» What does it mean to be exonerated?
Many exonerated individuals complain that the word "exonerated" is rarely understood. An exoneration clears the name of a wrongfully convicted prisoner by declaring him innocent of the crime. This is often confused with a pardon, which merely provides forgiveness or removes a penalty -- individuals who are pardoned may in fact be guilty, but they receive pardons because of the special circumstances of their cases. In some states that have statutes providing compensation to wrongfully convicted prisoners, the exonerated person must also obtain a pardon from the governor in addition to having the conviction reversed by a court in order to qualify for compensation.
» How many people have been exonerated and released from prison?
More than 230 wrongfully convicted and imprisoned men and women have been exonerated and released from U.S. prisons after conclusively proving their innocence. Close to 130 of them were exonerated by DNA evidence, and the numbers of DNA exonerees is growing as more states provide for post-conviction DNA testing. The Innocence Project website provides details on each of their cases. In the cases not involving DNA testing, the evidence used to establish actual innocence includes confessions from the real perpetrators and fingerprint evidence.
» Is there a right to post-conviction DNA testing?
Currently about 30 states have statutes allowing convicts to petition the court for post-conviction DNA testing, but in many cases the right is limited to death row inmates, and often the inmate is required to pay for the tests himself. DNA tests can cost anywhere from $200 to several thousand dollars, a substantial obstacle for most inmates.
» What are the financial consequences of wrongful conviction?
The wrongfully imprisoned who eventually regain their freedom suffer profound economic losses. Studies by the Life After Exoneration Project found that over 90 percent of exonerees lost all their assets -- savings, vehicles, houses -- while imprisoned. Of those who are able to get jobs after their release, 43 percent are paid less than they earned prior to their imprisonment, 39 percent find work at similar pay, and only 17 percent are paid more than their pre-conviction salaries. When corrected for inflation and unemployed exonerees, the vast majority of exonerees never recover their pre-conviction earning potential.
» Does the prison give exonerees anything at the time of their release?
A few prisons give "gate money," ranging from $10 to $200, for immediate needs, but nothing more.
» What are the major obstacles to employment for exonerees?
Interviews with exonerees have revealed a number of obstacles to employment. Employers check for criminal convictions. Exonerees who disclose prior convictions often are declined employment, even after the circumstances are explained. Computerized screening of applicants often flags an exoneree's criminal record because it is often not automatically expunged. Many exonerees lack skills because they were imprisoned as teenagers or young adults, before they entered the workforce. Jobs that involve today's technology -- computers, Internet, and cell phones -- are beyond the reach of exonerees. They are unfamiliar with the technology and cannot use the Internet to search for jobs, nor can they use a computer to create a resume.
» Are there laws providing compensation to the wrongfully convicted?
A study by The Innocence Project found that only 37 percent of the wrongly convicted received any compensation at all from the government, and the compensation those few did receive was often woefully inadequate.
Under existing U.S. law, a wrongfully imprisoned federal convict can receive a maximum of $5,000, total, in compensation after exoneration, no matter how many years they spent unjustly imprisoned. (28 U.S.C. § 2513).
There is legislation pending, however, that would increase the amount of compensation available. First introduced in 2000 by Reps. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) and William Delahunt (D-Mass.), the Innocence Protection Act (IPA), a criminal justice bill aimed at reducing the risk that innocent persons may be executed, would increase the compensation for wrongful imprisonment to $50,000 per year of incarceration, $100,000 per year if the inmate received a death sentence. In addition, the IPA would afford greater access to DNA testing for convicted offenders and help states improve the quality of representation for defendants in capital cases.
The IPA received strong bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, and was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in October 2002. For more information on the legislation and contact information for the lead sponsors of the bill, see the Justice Project website.
