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Loss of innocence: the experience of exonerated death row inmates

Juan Melendez – one of 150 innocent people who have been released from death row. Witness to Innocence

Juan Melendez spent 17 years, eight months, and one day on Florida’s death row for a crime he did not commit, before being exonerated in 2002 when the transcript of a confession by the real murderer came to light – evidence that had been withheld by the prosecutor. Juan received no assistance and no compensation from the state of Florida in the wake of his exoneration.

Sabrina Butler was a Mississippi teenager convicted of murder and child abuse in the death of her nine-month-old son, Walter Dean. She was later exonerated of all wrongdoing when it was shown that Walter had probably died of a kidney condition and that the bruises on his body were the result of her and a neighbour’s resuscitation attempts. Sabrina returned to her small town where everyone knew her as the “woman who had killed her son”. No one would give her a job. The local prosecutor still maintained her guilt.

Greg Wilhoit was convicted in 1985 of murdering his wife after his attorney appeared in court drunk, vomited in the judge’s chambers and presented no defence. He was convicted on the testimony of rookie dental “experts” who said bite marks on his wife’s arm matched his teeth. At a retrial in 1993, the top US forensic odontologists testified that the mark could not possibly have come from Wilhoit. He was exonerated. He died in 2014 having received no compensation or even an apology from the state of Oklahoma.

The reasons to abolish the death penalty in the US are numerous: it does not deter; it is racially biased in application; it is used almost exclusively on the poor; it is more costly than life in prison; it is torture; and it hypocritically attempts to punish homicide by killing.

That said, no argument against the death penalty resonates more with Americans than the risk of executing an innocent person.

Discovery of innocence

Not until the late 1990s and 2000s did Americans begin to recognise the extent to which innocent people are convicted, incarcerated, and sentenced to death by our courts. This “discovery of innocence” was prompted, in part, by a new network of innocence projects, the use of DNA to exonerate the innocent, and a growing number of more public exonerations every year.

Sabrina Butler was until very recently the only woman to have been exonerated and released from death row. Witness to Innocence

As a result, more than 1,600 wrongfully convicted individuals have been released in the US since 1989; 154 of those innocent individuals have been released from America’s death rows.

As Americans have learned more about the innocent released from death row, they have become increasingly sceptical about the death penalty. Polls document that since the early 2000s Americans have serious concerns about the risk of executing an innocent person. That risk, even more so than lack of deterrence or even racial bias, remains the most powerful reason why individuals oppose the death penalty. Thus, as the public has become more aware of the innocent on death row, support for the death penalty has declined, reaching a 40-year low most recently.

In early June, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown received pardons for innocence from the governor of North Carolina after their wrongful convictions for the rape and murder of a young girl. Brown spent 10 of his 30 years in prison on North Carolina’s death row while McCollum was on death row for all 30 years.

In a telling twist, Justice Antonin Scalia had used Henry McCollum as the exemplar case to justify his pro-death penalty stance two decades earlier. Like Scalia’s argument, support for the death penalty appears to be unravelling.

Death row exonerees, including McCollum and Brown and Melendez, Butler, and Wilhoit, are living witnesses to the damaging effects of the death penalty and the huge risk we take when we give the state the power to punish with death. And while the flaws in our machinery of death are finally receiving overdue attention, the trauma experienced by the innocent who have suffered on America’s death rows is overlooked.

Henry Lee McCollum spent 30 years on death row in North Carolina before being cleared by DNA evidence. Pedro, CC BY

A commonly believed myth is that exonerees receive compensation for their years wrongly incarcerated and assistance with reintegration. Yet, our research shows that many – if not most – death row exonerees return to their communities with little to no assistance with re-entry: no job training, no help finding housing, transportation, mental or physical healthcare, no compensation of any kind.

Turning the tide

The public often last see exonerees on the day of their exonerations – in the courtroom or outside the prison, embraced by family or friends with tears of joy flowing. We do not see them the day after exoneration when the next leg of their journey begins: the aftermath. They must work to rebuild a life taken from them while also confronting the pain and trauma caused by years of wrongful incarceration and the torment of facing execution.

In Life after Death Row: Exonerees’ Search for Community and Identity, we published the first systematic study of the aftermath experiences of death row exonerees in the US.

Using in-depth interviews with 18 death row exonerees around the US, we explore their experiences as they return to their communities and families. They emerge into a world quite different from the one they left with limited (if any) resources to find a place to live and limited (if any) job skills to find employment.

They battle with employers over their felony status as their wrongful capital convictions are not automatically expunged. They require, but often do not have access to, medical and mental healthcare to address years of physical and psychological damage. They grieve family and friends lost while they were on death row, relationships lost, time lost. They struggle to manage the lack of trust, anger and depression that has festered as they sat on death row for crimes they did not commit.

Because of these innocent individuals released from America’s death rows, public concern about wrongful capital convictions is growing, which is turning the tide on support for the death penalty in the US. But the plight of those innocent men and women remains a problem in need of attention and solutions to restore the lives taken from them by a system that is broken.

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