Saturday, October 27, 2012

Uprooted and Dislodged: The Experience of Exoneration

A few years ago in Cleveland.  Maybe 6 or 7 of us were walking back to the hotel after a dinner party for speakers at the seminar for capital defense lawyers.  All but one were lawyers.  The one was Ray Krone, the 100th person to be exonerated from death row. 

He'd been convicted of kidnapping, raping, and murdering Kim Ancona in 1991.  In fact, he'd been convicted of it twice.  Except Ray didn't do it.  It was, instead a guy named Kenneth Phillips.  Ray was wholly innocent.  He'd been convicted based on junk science by an incompetent self-proclaimed forensic dentist.  And he was at the seminar to tell his story, to remind the practicing lawyers there that we were dealing with real people with real lives.  And that, at least sometimes, they were really truly factually innocent.  Ray does a lot of these speaking gigs now.  He talks to lawyers and activists and legislators.  Telling his story.  Standing up, as the organization he helped found says, as a Witness to Innocence.

Anyway, we were walking back to the hotel when some guy came up to us looking for a handout.  Maybe he had a story.  Maybe he said something about needing money to feed his family.  Maybe he just wanted cash to buy a bottle of something or some controlled substance. Maybe he just stuck out his hand at this bunch of guys walking together and talking, looking much better off than he did.  I don't remember.

Here's what I remember.  Most of us were set to just keep walking.  Ray reached into his pocket and gave the guy something: a five or a ten or a twenty.  Whatever it was, one bill and more than a single.  And as if on cue, the rest of us reached into our pockets and matched what Ray had done.  I'm pretty sure the guy didn't know just how he'd hit the mother lode, but he knew he had.

See, for Ray Krone it's not theoretical.  He's stared right at the gates of hell.  Shit, he entered.  And he's one of the comparatively lucky ones who came out the other side.  And by his example, he shamed those of us who do this work, care about the work and the guys.

Because it's not just our clients and our cause.  There are lots of people who need help.  Who have been beaten.  Who are lost.  There's only so much we can do, but there's always more.

OK, really, I just wanted to tell that story, not to moralize.  And I wanted to tell that story as a lead in to talking about an absolutely terrific and important book, Life after Death Row: Exonerees' Search for Community and Identity, written by a couple of academic sociologists, Saundra D. Westervelt and Kimberly J. Cook. 

What they did was track down and interview 17 men (including Ray Krone) and one woman who were exonerated after having been sentenced to be killed. 18 people who were, per the title of another book, Back from the Dead.*

They weren't interested in how these men and women managed to get convicted of murder and sentenced to die even though they were factually innocent (though they give quick summaries of how it happened).  That's an important subject that's been written about a fair amount.  See, for instance, Actual Innocence: When Justice Goes Wrong and How To Make It RightFalse Justice: Eight Myths That Convict the Innocent; or Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong just to name three. Nor were they interested in how they managed to get relief, though that's there, too.  Nor was it about how they lived on death row and then (for most) in general population.  

What Westervelt and Cook tackle here is the far less sexy topic: What happens now? 

One day you're in prison, maybe on death row.  You've been convicted of being a monster.  The jury said you should be killed for what you did.  You know you didn't do it.  You've been trying, maybe for years, to make people see that.  And there's this scimitar hanging over your head, waving and waving and getting closer to your neck.  And you're this innocent guy trapped in a nightmare, living in a cage, alone, isolated, maybe abandoned by family and friends who didn't realize what a fiend you are.  Except you're not.  And then one day, almost out of the blue.

Gary Gauger, "I didn't know I was going to be released until the day I walked out the door."  Gary James learned the night before - when he saw it on the 11 o'clock news.  A guard slipped a note under Charles Fain's door telling him a couple of journalists wanted to talk with him; he was on the street three hours later.
Scott Taylor found out by watching his pardon announced on television.  The guards took him immediately from his cell to another part of the prison to process his release, although the prison administrators were confused about what paperwork to file.  They too had had no time to plan.
And then? It's not like they gave these folks a few thousand bucks to get back to home, wherever that might be, and stay in a hotel until they found a place to live and then a job and, hell, even a bunch of new clothes.  Parolees get services.  They may be shitty, oppressive, unfair, even cruel.  But there are services.  People who've served out their whole sentence may do time in a halfway house to give them a chance to ease back into society, to learn about how the world has changed while they've been away, to find a place to live and a job and . . . .

These guys (and the gal) got zip.  Sabrina Butler:
No money.  No nothing.  They didn't give me jack! They just took the handcuffs off me and sent me out the door.
Hey, what'd she need?  Five and a half years in prison, two and a half on death row.  Everyone figures she murdered her baby boy.  But she's innocent.  That's cool.  She knows.  We let her go.  What more could she want?

Maybe family took them in.  But maybe family wasn't all that sweet, and how long do you want to spend sleeping on some relative's couch when you can't pay for food and you're just clogging their space and maybe can't stand to be touched because fuck, you've been locked up in a place with two rigid codes of conduct - one from the guards and one from your fellow inmates and suddenly you can do what you want as long as it doesn't actually involve stepping outside or dealing with the world.