Sixteen states have laws providing compensation for wrongful convictions; as of April 2003, four more have proposed bills in various stages of legislative review. All require some proof of "actual innocence," such as DNA test results; many have other restrictions such as requiring a pardon from the governor or prohibiting an exonerated defendant who entered a guilty plea from receiving compensation later. The level of compensation varies widely from state to state; New York, for example, puts no cap on the amount of monetary compensation that can be granted to an exonerated convict, while New Hampshire limits it to a total of $20,000. See "Compensating the Exonerated" for more about your state's laws.
» In the states that don't have compensation statutes, do wrongfully convicted people have any legal recourse?
If there is no state law on the books providing compensation, it is very difficult for an exonerated individual to get anything from the state to redress his unjust imprisonment. Suits claiming violations of civil rights through the misconduct of police officers or prosecutors face very high burdens of proof, and the defendants are most often protected by doctrines of state immunity -- even police officers who have committed perjury are protected.
Suits claiming malicious prosecution against a district attorney's office face similar obstacles: prosecutors are protected by absolute immunity for liability for injuries arising as a result of a prosecution. To get damages on such a claim, the exonerated convict would have to prove that the primary purpose of the prosecution involved malice or something other than bringing the defendant to justice.
If an exonerated convict does pursue a civil case -- whether for civil rights violations or a tort suit for damages -- the suit will likely be extremely expensive and time-consuming.
(Despite these hurdles, Barry Scheck of The Innocence Project filed a civil suit on behalf of exonerated convicts Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz; the case was settled and the men received an undisclosed sum of money.)
Some exonerated prisoners have successfully petitioned their state lawmakers to provide monetary compensation by passing "private" bills. For example, the Ohio legislature granted William Jackson $720,000 when he was exonerated and released after spending five years incarcerated for a rape he did not commit. Such cases are rare, however, and usually require resources and political connections unavailable to most exonerated prisoners. Also, some state constitutions forbid such private legislation.
» What kinds of services or organizations are available to exonerated prisoners after they are released?
Many exonerees lose their homes, savings, vehicles, spouse, and custody of their children. They are released without money for living expenses, housing, medical care, health insurance, employable skills, vocational training, or jobs. No services have specifically addressed the needs of exonerees despite their profound losses and complex needs. Ironically, an exonerated person often gets less help -- from either state or private institutions -- than a guilty inmate, who will likely receive at least some assistance with job training, psychological counseling, and other social services to help him reintegrate. Exonerees often do not have access to these programs.
The Life After Exoneration Project (LAEP), initiated in 2002 by DNA Identification Technology and Human Rights Center (DNA&HRC) in Berkeley, Calif., and The Innocence Project, is the first organized effort to provide comprehensive help to exonerees nationwide. The pilot project will link exonerees with a case manager with expertise in related fields like refugee resettlement, political asylum seekers, or torture survivor treatment and with a seasoned exoneree with experience on the outside. The pair will help exonerees work through the bureaucratic ramifications of many years of absence, identify and access valuable programs such as housing and vocational training, and help structure and manage the myriad issues and decisions necessary to create a life and move forward as a fully vested participant in society.
» How can I help?
To contribute to the Life After Exoneration Project (LAEP), a nationwide program that assists the wrongfully convicted build a life on the outside through community-based case managers, exoneree coaches, and links to local programs to provide comprehensive strategies and services for exonerees, send a check payable to "Tides Center/LAEP Fund" to:
Berkeley, CA 94708
For further information, please call (510) 526-2168, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Innocence Project accepts donations to support its ongoing pro bono representation of convicts seeking exoneration through DNA testing. Donations can be earmarked for DNA testing for indigent clients.
Another way to help is to contact state and federal legislators and express support for bills such as the federal Innocence Protection Act, which would provide more money to compensate exonerees, as well as greater access to DNA testing for current inmates. Five states -- Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri and Oklahoma -- have bills before the legislatures that would increase compensation for state governments. See "Compensating the Exonerated" for more information on the Innocence Protection Act and what's going on in your state.
» Can I contact or help the men featured in "Burden of Innocence"?
Contact information for those amenable to receiving mail is available here.