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Life as an Exoneree: An Examination of the Causes and Consequences of Wrongful Conviction

Megan M. Trafford

University of New Haven

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

Contemporary estimates suggest that to date, there have been over 2,400 wrongfully convicted individuals in the United States (Kukucka et al., 2020). In 2021 alone, the National Registry of Exonerations recorded 161 exonerations across the country. As such, proponents of both the Due Process Model and the Crime Control Model should take issue with these figures (Packer, 1968). Not only do innocent individuals spend, on average, over a decade in prison for crimes they did not commit, but the true perpetrators are left to continue committing heinous crimes because of their wrongful freedom (Simms, 2016; Mandery et al., 2013). Existing data suggests that the large proportion of “true perpetrators” in wrongful conviction cases are chronic offenders, thus posing a great threat to public safety, along with inadvertently victimizing the innocent individual who has been forced to serve time for crimes of the offender (Yaksic et al., 2021). Moreover, the extant body of literature often neglects to explore the impacts of wrongful incarceration upon exonerees, a gap that must be filled.

This paper seeks to further our understanding of how wrongful convictions occur and the numerous, widespread consequences of convicting innocent individuals. Widely accepted in the extant literature is the notion that lengthy periods of time spent incarcerated may have a “prisonization effect,” and it is paramount that we understand whether these same effects will be found in the population of wrongfully convicted individuals (Mandery et al., 2013; Sholsberg et al., 2014; Simms, 2016). The prisonization phenomenon is of particular interest, because while true offenders retain their freedom, placing even more innocent individuals at risk of harm, we may, in effect, create criminal offenders through wrongful convictions as well. While many studies have explored the factors leading to wrongful convictions, the body of literature related to readjustment post-exoneration is slim. This paper seeks to synthesize existing literature regarding mental health implications of wrongful imprisonment, along with the future offending patterns of exonerees. Moreover, avenues for future research will be proposed, with a focus on providing suggestions for enhancing reentry assistance for exonerees.


How Wrongful Convictions Occur

A number of factors can lead to a wrongful conviction, including mistaken eyewitness identification of a suspect, faulty eyewitness testimony, false confessions, over reliance on jailhouse snitches, ineffective counsel, police and prosecutorial misconduct, and erroneous use of forensic technology (Clow & Leach, 2015b; Olney & Bonn, 2015; O’Neill Shermer et al., 2011; Ramsey & Frank, 2007; Campbell & Denov, 2004; Grounds, 2004). The single most important factor leading to wrongful convictions is eyewitness error (Campbell & Denov, 2004), but in many cases multiple errors are compounded, thus making them more difficult to identify and rectify earlier in the adjudication process (Ramsey & Frank, 2007). Typically, system errors refer to police, prosecutorial, judicial, or defense misconduct or error, whereas nonsystem errors refer to eyewitness error, false accusations or confessions, and pressure from the community to identify and convict a suspect. Most often in cases of wrongful conviction, system errors “precipitate, exacerbate, and amplify nonsystem errors” (Ramsey & Frank, 2007 p. 444), meaning that there typically is not one person or entity that can be solely to blame for convicting the wrong person.

Eyewitness error is among the most salient factors in wrongful convictions, as eyewitnesses can influence the direction of a given case in multiple isolated instances. From the outset, a witness can erroneously identify a suspect who then becomes the primary focus of the investigation. Misidentification can occur for a multitude of reasons, but two in particular warrant mention. First is the cross-race effect. The cross-race effect, or “own-race bias,” is a phenomenon in which eyewitness identification accuracy is diminished when the perpetrator is of a different race or ethnicity than the witness (McGuire & Pezdek, 2016; O’Neill Shermer et al., 2011). People tend to identify others of the same race more accurately than others of a different race, which has clear implications for instances of wrongful conviction. To illustrate, existing research has found that Black men are represented disproportionately in the population of exonerees, suggesting that the cross-race effect increases the risk that a Black man will be wrongfully identified and convicted for a crime that he did not commit (Olney & Bonn, 2015; O’Neill Shermer et al., 2011; Kleider-Offutt et al., 2017).

Further complicating the accuracy of eyewitness identification is the presence of a weapon during the commission of a crime. Contrary to what one might believe, the presence of a weapon during an offense draws the attention of the witness or victim toward the weapon itself, rather than towards the face of the perpetrator and other potentially important factors of the crime (O’Neill Shermer et al., 2011). In a study conducted by Loftus et al. (2006), surveys were distributed to potential jurors asking respondents questions related to their perceptions of memory and the influence of the presence of a weapon upon memory recall. The authors found that although research has consistently shown that reliability of memory decreases in the presence of weapons, the vast majority of respondents believed that the presence of a weapon would either increase the reliability of memory or have no effect (Loftus et al., 2006). Juror misconceptions about the weapons effect may increase the weight that jurors place on eyewitness testimony, resulting in the wrongful conviction of innocent individuals.

