Ryan Wylie was an Assistant Director, Producer, Editor and Cameraman for Unreasonable Doubt: The Joe Amrine Case.
The Missouri documentary focused on Joe Amrine, who had been sentenced to death for murdering a fellow inmate while in prison.
Initially, there were three inmate witnesses stating that Amrine had committed the murder.
Since the sentencing, all three have recanted their statements, admitting that they lied due to coercion and fear of repercussion from interviewing officers.
This left no evidence linking Joe to the murder, but the Missouri legal system failed to take him off death row.
At the time Wylie and the rest of the film crew got involved, Amrine had been on death row for 16 years, which Wylie said is “not uncommon.”
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the national average waiting time between receiving the death sentence and being executed was 15 years and 6 months in 2013, the result of a consistent upward trend over the last 30 years.
Wylie was the first of his friends to find out about Amrine’s case, at that time working as an independent filmmaker.
A friend of a friend tipped Wylie off to the case and told him that he should come to an Innocence Project meeting regarding Amrine.
At the meeting, he met an activist named Jeff Stack, who was able to get Wylie in contact with Sean O’Brien, Amrine’s lawyer. O’Brien gave Wylie copies of two of the inmate interviews and an unpublished article from Webster University graduates about the problems in the prison facility Amrine was being kept in.
Wylie recalled being floored by the case, wanting to make the movie because “the case of innocence is so universal.”
Amrine was the next in line to be executed when Wylie got involved, so he remembers feeling “some pressure being applied… so it was a very strange moment in the local political and social landscape.”
This pressure pushed the crew to film and edit the entire film in three months.
Initially, the documentary was about 40 minutes and compiled all available evidence to present to the people responsible for Joe’s sentence.
The movie was made in the early 2000s, before the rise of the internet, so VHS tapes of the movies were distributed to activist groups and interested people.
Wylie mentioned these tapes cost of about $2/tape to produce, but were being given away for free. There was also no money was put into the production of the film itself.
Wylie’s activism goes beyond Amrine’s case, wanting to abolish the death penalty completely. Wylie believed that the death penalty is pervasive because “it’s not present on people’s minds… but when you make it present, they always come to the humane, reasonable conclusion.”
He also gave advice to local activists looking to change something in their communities. The key seems to be personal engagement.
Wylie remembered a showing of the documentary in Texas, when a very religious woman spoke in favor of the death penalty.
Wylie applied a religious angle to his argument against the death penalty to help her understand his side.
“You reach them how they need to be reached,” as Wylie put it, “one person at a time.” This helped create, in Amrine’s case, what Wylie calls a “citizen’s movement” to increase pressure for action.
In addition to the individualistic approach, Wylie mentioned that it’s important to “put a human face to [the problem].”
In his case, putting Joe’s face on the issue of the death penalty and having such a clear-cut case of innocence helped mobilize people toward a common good.
Wylie mentioned that in his experience, “people take much more interest in local news,” even in the internet age. Wylie and his crew would approach local stations with reports and soundbytes ready to go on air.
He learned in his experience that “[local] news agencies are starved for time and resources and personnel… you just need to make it easy for them.”
In Wylie’s case, the crew’s efforts and outreach were successful and Amrine was set free.
An additional 10–15 minutes were added to the documentary, focusing on the beginning of Joe’s life after prison.
Currently, Wylie has branched out into other social issues, currently working with activist communities against human trafficking.
Wylie hasn’t had much recent contact with Amrine, but his most recent knowledge is that he’s working with Sean O’Brien’s law firm to help abolish the death penalty.