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The Wrongly Convicted

ABSTRACT

When DNA testing was finally proven to be scientifically reliable, the criminal justice system and prosecutors believed that many more suspects would be easily convicted. This was because of the reliable evidence that DNA presented and how it would be extremely difficult for the defense to poke holes and create doubt with this type of evidence available.

However, what was difficult to imagine at the time was how DNA could not only convict suspects at a greater rate, but how DNA could also exonerate those who had been wrongly convicted. Many individuals have spent years behind bars for a crime they did not commit. As bad as this seems, there have been many individuals who have been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. This paper will explore one wrongly convicted individual who was exonerated with the help of DNA testing.

Furthermore, this paper will explore what society does to try and make wrongly convicted individuals whole again. Are some states better than others? Are there ways society helps these individuals adapt to the free world after being locked up for so long? What are the long term effects of being wrongly convicted and how has the criminal justice system tried to prevent individuals from being locked up unfairly?

DOING TIME BEHIND BARS

Imagine being a prosecutor and convicting an individual who had been arrested for the rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl based on witness testimony who placed the defendant with the murdered girl at the crime scene. After a long, drawn out, emotional and saddening trial, the defendant is convicted by a jury and sentenced to death. This would be the ultimate justice for a prosecutor and most likely make him or her sleep well at night.

Imagine eight years later while the defendant is on death row, DNA testing is available and is used to test whether this particular defendant’s bodily fluids were on or inside the murdered nine-year-old girl. What if the DNA testing proved it was not the defendant after all? What if the DNA testing proved it was someone else? For you and me, it would only seem like a nightmare; however, for Kirk Bloodsworth, it was reality and it was his life (InnocenceProject.org 2009).

According to Criminal Justice and America, by Hancock and Sharp, a wrongful conviction is defined as, “those cases in which a person is convicted of a felony but is later found to be innocent beyond a reasonable doubt, generally due to a confession by the actual offender, evidence that had been available but was not sufficiently used at the time of conviction, new evidence that was not previously available, and other facts” (Hancock 2004).]

In 1993 Kirk Bloodsworth was the first death row prisoner whose conviction was overturned based upon DNA evidence. Nevertheless, Bloodsworth was a free man, but his conviction still followed him. After being set free, Bloodsworth went to work for a tool company. He states that many employers were wary of him, especially because he was behind bars for so long. He believed the tool company’s offer of a job would begin to get him back on track. However, as Bloodsworth went to his job everyday, co-workers were hounding him by leaving newspaper articles detailing the crime at his desk, nobody trusted him at work, and no one wanted to be alone with him. After Bloodsworth left his job at the tool company, he went to work as a fundraiser, soliciting donations door-to-door. That was another short-lived career as one home owner immediately recognized him upon opening her door and yelled, “child killer” over and over again as Bloodsworth looked on (Armour 2004).

Bloodsworth’s conviction was based on an anonymous phone call that identified him being with the killer. Hancock and Sharp estimate in their studies of wrongful convictions that eye witness error accounts for 60% of misidentification (Hancock 2004). Therefore, the question becomes, although the murder of a nine-year old girl is tragic, should one eyewitness’s identification be the basis to convict an individual and place him on death row? Moreover, what if the eyewitness identification is given to the police as an anonymous phone call? What was Bloodworth’s chance to defend himself? How can one’s right under the 6th Amendment to the United States Constitution “to be confronted with the witnesses against him” be afforded to Bloodsworth when the eyewitness is anonymous (Hancock 2004)?

One of the hardest parts of being wrongly convicted is being sent back into the real world and trying to find a job. Not only does a wrongly convicted person have the stigma of being in prison for so many years, he does not have the support that the community and prison provide to parolees or other prisoners who have served their time. Parolees get “free job placement assistance, temporary housing and counseling,” while exonerated individuals are basically let out into the free world to fend for themselves. Not only do these individuals have to explain the missing gap on their resume for being incarcerated for so many years as a wrongly convicted individual, they better be in one of the only 18 states that compensate exonerated individuals, or they have no money as well (Armour 2004).