Memory is inherently fallible, and this fallibility often is exacerbated by stress and time delays. Research suggests that stress distorts accurate perceptions of events, particularly when events are violent (Loftus, 1981; Loftus et al., 2006; Wells et al., 1979). While stress is not synonymous with mood, it is worth noting that a study conducted by Thorley et al. (2016) found experiencing a negative mood during the encoding stage of memory did not affect memory recall when participants were in a neutral state at the time of memory retrieval. However, the researchers also found that memory recall would be impaired when witnesses were in a neutral state at the time of encoding, but a negative mood at the time of recall, and perhaps most interestingly, that accurate recall may be enhanced when witnesses were experiencing negative moods at both the time of encoding and retrieval. These findings have important implications for eyewitness identification research, as it can be assumed that the majority of individuals would consider stress during a criminal event to be a negative state impacting mood.

According to Fradella (2006), the more time that passes between encoding, storage, and retrieval of memories, the more difficult it becomes to recall the memory accurately. This is especially problematic within a justice system that promises due process. In the United States, trials are typically delayed anywhere from three to four months after a suspect is identified (O’Neill Shermer et al., 2011). This delay can be extended even longer when accounting for the time it takes for a crime to be reported and investigated, as well as for enough evidence to be gathered to arrest a suspect. During this period of time, many witnesses experience memory decay, and false memories can be created to fill these gaps through discussion of the criminal event with other witnesses, victims, or law enforcement personnel, or through the learning of new “facts” via media and news outlets (Braun et al., 2021).

Eyewitness accounts can be further influenced by police misconduct. Formally known as “noble cause corruption,” some police officers will engage in misconduct or, in the most disturbing instances, blatantly illegal practices in order to identify a suspect (Campbell & Denov, 2004). In a qualitative study conducted by Campbell and Denov (2004), numerous wrongfully convicted participants described blatant instances of misconduct, including brutality, coercion, and outright violations of due process. One participant recanted experiences of physical abuse at the hands of police, disclosing that officers refused to provide him with food, water, and access to the restroom throughout the entirety of his 17.5-hour long interrogation. He also was barred from exercising his constitutional right to have an attorney present. In a similar study conducted by Grounds (2004), six participants expressed that interrogations became so intense that they felt their only option was to confess to the crimes for which they were wrongly accused.

During the investigation of particularly violent offenses, police officers may be under immense pressure from their supervisors, the victim, prosecutors, and/or the media to find the perpetrator (Ramsey & Frank, 2007). As such, officers may experience “tunnel vision,” which results in hyper-focusing on an individual and believing that they are guilty, even in the absence of substantial evidence or the presence of exculpatory evidence (Campbell & Denov, 2004). Under such pressure, officers may resort to conducting unconstitutional lineups (Ramsey & Frank, 2007; O’Neill Shermer et al., 2011). Gibeaut (1997) examined police procedures and found evidence of misconduct during lineups. In one case, a witness was presented with a photo lineup, during which time an investigating officer used body language to influence the identification of a particular suspect. The officer paced behind the witness while she viewed the lineup and proceeded to cease pacing and make eye contact with her until she identified the suspect as the perpetrator, after which the officer verbally affirmed her decision (Gibeaut, 1997). In a similar instance, an exoneree recalled his experience of being forced by officers to wear a hat during a lineup, which would effectively influence the identification, because of the way in which he stood out from the remainder of the group (Campbell & Denov, 2004).


Consequences of Wrongful Convictions

The consequences of wrongful convictions are immense and far-reaching. Exonerees often suffer from debilitating mental health consequences upon release, face discrimination similar to that of guilty offenders, and may consequently commit post-exoneration offenses (Alexander-Bloch et al., 2020; Johnson & Engstrom, 2020; Kukucka et al., 2020; Mandery et al., 2013). Moreover, while an innocent individual is incarcerated for a crime they did not commit, the true perpetrator is free to commit future offenses, thus causing exponential harm to society (Yaksic et al., 2021; Norris et al., 2020). While wrongful conviction research historically has explored the causes of wrongful conviction, more contemporary research has begun to study the mental health implications of being wrongfully incarcerated and later exonerated.


