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Marc H. Simon — lawyer, actor, playwright and now filmmaker — had what he calls “the lightbulb moment” one evening three years ago when Barry Scheck asked him to take a nervous client to dinner. The result is “After Innocence: Lives of the Exonerated,” a documentary in progress about the lives of five men in the midst of wrenching transitions from prison back into society after being cleared of violent crimes they did not commit. The non-profit project seeks donations from New York’s legal community to complete its shooting schedule. Simon, 29, a litigation associate at Dreier, is co-writing and co-producing the project with Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Jessica Sanders of Los Angeles. When the lightbulb flashed, Simon was a student at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and enthusiastically involved in Scheck’s Innocence Project. The client was Herman Atkins Sr., freshly released from a California prison after 12 years of a 47-year sentence following wrongful convictions for rape and robbery. He had come to New York to thank the Innocence Project for appellate work that won his freedom, in particular Scheck and two of his students — Simon and Stacey Goldston, now an associate at Moses & Singer. After settling into the Gramercy Park Hotel, Atkins telephoned Simon and Goldston. “I said it was a short walk to the Heartland Brewery on Union Square,” Simon recalled. “He said, ‘But I can’t walk in public by myself.’ I thought maybe he had a handicap. Then he said, ‘It’s how the nightmare started. I got picked up walking along a street.’ “That’s when it hit me,” said Simon. “Our focus had always been on getting these people out. And it’s a great moment when a client is exonerated. “But the story doesn’t end there,” he said. Due to the anger and frustration of wrongful imprisonment, in some cases for decades, “These people have huge problems. That’s what led to the idea of this film.” In May, 30 of the 137 people exonerated to date through the Innocence Project gathered in New York to share their stories. Simon and Sanders were on hand with a camera crew. So were Scheck and Peter Neufeld, the trial lawyer and Innocence Project co-founder. “They were plucked from the streets, taken away from their families and communities and jobs and put in some kind of hellish situation for years,” Neufeld said that day in May. After winning exoneration, he continued, “They were dumped on the street and given new shoes and a pair of pants and maybe $10. Nothing more.” In an interview, Scheck elaborated, “There’s always a lot of hoopla when our clients get out of prison. But there’s nobody to help them with their problems. They see police officers, and they break out in a sweat. They can’t stand to be in elevators or in showers. They’re afraid of being stabbed. “Society has done these people a terrible injustice,” said Scheck. “It should make them whole.” To that end, Scheck gave his blessing to the film, and to a former student likewise moved by irony: guilty ex-inmates commonly have a menu of post-incarceration social services, whereas the exonerated often must sue their states simply to expunge their conviction in order to seek employment. “People say, ‘Well maybe [the defendant] didn’t do this crime but maybe they did another one,’ ” said Simon. The majority of exonorees, he said, never committed a crime in their lives. “ Some people feel this is an acceptable risk, that some will be unfortunate victims of a system that can’t be perfect. That’s also untrue. With DNA testing, we can improve the system. “We have to acknowledge that we’ve made a mistake. We have to do what we can to assist people who have been wronged. And what about their families? They’re victims, too. Fathers and mothers who know their sons and daughters are in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. The fathers and mothers, the brothers and sisters — they’re prevented from living.” Simon’s passion comes by way of his acting experience. He had a small role in director Spike Lee’s “The 25th Hour,” and has appeared on the television soap operas “All My Children,” “One Life to Live” and “As the World Turns.” “Actors put themselves in other peoples’ shoes in order to understand humanity,” said Simon, who worked as a film production assistant in Los Angeles before enrolling at Cardozo. To be innocent but nonetheless imprisoned, he added, “That has to be the worst. Society is looking at you like an outcast. I ask myself, How do they survive? These people are heroes to me.” Simon’s considerable effort and emotion on behalf of the documentary film are encouraged by his firm. “When [Simon] first started with us, he told us about his commitment to this project and how he wanted to continue with it while here, and we’re pleased he’s doing so,” said Marc S. Dreier, founder and managing partner of Dreier LLP. “This is the kind of thing I hope more people at the firm will become involved in. Marc’s fund-raiser will be well-attended by people from this firm.” Another of Simon’s supporters is David O’Neil, a litigation associate at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering. His firm, like Dreier, has signed on as a sponsor of the documentary film. O’Neil also secured two private foundation grants to seed the start of major shooting for “After Innocence.” The aim now, according to Sanders, is to raise enough money to complete the film’s shooting and editing schedule by the end of next year. O’Neil’s interest in the matter arose from his experience as a clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “Every week, we’d get a list of scheduled executions around the country,” said O’Neil, 30, a Harvard Law School graduate. “It’s the worst part of the job. A lot of these petitions are based on ineffective assistance of counsel, and in many cases they have a lot of merit.” (A cocktail party to raise funds for the documentary will be held Thursday at Studio 7, 120 Walker St. For tickets, call O’Neil at 212-230-8891.) Perhaps O’Neil will soon be raising funds for his friend’s play, written during Simon’s final year at Cardozo. In the production to come, Simon’s milieu is what court officers call “holding pens,” where indigent defendants await plea-bargains with the district attorney. When a deal is struck, the court officer commonly says what has become the title of Simon’s play, “One Going Out.”

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