Exonerees are failed twice by the criminal justice system

Wrongful convictions: How do you make up for stealing three decades of someone's life?

Anthony Ray Hinton, a 58-year-old former warehouse worker, walked out of an Alabama prison late last week nearly 30 years after being sentenced to death for two murders he didn’t commit.

Sound familiar?

Debra Milke in Arizona. Glenn Ford in Louisiana. Carl Dausch in Florida. Half-brothers Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown in North Carolina. Ricky Jackson, Wiley Bridgeman and Kwame Ajamu in Ohio. And those are just the wrongful death penalty convictions that have come to light in the past year.

Since 1973, the Death Penalty Information Center reports, 152 people convicted of murder and sentenced to death have eventually had their convictions tossed out and regained their freedom (which should serve as an indictment of that barbaric system in its entirety). The National Registry of Exonerations counts 1,577 reported exonerations of all crimes since 1989.

It’s impossible to measure how many of the innocent have been executed (one study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences conservatively estimated 4% of death row inmates are innocent). It’s also impossible to know, given the slow pace of the death penalty system, how many innocent men and women have died or been murdered in prison.

Imagine going through the experience of knowing you are innocent, yet hearing the guilty verdict, and the death sentence. Hinton’s lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, talked the other day about the agony Hinton experienced over 30 years spent mostly in a 5-by-8-foot cell, as fellow death row inmates were occasionally led off to be killed, all the while knowing he was innocent of the murders for which Alabama wanted to execute him.

“They took something from him that they don’t have the power to give back, but I think that they ought to, one, to initiate anything they can do to pay for some of the outrageous injustice this case creates,” Stevenson said on the “Democracy Now” radio program. “But I think if there’s really going to be any kind of meaningful response to this, not only should he be compensated, but people should be held accountable. People should apologize. People should do some soul-searching. We should create some procedures that mandate that when there is evidence that suggests the person is wrongly convicted, that that evidence has to be reviewed.”

That’s a valid point. But it’s also a point that’s been obvious for years now, with no significant action by the political system to fix these accountability problems. So they continue.

We tend to pay attention to these stories when they unfold like this. But then attention shifts elsewhere, barring a new news peg to revisit a case. New Yorker writer Ariel Levy has a new piece out about the lives of some of the wrongfully convicted well after their release from prison, and the struggle to regain some sort of life trajectory.

The gist of the article is the uneven approach to compensating those whose lives have been ruined by wrongful convictions, an injustice that multiplies when the mistaken judgment was based not on unintentional error, but on misconduct by police, witnesses or the prosecutor. And Levy points up an objectionable incongruity: Exonerees often are ineligible for programs aimed at reintegrating convicts into society. From the piece:

“People who spend many years in institutions tend to develop an overwhelming sense of helplessness. (This holds whether they are guilty or innocent — and, indeed, whether the institution is a prison or a mental hospital.) [Exoneree Cathy] Watkins, like many other exonerees, told me, 'I feel like a newborn baby.' She wished that she had some help navigating the world; the guilty, at least, had parole officers. 'I want someone to take me by the hand and say, "O.K., Cathy, I’m going to show you how to do this. This was our mistake. Let us help you." ' Only five states provide exonerees with mental health services or medical treatment — and, after years of substandard care, many former inmates have health problems. Only four offer job-placement assistance.”

So first the lives are ruined, and then once the error is corrected, the wrongfully convicted generally are just pushed back out into society, without a way to make a living, and without support from other than family or nonprofits.

The injustice committed in our names is compounded, and often without proper compensation by the parties – police, prosecutors and witnesses – who stole years from the lives of the innocent, and left them, in many cases, ill-equipped to deal with a much faster-paced society than the one from which they were plucked 10, 30, 30 or more years ago.

In the end, we, as a society, fail.

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.

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