Contemporary Research Methodology

The existing body of literature suggests that post-incarceration, exonerees face substantial mental health concerns, including hypervigilance, depression, anxiety, PTSD, insomnia, difficulty trusting others, self-esteem issues, and substance abuse issues (Alexander-Bloch et al., 2020; Simms, 2016; Johnson & Engstrom, 2020.). Alexander-Bloch et al. (2020) attempted to assess mental health symptoms related to depression, anxiety, insomnia, and PTSD, and to explore the association between these symptoms and individual characteristics of incarceration, such as age at conviction and time spent in prison. The authors recruited thirteen male exonerees from multiple organizations affiliated with the Innocence Project and distributed surveys to the men over the phone, via email, and in person, compensating each exoneree with a gift card for participation (Alexander-Bloch et al., 2020). Demographic information was collected, including race, age, dates of arrest, conviction, and release, and the number of times the exoneree had been justice system involved prior to being convicted erroneously. Participants also completed the Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Checklist, Patient Health Questionnaire, Generalized Anxiety Disorder scale, and the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index. Each of these items has established good or high internal reliability or consistency.

Johnson and Engstrom (2020) similarly explored experiences of wrongfully convicted individuals post-release. Twelve male innocence affiliated clients volunteered to participate in this exploratory study where they answered survey questions related to their post-release experiences with negative mental health symptoms. Participants were questioned about the amount of support they had and needed, any difficulties they faced with reentry, and if challenges to reintegration remained present within the years following release (Johnson & Engstrom, 2020).

Psychological implications of wrongful imprisonment are but one concern for researchers in the field. Research also suggests that exonerees are stigmatized similarly to actual offenders, resulting in experiences of discrimination (Kukucka et al., 2020; Clow & Leach, 2015a; Simms, 2016). As such, Kukucka et al. (2020) sought to explore patterns of employment discrimination faced by exonerees. In this study, the authors randomly distributed job applications to hiring professionals, with the difference between applications being whether the applicant disclosed that they were an offender, exoneree, or that they had no criminal history. Professionals were asked to evaluate the application on its strength and to discuss whether they would move forward with interviewing a given candidate (Kukucka et al., 2020). Moreover, hiring professionals were asked to explain their perceptions of the applicant’s character, including positive and negative qualities, and to discuss how many references they would consider contacting if they were to move forward in the hiring process. Quantitative methods were implemented to attempt to uncover significant effects between criminal history and character judgements, reference contact, starting wage offered, and positive and negative qualities (Kukucka et al., 2020).


Contemporary Research Findings

Overall, reentry for exonerees may be more difficult than reentry for true offenders. Upon the overturning of a wrongful conviction, exonerees are barred from accessing post-release services because they no longer are deemed as participants in the justice system (Alexander-Bloch et al., 2020). Being left to their own devices after surviving the traumatic experiences of incarceration, many exonerees find it incredibly difficult to readjust to life as a free individual, and report experiences of clinically significant sleep disturbances and manifestation of mental health symptoms. Nearly half of the exonerees in Alexander-Bloch et al.’s (2020) study reported experiencing moderate to high levels of depression and anxiety, while five participants experienced clinically significant manifestation of PTSD symptoms, and nearly all of the participants reported severe sleep pattern disturbances. Alexander-Bloch et al. (2020) found evidence that the longer an exoneree is out of the prison environment, the better their mental health becomes, and their sleeping patterns tend to regulate.

Similarly, Johnson and Engstrom (2020) found evidence that exonerees suffer from PTSD in the form of flashbacks, hyper-arousal, and patterns of avoidance. For these exonerees, they are transported psychologically back to prison when they experience certain triggers in their everyday lives that give them flashbacks to their time spent incarcerated. Triggers can also bring on episodes of hyper-arousal, which often result in extreme startle responses or physical aggression directed toward the triggering stimuli, sometimes resulting in physical altercations. For some exonerees, avoiding triggers altogether was a coping mechanism. Not only do exonerees tend avoid large crowds and confined spaces, but some express decision making difficulties. While incarcerated, an officer makes every decision, so upon release, it becomes overwhelming for exonerees to exercise their freedom to choose. One exoneree described that he would rather go hungry than take food from his own refrigerator, because of the way that guards would harm inmates physically if they entered the “cooler” without instruction to do so (Johnson & Engstrom, 2020). The findings of both Alexander-Bloch et al (2020) and Johnson and Engstrom (2020) are supported by the limited body of existing research related to the mental health implications of wrongful incarceration (Simms, 2016; Campbell & Denov, 2004; Clow & Leach, 2015a; Clow & Leach, 2015b; Grounds, 2004).

