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Life after Death Row

Life after Death Row: Exonerees' Search for Community and Identity

Saundra D. Westervelt
Kimberly J. Cook
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Life after Death Row
    Book Description:

    Life after Death Rowexamines the post-incarceration struggles of individuals who have been wrongly convicted of capital crimes, sentenced to death, and subsequently exonerated.Saundra D. Westervelt and Kimberly J. Cook present eighteen exonerees' stories, focusing on three central areas: the invisibility of the innocent after release, the complicity of the justice system in that invisibility, and personal trauma management. Contrary to popular belief, exonerees are not automatically compensated by the state or provided adequate assistance in the transition to post-prison life. With no time and little support, many struggle to find homes, financial security, and community. They have limited or obsolete employment skills and difficulty managing such daily tasks as grocery shopping or banking. They struggle to regain independence, self-sufficiency, and identity.

    Drawing upon research on trauma, recovery, coping, and stigma, the authors weave a nuanced fabric of grief, loss, resilience, hope, and meaning to provide the richest account to date of the struggles faced by people striving to reclaim their lives after years of wrongful incarceration.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5339-9
    Subjects: Law, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Tables and Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    Saundra D. Westervelt and Kimberly J. Cook
  5. Part One Setting the Stage

    • [Part One Introduction]
      (pp. 1-2)

      We began interviews with death row exonerees across the country in August 2003. For the next four years, we traveled from eastern North Carolina west to California and from the panhandle of Florida north to Chicago. We interviewed exonerees who had been out of prison for a little over a year and those out for over twenty years. Several had spent one-third to one-half of their lives incarcerated for a crime they did not commit. All had been convicted of capital crimes and told they were no longer worthy of life. All struggled with the ongoing impacts of their wrongful...

    • Chapter 1 Living the Aftermath of a Wrongful Conviction
      (pp. 3-13)

      These data often are used to characterize “the innocent” in the United States, people who have been wrongly convicted of crimes and released from prison because of ample evidence of their factual innocence (as of September 2011).

      138—the number of people exonerated of capital crimes and released from death row since 1973; 9.8—the average number of years they spent in prison awaiting exoneration (

      273—the number of DNA-based exonerations; 13—the average number of years they spent in prison awaiting exoneration (

      340—the number of wrongful (mostly rape and murder) convictions uncovered between 1989 and 2003...

    • Chapter 2 Researching the Innocent
      (pp. 14-28)

      Historically, feminist methodology has emerged within a context of women scholars studying women subjects. Our project expands qualitative feminist methods to women scholars studying (predominantly) men subjects, in this case death row exonerees, by utilizing a life history technique (Atkinson 1998; Lewis 2008; Patton 2002; Tierney 1998). Life history methods, guided by feminist principles, allow the researcher and participants to dialogue as whole persons, to form meaningful and holistic relationships, while mutually aiming to tell participants’ stories with integrity. David Lewis (2008, 560) suggests that using life history techniques reveals “hidden narratives” where researchers can empower participants to tell their...

    • Chapter 3 Introducing the Exonerees
      (pp. 29-54)

      To give context to our analyses, it is important first to introduce the lives and wrongful convictions of our participants. Because the true population of wrongful conviction cases is not known, we cannot generalize the characteristics of these cases to the characteristics of wrongful conviction cases overall. The cases in our study are distinctive in two main respects. First, our eighteen participants have all been convicted of capital crimes and sentenced to death. While to date the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) identifies 138 such cases, the majority of known wrongful conviction cases do not involve capital crimes. For example,...

  6. Part Two Struggling with Life after Exoneration

    • [Part Two Introduction]
      (pp. 55-56)

      When we began this research in 2003, little was known about the lives exonerees led once they left prison. The issue of innocence was emerging in the national spotlight as a significant problem, mainly due to the publicized work on DNA exonerations by the Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School. Wrongful conviction cases began to receive more media attention than they had in the past, including in-depth investigative reports in newspapers and on television shows like 20/20 and 60Minutes.¹ Routinely, the attention focused on the causes of the wrongful conviction, especially the investigation and/or adjudication processes that led to...

    • Chapter 4 Facing Practical Problems
      (pp. 57-71)

      After release, our participants encountered many challenges as they rebuilt their everyday lives, challenges finding housing and employment, treating medical problems, using new technologies. As Gary Gauger adeptly summarizes, “It’s like God, where will I live? How will I do it? What will I do for money? What will I do for work?” They see these challenges as short-term problems confronted immediately upon release and long-term problems lingering continuously since release. We discuss these short-term and long-term problems separately, though they often overlap. For example, finding a job most certainly is both an immediate problem they must confront and a...

    • Chapter 5 Managing Grief and Loss
      (pp. 72-82)

      The feelings of loss and grief were palpable for our participants. Even many years later, they grieve loved ones who died while they were incarcerated and ruptured personal relationships with children, family, and friends. Adrian Grounds (2004, 170) found similar experiences among the eighteen exonerees he evaluated, noting that “all had strong and unresolved feelings of loss.” According to the trauma literature, persistent feelings of grief and mourning over losses and disruptions are common among trauma survivors of all types (Brashers et al. 1999; Erikson 1976; Herman 1997; Williams et al. 2003). Averaging nine and a half years behind bars,...

