In the U.S., more than 1,000 people have been exonerated for crimes they did not commit, 308 of those have been through postconviction DNA testing. These individuals, who on average spent 13.6 years in prison, are released into a society after their exoneration. Some find success in the ever changing world we live in, but many can not shake the demons linked to the wrongful conviction.
Not all DNA exonerees are as lucky as Jeffrey Deskovic, a New York man who spent 16 years in prison for rape and murder, who is now celebrating a turning-point in his life after returning to school and acquiring a master’s degree in criminal justice.
Deskovic says that despite nonexistent DNA evidence linking him to the murder, the police got him to confess after a seven-and-a-half-hour interrogation with no attorney present, his parents unaware of his whereabouts and no food. Deskovic, who was 16 at the time, maintained his innocence after his conviction and fought for his freedom with the help of the Innocence Project. Deskovic was released in 2006 and used a portion of his $8 million settlement to establish the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice.
Exoneration and wrongful conviction stories are heavily publicized in the news, but not many cover the success and hardships of said individuals after their exoneration and after the cameras have stopped rolling and the buzz of the latest story has died down. Brian Banks, a man who was convicted of rape at age 16, and spent five years in prison and five years on probation before being exonerated, is getting a second chance at his dream of being an NFL professional football player. His story will forever be immortalized throughout the Innocence Network and throughout the world.
With the help of the California Innocence Project, Banks, whose accuser admitted on tape countless times that she fabricated the rape allegation against Banks, was able to get his conviction overturned and now will get a chance to win a coveted roster spot and maybe even a starting nod as linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons.
But graduate degrees and NFL dreams come true are a rarity when discussing victims of wrongful conviction and incarceration, and many are incapable of getting a house, a car and even a job years after their release.
Virginia LeFever, an Ohio women who was convicted of killing her husband in 1990, found it easier to re-enroll in college than it was for her to obtain a job. One would think that since LeFever was exonerated and her record was sealed that it would be quite easy for her to acquire a proper job seeing as she was qualified, but that was not the case.
LeFever suffered great difficulty trying to find work due to her criminal record showing up every time a potential employer performed a background check. She also had to overcome difficulties getting her nursing license fully reinstated, but now that she has her degree and license she hopes to find a decent job that will provide her financial security. Like most wrongfully convicted exonerees the wait has been a long one.
One would hope that after exoneration the lives of these victims would return to normal. However, a study performed by the Life After Exoneration Program found that:
- Half of exonerees are living with family
- 2 in 3 are not financially independent
- 1 in 3 lose custody of their children
- 1 out of 4 suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
All formerly incarcerated people face similar barriers. Most of the world treats exonerees like anyone else with a criminal record:
- Both groups are chronically underemployed.
- Both groups have difficulty accessing routine government services.
- Both groups are routinely denied the right to vote, live in public housing, get food stamps, or access college loans.
After being wrongfully convicted, and for some spending over a decade in prison, exonerees are looking for compensation as they rightfully should. However, statutes providing compensation for these innocent people are only in place in 27 states, including Washington D.C. and the majority of the these laws undercompensate for the trauma endured by the exoneree.
Roughly about one-third of the people exonerated after proving their innocence have not been compensated. In the states where there are no compensation laws, individuals must file civil lawsuits or wait for the legislature to consider a private bill on their behalf. After completing one strenuous court battle, exonerees are forced into another as they try and obtain the funding necessary to re-establish themselves in society.
Florida exoneree, William Dillon, who spent 27.5 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, is one of the few Florida exonerees who has been compensated. In early 2012, Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill that paid Dillon $1.35 million, while also providing him a public apology on behalf of the State of Florida, finally shutting the door on a case that has been going on for more than 30 years.
Unlike LeFever and countless others, Dillon has been blessed and has managed to forge a successful music career for himself after being exonerated. He has managed to turn his horrific story into heart wrenching songs about the struggles of his wrongful conviction. He also serves on the board of directors for the Innocence Project of Florida. He is truly one of the lucky ones.
Now that we are cognizant of the great success of a few exonerees, we must also keep the innocents who are struggling to stay afloat in our thoughts. Now that the truth about post exoneration struggles is apparent and the rose-colored glasses are off, we must do our part to ensure that innocent people who were wrongfully convicted are set free, compensated for their time spent in prison, and given the proper chance to secure a steady financial future.