Research to date also suggests that securing post-release employment is related to successful reintegration and reducing the likelihood of recidivism. Kukucka et al. (2020) found that exonerees face similar hiring discrimination as true offenders, due to the stigmatization from being justice system involved. The researchers found that despite factual innocence, hiring professionals formed unfavorable opinions of exonerees, thus having negative impacts on their ability to secure employment. Moreover, hiring professionals seemed distrusting of exonerees and were more likely to contact multiple references and less likely to offer a decent starting wage. Interestingly, Kukucka et al. (2020) found that hiring professionals viewed exonerees as less intelligent than the control group, perhaps because of the belief that the exoneree played a role in their own conviction. Similar findings of exoneree stigmatization were found in a study conducted by Clow and Leach (2015a), where perceptions of wrongly convicted individuals were explored. Their findings suggest that exonerees face similar discrimination to that experienced by true offenders, particularly the manner in which exonerees are stereotyped as being less intelligent, competent, and trustworthy. In general, society tends to ostracize offenders through social distancing, which may be related to employment discrimination, as employers are hesitant to hire someone who spent time incarcerated (Clow & Leach, 2015a).

Wrongful convictions also have implications for future offending due to the criminogenic effect of incarceration. Compounding these effects is the general lack of resources available to exonerees to aid in their reentry. Mandery et al. (2013) examined the effects of numerous variables on post-release offending by exonerees and found that, when treated as a continuous variable, monetary compensation above the amount of $500,000 significantly reduces post-exoneration offending. However, the authors also uncovered a non-statistically significant effect on post-release offending for those who were not compensated and those who were compensated less than $500,000, with those compensated below the latter threshold actually committing more post-release offenses than those who received no financial compensation (Mandery et al., 2013).


Discussion and Conclusions 

Exonerees face a plethora of barriers to successful reentry, because of their time spent incarcerated and exacerbated by the fact that they were innocent. Although some exonerees experience what is known as “posttraumatic growth” (Johnson & Engstrom, 2020) following traumatic prison experiences, the burden remains on the state to aid in reentry. Research suggests that perceptions of procedural justice impact offending, thus policy should seek to increase perceptions of fair treatment by the criminal justice system post-exoneration (Mandery et al., 2013). A large part of increasing perceptions of fairness by exonerees is through record expungement, substantial financial compensation, and formal apologies on behalf of the state (Mandery et al., 2013; Kukucka et al., 2020; Johnson & Engstrom, 2020). Additionally, because exonerees face employment discrimination, there may be merit in expanding ban the box policies across the country. The drawback in doing so however, may be an increase in racial discrimination (Kukucka et al., 2020). As such, best policy would ensure that the record of a wrongfully convicted individual be expunged in a timely manner, so that exonerees would not have to disclose their erroneous conviction.

Moreover, policy should be implemented with mental health care and compensation provisions. Exonerees should be entitled to similar post-release services as parolees, but they should be tailored to the specific needs of exonerees. These individuals need assistance with securing employment and need extensive mental health services to address their trauma (Alexander-Bloch et al., 2020; Johnson &Engstrom, 2020). Lastly, with evidence suggesting enhanced propensity for offending when exonerees are not compensated financially, states should enact policy that will adequately compensate exonerees. Compensation should not only reduce the likelihood of future offending, but also provide exonerees with the means to obtain housing and to participate in society, similar to how they lived pre-incarceration.  

Future research should aim to procure larger, more diverse samples of exonerees to help gain a broader understanding of the consequences of wrongful imprisonment. Existing studies generally have been comprised of male dominated, small samples of under 100 participants (Alexander-Bloch et al., 2020; Kukucka et al., 2020). Although the population of exonerees is small, and many of these individuals express distrust of the system, beneficial contributions to the existing body of research would be a likely result of utilizing larger, diversified samples in future studies. Comparisons of post-release behavior and psychological impacts should be made between matched groups of exonerees and parolees to disentangle the effects of prison upon the innocent and guilty. Lastly, future research should explore post-exoneration offending in greater depth. Being that prison can have a criminogenic effect, researchers should explore post-exoneration offending through the lens of labeling theory, social learning theory, and strain theory. In conjunction, these theories might suggest that wrongfully incarcerated innocents may turn to crime post-release as a function of strain and labeling, exacerbated by the potential that they learn criminal thinking and behavior patterns from true offenders while incarcerated.



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