Thursday, January 29, 2009

Those cleared by DNA tests struggle to be free

Media coverage of exonerations is usually pretty good. There are newspaper articles, television clips, interviews and most often an editorial or two about the horrors of wrongful incarceration. But what happens after the cameras stop rolling and the reporters move on to new stories?

As the following USA TODAY story by Kevin Johnson points out, for many exonerees, the nightmare of their wrongful incarceration doesn't end when they walk out of prison.

ST. LOUIS — Johnny Briscoe thought his nightmare was over in the summer of 2006 when, after 23 years of proclaiming his innocence, he finally walked out of a Missouri prison.

DNA evidence lifted from a cigarette butt should have stripped away any doubt that another man — not Briscoe — had raped and robbed a woman in her suburban St. Louis apartment on Oct. 21, 1982. Yet Briscoe's exoneration, featured by national news organizations, did not fully free him from the persistent doubts of acquaintances and family members about his innocence, or from the emotional scars seared by more than two decades in prison.
That's one of the problems. There will always be people who wonder, or worse who insist, despite DNA evidence to the contrary, that the exonerated person was guilty. Thankfully, these misguided individuals are few, but their affect on an innocent person who has spent decades in prison can be devastating.
Nearly 90% of the 227 people cleared by DNA evidence since 1989 were convicted of some of the most heinous sex crimes, according to the Innocence Project, which helps inmates prove their innocence through DNA testing. DNA — present in blood, semen and body cells — can be particularly useful in solving sex crimes and often is the most definitive way of determining innocence.

Yet not even DNA washes away the lasting stigma that shadows once-convicted sex offenders who are cleared by genetic testing, and the criminal justice system that wrongly jailed them offers little help. Briscoe's plight is part of a silent struggle for a rising number of exonerees. After high-profile releases from prison, they often fend for themselves.
Add to the stigma a financial wall that most exonerees encounter as soon as they are released.
Most states did not account for the exonerated when officials started re-entry programs for the hundreds of thousands of offenders released in the U.S. each year. Most are ineligible for basic benefits, such as counseling and job training, that states give guilty offenders when they re-enter society.
So exonerees have no money (almost all are indigent by the time they’re released) and no job. They have no place to live, no driver’s license, and sadly, by the time they get out, some have no family or friends. From an exoneree's talk in 2003:
Financially I was broke. No family. Occupationally I was 44 years old. Nobody was going to hire me. Nothing was available when I walked out of prison. Absolutely nothing.
The transition is never easy. And for those without an intact supportive family, it can be lonely as well as stressful.

At least in Florida we are fortunate to have a full-time social worker on staff to help our exonerees with their transition. (The paperwork alone can be daunting.) Our social worker coordinates an array of transitional services to meet their immediate and long-term needs including medical, psychological, and social support; occupational training and assistance; housing assistance; family support; and education.

And although we do have a compensation law on the books in Florida, it can still take one to two years to receive payment, if the individual even qualifies. (Florida's law prohibits compensation for any exoneree who has a previous felony conviction, or a conviction incurred while wrongfully incarcerated.) Most of Florida's exonerees would not be eligible under the bill as it now stands. Their only recourse has been, and continues to be, seeking compensation through a personal claims bill, a long and arduous process whose outcome is entirely dependent on the whim (and political makeup) of that particular legislative session.

So, in 2007 we established the Exoneree Emergency Fund to provide financial assistance for basic necessities during their transition. The fund, which is entirely dependent on contributions from the public, helps our clients buy groceries and gas, pay bills, purchase clothes for work, and secure job training. Each individual's needs vary, as does the length of time they require assistance, but we are thankful that, so far, we've received enough contributions to enable the Fund to continue.

Read the complete article.

Visit IPF's Website here; sign up to volunteer here; contribute to our work here. (If you want your donation to go directly to the Exoneree Emergency Fund, please include a note with that request.)


Anonymous said...

Never ceases to amaze me the extent to which society -- at least here -- will go, just to punish the innocent.

One additional perspective on the stigma: because prison conditions are generally so awful, and reasonably well-documented, the mere fact that someone has spent a lot of time in the prison system "must" mean that they "must" have absorbed some of that awfulness even if innocent of any crimes at all.

A few months back, a NYT article covered "the science of disgust." It talked about how some features of modern life just seem naturally to make people squeamish; one example was cat litter, even when it comes fresh from the box. These poor guys (mostly) are experiencing that built-in bias of unpleasantness just by virtue of association with the truly unpleasant.

Toni said...

We can only hope those people are few and far between. Exonerees have enough REAL problems to deal with without taking on made-up or imaginary stuff. Most of them have been to hell and back, and they deserve major credit for even surviving that nightmarish trip.