AuthorFaison, Lakia


A cornerstone of Western criminal justice is the notion that it is better to let ten guilty men go free than to imprison one innocent man. (1) To date, however, 2,647 wrongful convictions have been uncovered in the United States. (2) Although some people argue that the number of wrongful convictions is negligible compared to the hundreds of thousands of purportedly rightful convictions, (3) it is generally accepted that estimates of wrongful conviction rates are conservative and identified cases of wrongful conviction represent the tip of the iceberg. (4) These miscarriages of justice often have grave consequences for the lives of the wrongfully convicted, their families, and society at large. (5) Of particular interest in the current Article are the post-release experiences of exonerated individuals. We will review psychological research on the reintegration challenges faced by exonerees with a particular emphasis on social perceptions of exonerated individuals. We will then identify promising methods of reducing the stigmatization of exonerees, discuss potential driving mechanisms of negative perceptions of exonerees, and consider issues that warrant further research.

The logistical challenges that exonerees face following their release from prison have been well documented. (6) Paradoxically, exonerees are often provided less reintegration support than rightfully convicted offenders. (7) For example, many exonerees are informed of their exoneration merely a few hours before their release and thus have little opportunity to make living arrangements and otherwise prepare for life outside of prison. (8) Also unlike actual offenders, exonerees are not offered services to ease their reintegration into life outside of prison; (9) they are not offered temporary housing, job placement assistance, health insurance, drug rehabilitation services, or mental health services. (10) One exoneree reported that he coped with his abrupt and aidless exoneration by committing petty offenses like shoplifting in order to spend a night in jail, which was a reprieve from the unfamiliarity of non-prison life. (11) After being released from prison, many exonerees show signs of psychological trauma such as hyperarousal, intrusive thoughts, hopelessness, poor social adjustment, self-isolative tendencies, self-destructive coping mechanisms, and the development of mood or anxiety disorders. (12)

Compounding these logistical challenges are the social consequences of wrongful conviction for exonerees. Researchers have used several different methodologies to investigate social perceptions of exonerees. Some studies have interviewed actual exonerees to gather qualitative data about their post-release experiences and social interactions. (13) Others have interviewed members of the public regarding their perceptions of exonerees and wrongful conviction. (14) Most recently, experimental paradigms have investigated causal relationships between characteristics of exonerees (e.g., the cause of the exoneree's conviction; the exoneree's race) and individuals' perceptions of exonerees. (15) Here, we review findings from each of these lines of research and discuss their implications for exonerees' post-release experiences.


    In some of the first in-depth interviews with exonerees, The New York Times questioned six United States death row exonerees about the psychological and social issues they faced post-release. (16) Kirk Bloodsworth, who was wrongfully convicted of raping and murdering a nine-year-old girl, discussed the shadow that his wrongful conviction cast over every aspect of his life. (17) He described the inescapability of his stigma:

    This thing completely destroys a person's life.... Every rock, every branch, every grain of your existence is picked up and thrown down into a heap. You have to rebuild, and some people don't make it. No matter what happens to you, you are constantly put under this eye of distrust that you never can shake. I walked into a supermarket in town, and a lady picked up her child. The little girl said, "That's the man who was on the TV, Mommy." She rushed over and grabbed her child and said, "Don't go near him." I just left my stuff and walked out. It never, ever ends. It never ends. It never ends. It never will be ended. (18) Ronald Williamson, who was falsely convicted of rape and murder, said that he feared the public because of the negative beliefs they had about him and suggested that the type of crime of which he was convicted exacerbated the public's stigmatization of him. (19) He said,

    I just wanted out of Oklahoma. I was afraid of the people there.... As a man who's been charged with a sex slaying, I don't trust anybody. If something happens in my community, I'm getting hold of my lawyer. They'll lie and they'll make up stories about you. (20) Rolando Cruz, who was wrongfully convicted of the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a ten-year-old girl reported that people expected him to quickly recidivate. (21) Cruz did have a prior conviction on his criminal record, but it was for one count of trespassing (a non-violent offense), suggesting that assumptions about Cruz's criminality may have stemmed primarily from the stigma of his wrongful conviction. (22)

    In 2004, Campbell and Denov conducted semi-structured interviews with five Canadian exonerees about their experiences while in prison, how they coped with their arrests and convictions, and the challenges they faced post-incarceration. (23) The researchers focused primarily on the exonerees' perceptions of how the government handled their cases and noted three major themes. (24) First, the exonerees reported a heightened intolerance for injustice, with all of the exonerees reporting having strong emotional reactions to instances of governmental injustice. (25) Second, the exonerees reported a desire for compensation, which they viewed as a symbolic gesture of de-labeling, or the removal of perceived guilt. (26) They felt that the lack of compensation was indicative of the government's continued negative perceptions of them. (27) Mark, a participant who was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault, said, "[I]f the government, the department of justice, says again, we're not paying him because for us, he's still guilty. As long as... as long as they won't admit that they made a mistake... I won't have peace of mind." (28)

    Third, the exonerees reported a desire for formal apologies from government personnel responsible for their wrongful convictions. (29) The exonerees provided two main reasons for their desire for formal apologies: The exonerees wanted government personnel to atone for their wrongdoings, and they hoped the apologies would serve as a mechanism for informing criminal justice officials and the public that wrongful convictions can occur, thereby potentially preventing future wrongful convictions. (30)

    In 2004, Grounds conducted interviews with eighteen British men who were referred for psychiatric assessment shortly after being released from wrongful imprisonment. (31) In addition to discussing the psychological struggles they faced while adjusting to life out of prison, some of the exonerees reported feeling stigmatized by the public. (32) In particular, exonerees who were convicted of highly publicized crimes expressed a pervasive fear of being in public. (33) One exoneree reported that a stranger tried to burn his house down, and two other exonerees felt they needed to be escorted everywhere because they were afraid to be in public, even more than two years after their exonerations. (34)

    In 2008, Westervelt and Cook conducted interviews with eighteen United States-based death row exonerees. (35) Many of the exonerees reported feeling stigmatized by their family, neighbors, and former friends. (36) Kirk Bloodsworth said that people in his community viewed him--and other exonerees for that matter--as guilty criminals who "beat the system." (37) Sabrina Butler, who was wrongfully convicted of murdering her nine-month-old child, reported similar sentiments; despite her exoneration, the people in her community treated her like a murderer. (38) Her neighbors gossiped to her children that she was a "baby killer." (39) Her local church closed their doors on her. Local employers refused to hire her. People stared at her wherever she went. (40)

    These interviews indicate that at least some exonerees feel stigmatized by strangers, neighbors, and other people in their communities. Do members of the public report hold negative perceptions of exonerees? A number of studies have addressed that question.


    Researchers have used interview methods as well as surveys and polls to query the public about their perceptions of exonerees. (41) Although most of the exonerees interviewed in the aforementioned studies reported feeling stigmatized by the public, the public paradoxically tends to report that they do not stigmatize exonerees. (42)

    Research on the public's perceptions of exonerees began with Canada's National Angus Reid Poll, (43) which asked members of the public how they felt about the government's ability to deal with wrongful convictions and whether the government should compensate exonerees. (44) More than half of the poll respondents reported that the Canadian government needed to put more effort into preventing wrongful convictions and almost all respondents agreed that the government should compensate exonerees. (45) Although this poll showed that the public viewed wrongful convictions as a problem and compensation as necessary, (46) the question used to query public perceptions focused on the government's role in preventing and compensating for wrongful conviction rather than on attitudes toward exonerees themselves. (47) Many other studies have used similar measures that ask respondents their opinions about the government's or...

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