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Life After Exoneration

The exoneration of the falsely convicted has always been an important implication in the court system, but it is exceedingly rare. DNA testing has helped to limit the amount of time and money needed to retry a case, but this type of testing is typically only useful in murder and rape cases where DNA evidence exists.

Still, over 1000 people have been individually exonerated since the benchmark year 1989 (when DNA exoneration began).

In a report by The National Registry of Exonerations (a joint venture between Michigan Law and Northwestern Law) on a portion (873) of those exonerated since 1989,about 12 percent were pulled off of death row, and over 60 percent were minorities, with an exceedingly high number of them being African Americans.

This portion of exonerated people, which is estimated to be a small fraction of the total number of wrongfully convicted behind bars, has served over 10,000 years in prison. As a point of reference, the last glacial period ended about 10,000 years ago.

The Innocence Project estimates that the average length of time an innocent person serves before exoneration is 13.6 years.

Sadly this trend does not seem to be getting better. The National Registry of Exonerations has found that the length of time between conviction and exoneration in DNA cases has increased from less than 7 years in the early 90’s to about 18 years today. And yet, since 2000 there has been an average of 1 exoneration per week, a number which has also been increasing since the early 90s.

A quick interpolation of these numbers would suggest that – the increase in exonerations since 2000, coupled with the increase in years spent in jail by exonerated individuals, must be caused by another factor. This factor is painted across the SJFI (seekingjusticefortheinnocent) website, the combination of rampant prosecution practices and loose or unreliable regulations in courts.   

For example, the leading cause of wrongful convictions in the homicide trials is perjury or false accusation (most of which is deliberate misidentification). Over half of the homicide exonerees also had cases that were bogged down by other forms of official misconduct.

Eighty (80) percent of sexual assault cases in this exonerated group were caused by mistaken eyewitness identification, a practice that has been repeatedly shown to be unreliable.

Over one third of sexual assault cases in this group involved bad forensic science. Yet none of these forensic science labs have been reprimanded in any way.

Perhaps most astoundingly, 74 percent of all child sex abuse cases of exonerated individuals were completely fabricated.

Harper Lee’s tale in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, To Kill a Mockingbird, is perhaps as relevant today as it was in the years leading up to its publication in 1960. Of the 80 percent of mistaken eyewitness identifications in sexual assault exonerees, there is a 10 to 1 chance that the case involves a black male sexually assaulting a white woman.

The number of exonerated people since 1989 is sometimes calculated to over 2,000. This is because 1,170 people (which are excluded from the information above) were part of group of exonerations in which police officers fabricated crimes.

In all of these cases of illicit behaviors and malpractice in the examined exoneration group, rarely are any of the prosecutor or judge punished in any way. [You can read about John Thompson’s first hand experience here.]

The multi-level process of arrest to incarceration is in desperate need of gutting and renovation. What do these exonerees have to look forward to after being wronged by the justice system? After robbing these individuals of years of their lives, careers, family and friendly relations, and their personal dignity, what does our country do for these unfortunate individuals? 

23 states will give you absolutely nothing. In the other 27 states the compensation is inadequate. 

Furthermore, many innocent people have been pressured into taking a plea bargain to reduce the possibility of a lengthy sentence. When these people are exonerated, they are not allowed compensation in states such as New Jersey and California which have laws that only provide compensation to those who, “did not by his own conduct cause or bring about his conviction.”

Many states have an overly simplistic reparation package. Alabama, for example, pays the federal standard minimum to exonerees of $50,000 for every year of incarceration. This money can disappear quickly when considering the colossal legal fees the exonerated will have already paid, yet many of the 27 states with recompense policies don’t even award this amount.

Three quarters of those exonerated are not financially independent, and many live with families who relied upon their salaries. Besides failing to economically support all parties, how much can $50,000 a year do for these victims and their families? If the family remains together, most will already have been financially crippled. Quite often those who are falsely convicted will face divorce and a loss of custody over their children. These people will always remain at a severe disadvantage in custody battles or other similar situations.

Just because someone is entitled to assistance doesn’t mean he/she will actually receive it. Forty percent of those exonerated by DNA testing do not receive any compensation at all. Of the remaining 60 percent that do, half of them had to file lawsuits or seek special circumstances in order to get their recompense (which means more legal fees).

Exonerated individuals habitually suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and are not provided treatment. They have an extremely hard time gaining employment. They may be harassed by law enforcement officials regardless of their innocence. They are routinely denied governmental and other private services, and many exonerees are not given any transitional assistance such as immediate transportation, housing, education, or health care.

Only 15 people who have been exonerated through DNA evidence have had support services provided by states. To restate, that isn’t 15 percent, but 15 total people.

Another contradiction within the exoneration process is the limited time exonerees have to claim entitlements. Quite often the pardon process is lengthy, but states like Vermont allow a maximum of three years to claim entitlements. Other states allow less time for individuals, who are stripped of everything, to enter into another long legal battle.

Perhaps this question is too obvious, but why aren't restitution and exoneration provided simultaneously? This inquiry doesn't seem too daunting for a system that already requires a convict to serve punishments and fines immediately.

The greater irony is that these innocent people are initially punished for harming the livelihood of others, but the real wrong-doers are still at large. Then the state and its law officials are not held accountable for mistakes (purposeful or not) that caused the wrongful conviction, and then they pay an indemnity that is severely disproportionate to their crime.