They come out with PTSD but no mental health services.  They come out into a community where maybe there are still folks who think they got out on a technicality and really are the monsters who should have been killed just like the jury said.

That's what Westervelt and Cook look at.  Through the words and stories of these 18 men and woman.  This is what it's like for us, they say.  And though it varies from person to person, and they each deal with the problems and possibilities in their own ways as controlled, in part, by their circumstances, the commonalities are real.

I've met a few of these 18.  I've spoken on panels with them, had dinner with them, spent hours talking with them.  I've read and heard the stories of some of the others.  Their voices are powerful because they speak from the heart and know, from experience, what the rest of us can only imagine.  And often imagine wrong.

Their message, through Westervelt and Cook is clear (though for the non-academic it sometimes seems a bit jargony and, well, academic):  They need to be reintegrated into society.  They need resources - not just financial though god knows they deserve compensation - but also services (mental health, medical, job training and placement, housing, social work). 

They need to learn to deal with grief and loss.  Kirk Bloodsworth's mother died 5 months before he was exonerated and released.
Five months.  That's all it was.  Five months.  She was gone.  I had to view her body in handcuffs, shackles and leg chains for five minutes. I couldn't even go to the funeral.  It had literally killed her, this mess.  She wouldn't go see a doctor because it cost too much money.  She was always looking out for me.  She hadn't bought a dress . . . she hadn't bought nothing. . . . She didn't want to spend the money for looking after me.  It was Christmas of 1992 and she came [to the prison to tell me she was dying]. It was the last time I seen her alive.
Bloodsworth remembered when he first returned to his childhood home after his release to find his mother's clothes still hanging in the closet.  He nestled into the clothing and surrounded himself with her things and her smell.
Of course the loss is not just the exoneree's.  Westervelt and Cook write,
It is misguided to think that the impact of a wrongful capital conviction is felt only by the exoneree.  While the exoneree certainly bears the brunt of the aftermath, the ripple effects of the loss, grief, and stigma are felt by all of those within their immediate circle of support. 
As Greg Wilhoit said, describing his relationship with his parents after he was released,
Our anguish was overlapping.

Perhaps more than anything, what they need is what they are most consistently denied: An apology.

These folks didn't end up on death row by accident.  Police arrested them.  Prosecutors tried them.  Juries and judges convicted and sentenced them.  And then, all too often, police and prosecutors hid evidence that they were innocent or fabricated evidence that they were guilty or just fought to deny them the opportunity to (as I keep writing) test the fucking DNA.  Or maybe it was just a good faith mistake.  

The fact though, is that no matter how you cut it, however it happened, these folks were wronged.  As is every person convicted of a crime he or she didn't commit.  And the system, that vaunted system that fights the efforts to free them, that denies there are mistakes, that even denies, some, that these folks are innocent, well, systems don't apologize.

But people can.  The prosecutors who told the jury.  The cops who told the prosecutors.  The jurors who told the judge.  The judges who told the lawyers.  They should stand up.  Admit it.  We fucked up and you suffered for it.  Open and honest remorse and apology would go a long way.  (And, I might add, punishment for those who lied and cheated and broke the rules to ensure convictions - or to keep them in place.)

Life after Death Row stands on its own as a cry for us to reconsider how we treat people.  Not just exonerees, but all those who we victimize and then virtually abandon.  They need and deserve more than we provide.  Much more.

Life hasn't been easy for these folks.  They've dealt with drug abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, poverty, ostracism.  They've been charged and convicted of new crimes. (One, Joseph Green "Shabaka" Brown was charged with the murder of his wife last month.)
They emerge profoundly altered people into a foreign world, uprooted and dislodged from all they knew before.
A couple of months ago I reviewed Killing McVeigh: The Death Penalty and the Myth of Closure. It talks about how the survivors deal with their loss and grief and the system.  Life after Death Row takes us to another place, another group, seemingly so different.  Yet surprisingly needy of some of the same things.  

Frankly, these people should be talking to each other.  The good news is that through their books, they can talk to the rest of us.  Who should be paying attention.

*Back from the Dead: One Woman's Search for the Men Who Walked off America's Death Row, Joan Cheever's curious, sometimes wondrous and sometimes annoying story of tracking down and meeting many of the men who were removed from death row in 1972 when the Supreme Court declared that all current capital punishment laws were unconstitutional.


  1. Thank you for the answers to the questions I had.

  2. A very powerful and awe-inspiring piece. I think after opening with the Krone story you could have talked about getting a double root canal, and the writing still would have resonated with readers.

    1. Interesting that you put Ray Krone and dental work together. He was convicted largely on the basis of junk science (and shoddily done junk science at that) - forensic odontology (bite-mark comparison). Ray's teeth were seriously messed up. After he was exonerated, he went on Extreme Makeover and they fixed his teeth.

    2. Jeff...sorry to say that I just ran across your commentary on our book. Kim and I are deeply gratified that you found it so useful in illuminating the plight of Ray Krone and the other 142 death row exonerees in the US. Thank you for helping us shed light on this part of the story that so rarely gets told.

  3. As I said, it's a terrific book. And I guess I owe you an apology since I'd meant to send you a copy of the review when it went up.