Director's Corner: Shining Light on Wrongful Convictions

Light shining through a barred window.

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Every wrongful conviction is a miscarriage of justice that impacts every level of our society, often leading to questions about the fairness of the justice system. Wrongful convictions have a life-long impact on individuals who have been wrongfully convicted, the original victims of crime, and their families. To provide the wrongfully convicted an opportunity to prove their innocence through DNA analysis and to  seek justice for victims of these crimes, NIJ has for years supported state legal offices and university innocence projects in reviewing postconviction cases and testing DNA evidence through the Postconviction Testing of DNA Evidence to Exonerate the Innocent program. To date, the program has awarded almost $41 million nationally and contributed to 31 exonerations.

But wrongful convictions are a complex issue, and a multidisciplinary approach is necessary to prevent and resolve wrongful convictions and ensure the needs of all involved — victims, their families, and the wrongfully convicted—are met. In addition to our forensic science work, NIJ has invested in social science research to identify the causes and factors that may lead to a wrongful conviction. One study by researchers at American University examined 460 violent felonies from 1980-2012 to identify why some innocent people are wrongfully convicted while others are released before a conviction occurs. Dr. Jon Gould discusses the results of this study in a video interview. This work is critical to building our knowledge on how to prevent wrongful convictions and ensure those that are innocent are exonerated, but there’s another side to wrongful convictions that is rarely discussed: their impact on both the exonerated and original victims of crime.

On February 22-24, 2016, NIJ and our partners at the Office for Victims of Crime, Bureau of Justice Assistance, and the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships hosted a listening session with eight exonerees and six original victims. The purpose of this session was to provide an opportunity for victims and exonerees to share their experiences during and after the wrongful conviction process to inform the development and expansion of programs and research supported by the Office of Justice Programs. You can read the notes from this meeting (pdf, 28 pages), but I’d like to summarize a few lessons from the discussion that particularly struck me.

First, the needs are great after a wrongful conviction is resolved, for both the exonerees and the original victims of crime. The correctional and legal system may see this process as complete, but there are numerous challenges just beginning for those exonerated and the victims. Many of these are strikingly similar, though the pain and trauma that the exonerated and victims feel may come from different sources and both groups need individualized, specialized support. In several ways, both the exonerated and the original victims of crime can be seen as victims of wrongful conviction. Some of their key needs mentioned during the listening session, include:

  • The need for support during and after the exoneration process, especially peer support from someone who has already experienced a wrongful conviction.
  • The need for privacy and training on how to deal with the media during and after a wrongful conviction. Often the words used in the press can harm victims and exonerees. I think we’ve all experienced a time when a label has affected our self-esteem and how others view us; imagine how that pain compounds after experiencing a wrongful conviction.
  • The need for a wide array of support services, from mental and physical health support for both victims and exonerees to housing, job training, and assistance getting a new ID for exonerees.

Second, this need for support services after a wrongful conviction is enormous, but the services provided for victims of crime or those recently released from a correctional institution often aren’t available to those who have been exonerated of their crime or to victims who are experiencing a wrongful conviction after years of believing their case was closed. The eligibility criteria of these services should be re-evaluated, and specialized services for those experiencing a wrongful conviction should be created in order to fully support these victims.

Third, the heartbreaking experiences shared during the listening session said a lot about what isn’t working in our criminal justice system — or in our society — when it comes to preventing and identifying wrongful convictions and supporting the victims of these tragedies of justice. NIJ is committed to moving forward with our partners to better understand the impact of wrongful conviction, developing methods for preventing wrongful conviction, and ensuring that the needs of original victims and the wrongfully convicted are holistically met. We are also developing a series of papers that synthesize NIJ’s research on wrongful convictions and the experiences of the exonerated and original crime victims. Subscribe to our publications email list to see when these (and any other NIJ publication) are available

Finally, I’d like to thank the victims and exonerees who participated in our listening session. I can only imagine the level of courage it takes to share one’s experience with a federal justice agency, after a time in their life that gave them every reason to distrust our nation’s justice system. I am humbled by their courage and generosity in sharing their experiences with us so that we can work with our partners to begin to address the challenges they face.

Date Created: July 7, 2016