Even After Exonerations, Wrongfully Convicted People Seen in Dark Light

Being exonerated is just the first step - new research shows that even those who were wrongfully convicted face judgement from the outside world


It’s a well-known fact that the justice system isn’t perfect. Every year, people who are completely innocent are convicted of crimes they didn’t commit. Some experts estimate that the wrongful conviction rate is between 4 percent and 6 percent, which translates into 136,000 innocent people behind bars. While technology has helped a bit, like the introduction of things like DNA tests to the courtroom, there are still many people in jail who’ve done nothing wrong. The Innocence Project has exonerated 308 people based on DNA alone. But being exonerated is just the first step—new research shows that even those who were wrongfully convicted face judgement from the outside world.

The study, published in Legal and Criminal Psychology, asked participants to fill out surveys on their attitudes toward three groups: average people, actual offenders and those who had been wrongfully convicted of a crime. Research Digest has the results:

The students rated wrongfully convicted people in a similar way to offenders, including perceiving them as incompetent and cold, and having negative attitudes towards them. Although the students desired less social distance from the wrongly convicted compared with offenders, they preferred to have more distance from them than people in general. And while they expressed more pity for wrongly convicted people than offenders, this didn’t translate into greater support for giving them assistance such as job training or subsidised housing. In fact, the students were more in favor of giving monthly living expenses to people in general as opposed to the wrongly convicted.

While the study is small, these results corroborate what many victims of wrongful convictions feel. For the wrongfully convicted, being exonerated catapults them back into a world that is not particularly friendly to them. Many of them sat in jail for years, and are released without guidance or assistance. In the United States, 23 states have no system of compensation for those who wrongfully spent time behind bars. Take Robert Dewey for example. In 1996, Dewey was sentenced to life in prison for murder. He was exonerated last year after spending 18 years in prison, but told the New York Times that life since then has been extremely difficult:

Because Mr. Dewey had been sentenced to life, he said, he never touched a computer or took any vocational classes while he was in prison. He came out awe-struck by a world that had gone online and turned digital. The first time he walked into a Walmart, he said, he was so overwhelmed by its colors and scale that he had to run outside to smoke a cigarette.

Add to that the “contemptuous prejudice” that people in the study felt toward wrongfully convicted people and you have a hard road for those who did nothing wrong.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Police Can Now Take Your DNA After Any Arrest
Forensic Chemist Who Helped Put Hundreds in Jail Pleads the Fifth to Fraud Charges

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