A recent survey concluded that out of 60 exonerated individuals, up to one third become dependent upon family and friends to support them. Individuals who were working before their unlawful arrest do not have a legal right to get their position back although they were unfairly arrested, wrongly convicted, and spent time in jail for a crime they did not commit until they were exonerated. As some exonerated individuals have said, employers ask you what your job history is. What are you going to tell them as an exoneree? “Coming out [of prison], it's like you’re an 18 or 19-year-old again" (Armour 2004).

How does one explain the gaps in their employment history? For someone who has spent five to nine years in a state prison, will an employer consider this valuable work related experience? Is it harmful to the individual’s character if the only friends/associates this exoneree has had for the past number of years have mostly been hardened criminals?

Remarkably, only 18 states currently have compensation support for individuals exonerated for a wrongful conviction. Therefore, there are almost twice as many states that do not have any type of compensation. Of those 18 states that provide some sort of financial assistance, there is a great variance from state to state. For example, Alabama provides a minimum of $50,000 for each year served for a wrongful conviction, while California offers $100.00 a day for each day served. Additional states have the following limits on their financial support for exonerated individuals:

  • Illinois: Maximum $15,000 for up to five years; $30,000 for six to 14 years, $35,000 for more than 14.
  • Iowa: $50 a day for each day served and lost wages up to $25,000 a year, plus attorneys' fees.
  • Maine: Maximum $300,000. No punitive damages.
  • Maryland: No cap on compensation described as "actual damages sustained."
  • Montana: Free tuition to any school in the state's university system.
  • New Hampshire: Maximum $20,000.
  • New Jersey: Capped at twice the amount earned the year before incarceration or $20,000, whichever is greater.
  • New York: No cap.
  • North Carolina: $20,000 a year, total not to exceed $500,000.
  • Ohio: $25,000 a year of incarceration, plus lost wages and attorneys fees.
  • Oklahoma: $175,000 maximum. No punitive damages.
  • Tennessee: $1 million cap.
  • Texas: $25,000 per year of incarceration, total not to exceed $500,000, plus one year of counseling.
  • Virginia: 90% of the average Virginia income for up to 20 years; $10,000 in tuition to enroll in the state's community-college system.
  • West Virginia: No cap.
  • Wisconsin: $25,000 cap.
  • District of Columbia: No cap.
  • Federal government: $5,000 (Armour 2004)

The number of wrongful convictions is increasing at an alarming rate. In the early 1990’s, the rate of wrongful convictions was around 12 per year; however, by 2000 the number was up to 43 per year. Furthermore, since 1989, 328 convictions have been overturned and since 1999 almost half of those have been due to DNA evidence (Armour 2004).

Kirk Bloodsworth lost eight years of his life for a conviction that was based off of unreliable evidence. Due to the advancements in science and with DNA testing, Bloodsworth became a free man, and the actual person who raped and murdered the nine-year-old girl was discovered through a DNA database and confessed to the crime.

Bloodsworth received $300,000 dollars in compensation from the state of Maryland for the time he spent wrongly convicted behind bars. Today he is a consultant for the Justice Project and shares his story all over the world. It is hard to compensate one wrongly convicted for the time lost behind bars, but at least Bloodsworth's story ends on a positive note. What if Bloodsworth was falsely accused in one of the 32 states that do not offer compensation for being wrongly convicted? What would Bloodsworth have done to survive? Could he have turned to a life of crime? Thankfully for this story and the state of Maryland, we will never find out. We can only hope the 32 states with no compensation package will soon change their minds (Exonerate.org 2009).

REFERENCES

Armour, Stephanie. (2004, October 23). Wrongly convicted walk away with scars. USA Today. Retrieved on February 1, 2009 from http://truthinjustice.org/scars.htm

Exonerate.org. Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. Case Profiles- Kirk Bloodsworth. Retrieved on February 3, 2009 from http://www.exonerate.org/case-profiles/kirk-bloodsworth/

Hancock, Barry W., & Sharp, Paul M. (2004). Criminal Justice in America: Theory, Practice and Policy (3rd. ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. InnocenceProject.org. Retrieved on January 31, 2009 from http://www.innocenceproject.org/200/ip_200.pdf