    • Chapter 6 Rebuilding Relationships
      (pp. 83-90)

      The impact of a wrongful conviction extends beyond the exoneree to include family members and partners (see also Grounds 2004; Sharp 2005). Studies of families of incarcerated inmates and trauma survivors similarly reveal that such experiences are disruptive to the family unit (Austin and Hardyman 2004; Ferraro et al. 1983; Fullerton and Ursano 1997; Jamieson and Grounds 2005; Murray 2005; Travis and Waul 2003; Williams et al. 2003). However, this dimension of the aftermath receives even less attention than the direct impact of the wrongful conviction on the exoneree. But, of course, family members of exonerees watched while their loved...

    • Chapter 7 Negotiating Emotional Terrain
      (pp. 91-104)

      The range of emotions with which exonerees struggle after release is broad and deep and in some cases debilitating. This emotional turmoil interferes with their interpersonal relationships and employment and contributes to dependencies on drugs and alcohol. Few received psychological assistance or counseling upon release and thus face this terrain alone or with the help of family and friends who stick with them through the struggle (Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority 2002). Not surprisingly, our participants describe multiple emotions consistent with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including depression, detachment, disorientation, mistrust, and survivor guilt. In his psychiatric evaluations of eighteen wrongly...

  7. Part Three Coping with Innocence

    • [Part Three Introduction]
      (pp. 105-106)

      The day our participants walked out of prison the challenges described in part 2 were embedded in their daily struggles to rebuild their lives. They all needed to start a new life, to reconnect with partners, children, family, and friends, and to find a place away from the pain and trauma that had consumed them since their wrongful conviction. But with neither help from the state nor official recognition of their innocence, many begin life outside prison bereft of money, a home, employment, and health care and depend on a small group of loved ones who also have been traumatized...

    • Chapter 8 Confronting Life on Death Row
      (pp. 107-128)

      Living under a sentence of death is an extremely stressful experience (R. Johnson 1982). According to Robert Johnson (1982, 140), “Death row is a pressure cooker in which feelings of helplessness, vulnerability, and loneliness are widespread.” Inmates are powerless to control their environment or pursue their own interests and often feel debilitating loneliness to the point where they cry out in the night or, worse, attempt suicide. Inmates are perpetually vulnerable to the brutality of other inmates who need to be “tough” to survive and to the brutality and capriciousness of the guards (R. Johnson 1998). This creates what Robert...

    • Chapter 9 Coping with Life after Death Row
      (pp. 129-167)

      How do you get over being taken from your home, convicted of something you did not do, told you were going to die for it, isolated on death row, incarcerated for many years, and then released back into society just as suddenly as you were first taken, with little assistance, no explanation, and no apology? Or do you get over it? How do you make sense of that experience for yourself and your family? How do you find your place back in your home and community? How do you overcome the many barriers set in your way? These are all...

    • Chapter 10 Reclaiming Innocence
      (pp. 168-192)

      Their wrongful capital conviction and incarceration not only disrupt exonerees’ relationships with others and connections to community but also their sense of self, their identity, and very personal understandings of who they now are as free people. In addition to being abruptly released, they return to communities that may or may not accept their return. Upon release, they discover that others continue to believe in their guilt, that their exoneration and release are inadequate to proclaim their status as innocent people. Some must fight to assert their innocence and reconstruct their reputations as people worthy of trust. Stuck between the...

  8. Part Four Doing Justice

    • [Part Four Introduction]
      (pp. 193-194)

      When we conceived of this project in 2001, little attention had been given to life after exoneration, and few resources were available to assist exonerees in rebuilding their lives. Only fifteen states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government had established compensation statutes, and those had very limited provisions.¹ Award amounts were simply token gestures, not intended to provide substantive relief, and statutes provided no services, such as assistance with housing, employment, or medical care.² At that time, no nonprofit organizations existed to help exonerees after release, and they were excluded from services provided to parolees.³ By the time...

    • Chapter 11 Searching for Reintegration and Restoration
      (pp. 195-221)

      Very little by way of assistance awaits exonerees upon release. What is available varies widely by state and location, may carry so many limitations and exceptions as to render assistance meaningless, and is most likely provided by a local nonprofit agency and not the state. Yet it is the state that is responsible for the situation in which exonerees find themselves (Westervelt and Cook 2010), and exonerees argue that it is the state that should be responsible for assisting them in their transition back into society. But the assistance exonerees seek from the state goes beyond financial relief and social...

    • Chapter 12 Moving Forward
      (pp. 222-238)

      Our participants have conveyed the contours and dimensions of their experiences with wrongful capital convictions. Drawing from these experiences and from the work of other scholars and advocates, we provide here our thoughts and proposals regarding trauma recovery and structural reforms for life after exoneration from death row. According to Judith Herman (1997), recovering from trauma occurs in three stages: establishing safety, mourning and remembrance, and reconnecting in daily life. We have revealed their experiences with establishing safety and security; we have heard their voices of mourning and remembrance for the losses they have endured; and we have examined their...

  9. Epilogue
    (pp. 239-246)

    Here, we provide brief summaries of the lives our participants have led since their exonerations and our interviews with them.¹ We thank Casey Strange for her contributions to early drafts of this section.

    Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Gary Beeman was in and out of jail on drug and alcohol-related charges.² As of 2007, Beeman had been sober and clean for five years and was actively involved in the anti–death penalty movement through organizations such as Witness to Innocence and Journey of Hope. He often speaks about his experiences at colleges and universities and public forums. After becoming clean...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 247-252)
  11. References
    (pp. 253-268)
  12. Index
    (pp. 269-280)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 281-284)