and that was the start to a wonderful partnership and friendship.”
Cox ’19, co-creator and cinematographer, explained that from the first meeting, the team knew that to tell the story well — “with an objective eye and a commitment to journalistic integrity” — they had their work cut out for them. Extensive research ensued as they began tracking down leads, combing the archives for relevant documents, and trying to get a handle on the complex legal mechanisms behind Scott’s innocence claim, said Cox.
“In 2017, the average exoneree spent about 11 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit” said Nadel ’21, co-creator and director, “meaning that it can take countless wrongful convictions and decades of incarceration for the public to discover gross official misconduct. Sharing stories like Scott’s allows us to hold officials accountable now, ensuring that innocent individuals are not robbed of precious years of life.”
The three conducted the interviews in spring 2018 on location in New Haven and New York. Several Yale faculty and affiliates were interview subjects, including: Miriam Gohara, clinical associate professor of law at Yale Law School; Brett Dignam, former clinical associate professor of law at Yale Law School; Judge Charles S. Haight Jr. ’52 B.A., ’55 J.D., senior U.S. district judge for the District of Connecticut; and Sarah Stillman ’06 B.A., ’06 M.A., lecturer in creative writing at Yale.
Nadel and Cox edited the film remotely that summer, in a process Cox described as “a true collaboration between the two of us, fueled by all-day FaceTime calls and all-night editing sessions.” Their budget was $2,200, a shoe-string in an industry where several million is considered “low-budget.” They wrapped editing up before fall 2018 and began circulating “120 YEARS” to festivals worldwide after a free premier on Sept. 8 in Yale’s Luce Hall, followed by a panel discussion including Lewis.
“Yale played a vital role in enabling us to tell this story on screen,” said Nadel. “Both the Yale School of Art and Center for Collaborative Arts and Media connected us with equipment and facilities that were beyond useful in the production and post-production phases. Perhaps the greatest resource was the collaboration and generosity of Yalies who have crossed paths with Scott’s story over the years.”
He cited the many Yale affiliates who volunteered their time to be filmed as well as a classmate, Sammy Westfall ’21, who wrote an article about Scott Lewis in Yale’s publication The Politic back in 2017 that “served as a wellspring of inspiration in pre-production.” The film also features an original score, which was composed, mixed, and produced by Michael Curcio ’21.
Being a part of the Yale community allowed us to connect with these talented individuals and unite their insight into a cohesive narrative, said Nadel.