The Damage Caused By Wrongful Convictions Is Not Repaired By Exoneration Alone

 

William “Bill” Dillon sings about his journey to freedom

William “Bill” Dillon was wrongfully convicted in Florida for the murder of forty-year-old James Dvorak in 1981. It would take over twenty-seven years for Dillon to clear his name. The prosecution secured the conviction based on a bloody shirt found at the crime scene and testimony provided by John Preston and his “scent-tracking” German Shepherd. Preston testified in over 100 trials, convincing juries that his dogs had the capability of tracking human scent, no matter what the circumstances. He was able to convince a jury that his dog picked up Dillon’s scent outdoors,  eight days after the murder in an area where a hurricane had just blown through. Preston had testified in previous trials that his dogs could track scent under water.

Thankfully Preston was exposed by a Florida judge in 1984. The judge questioned the abilities of Preston’s dogs and set up a test to see one of his dogs in action. The dog failed the judge’s test leading the judge to conclude that Preston’s dogs were only successful when coached in advance. Unfortunately Preston’s demise came too late to be of any help to Bill Dillon.

As it turns out, the bloody shirt used as evidence against Dillon in 1981, would be the same evidence used to set him free in 2008, thanks to DNA technology not available at the time of his conviction. DNA recovered from the shirt proved that Dillon had absolutely nothing to do with the crime.

Dillon walked out of prison in 2008 to a world that he had not seen in nearly three decades. His exoneration did not put an end to the hardship caused by his wrongful conviction. He described the situation he was faced with on his website:

 “I was  given nothing to  re-establish my basic life needs. I was told I would have to get a lawyer and submit a special claims bill in the Florida Legislature to fight for any means of financial compensation. I had difficulty getting  employment because of the black cloud that hung over my head. I found myself completely broke and adjusting to a new world that had no services in place for innocent people whose lives were taken away by a faulty , or in many cases, a corrupt system of justice.  Many people are shocked to find out that parolees, who were guilty of their crimes, have multiple types of state and federal services for them to access after release from prison. However, innocent exonerees have nothing.”

Dillon was eventually awarded compensation from the State of Florida. He has founded an organization called “The William Dillon Freedom Foundation“ to help other exonerees and has also started a band. Dillon now delivers his message through his gift of music using lyrics that he wrote while in prison.

Dillon’s story is inspiring and it is fantastic to see him enjoying life. Unfortunately many exonerees never reach anywhere near the same level of happiness. The truth is a great number of exonerees never receive compensation of any kind. According to a 2009 report by the Innocence Project, sixty percent of people exonerated by DNA testing have received some form of compensation. That percentage is much higher than those who have proven their innocence by other means. For instance, many states prohibit compensation for exonerees that were wrongfully convicted based on a false confession.

Michael Williams holding  his $10 compensation check

Michael Williams was convicted in 1981 for aggravated rape in Louisiana. Post conviction DNA testing exonerated him in 2005. After serving twenty-four years for a crime he did not commit, Louisiana was kind enough to provide Williams with a $10 check and a bus ticket. Shortly after his release Williams explained his situation to Wall Street Journal: “When you are in prison for as long as I was, people either think you must be guilty or at least damaged. It’s been lonely. Very lonely.”  Williams was finally compensated after a four year legal battle, receiving $150,000, amounting to $6300 per year of incarceration.

In 2007, the New York Times conducted a study on 137 exonerees. Sadly they found that half of those interviewed struggled to survive daily life. Many were unable to find work and those who had were unable to hold onto the job. Homelessness or dependence on others for shelter was also reported. More than two dozen exonerees told the New York Times about their battles with drug and alcohol addiction. Research conducted by The Innocence Project concluded that many exonerees suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and premature aging.

Time plays a major factor for exonerees trying to work their way back into society. Most convictions come very fast with trials lasting as little as a few days. Proving innocence on appeal can be expected to take many years.  According to Centurion Ministries, it takes an average of five to ten years of dedicated work before inmates can have a realistic hope of securing freedom. Bill Dillon will be the first to tell you that many cases take much longer.

Those fortunate enough to gain their freedom on appeal are quickly hit with the harsh reality that the world has passed them by. The world they once knew kept moving forward as their lives were forced to a dramatic halt. Many find they lack basic job skills to obtain adequate work. Many have never used a computer or even held a cell phone. It is very difficult to account for these deficiencies without having to explain their ordeal over and over again to possible employers. They are also faced with the possibility that a background check will be conducted, leading to more questions.

Many may be surprised to find out that being exonerated does not automatically give you a clean record. Expungement is a separate legal process that can drag out for years. This must change. Exonerees have already proven their innocence in court, it is absurd to force them to prove their innocence all over again in order to clear their record.  Exonerees should not be looked at as ex-convicts. They should not have to explain their wrongful conviction and exoneration at job interviews, when applying for loans, or when negotiating a lease with a landlord.

Besides the burden of trying to achieve financial stability, exonerees are also faced with the challenge of reuniting with family members. This would be expected to be a joyful event (which is often the case), but the process can also cause a great deal of stress for all involved. The immediate shocking reality of how much as been missed is unavoidable. Exonerees now see in person that family members have relocated, loved ones have inevitably passed away, and children have become adults. Exonerees may find themselves feeling guilty that they missed seeing their children grow up. Children of exonerees may feel a disconnect due to the fact that their parent has been absent from their lives for a long period of time.

Michael Morton (pictured on right) takes a deep breath of fresh air as a free man.

Michael Morton was wrongfully convicted in 1987 of murdering his wife Christine. Morton vehemently denied any involvement in his wife’s murder from the day he became a suspect until the day of his exoneration in 2011. Morton was devastated by the conviction. In an interview with 60 Minutes, Morton said his young son Eric gave him the strength to carry on. Eric was only three-years-old at the time of the murder and was obviously too young to understand what happened to his mother. Morton was allowed to see Eric for two hours, once every six months. When Eric turned twelve or thirteen, he wrote his father a letter telling him that he did not want to come visit him anymore. A notice was delivered to Morton shortly thereafter letting him know that his son was being adopted by his sister-in-law and her husband. The only hope Morton had was now lost.

Morton’s case is sad on many levels. A son lost his father and a father lost his son, all due to a wrongful conviction. Morton’s son was faced with many unanswered questions about his father, and Morton’s family was faced with the responsibility of raising a child under extraordinary circumstances. Thankfully, now that Morton has been exonerated,  he has been able to reunite with his son and they will hopefully be able to pick up the pieces and begin a new life together.

Wrongful convictions cause irreparable damage for all involved. We must do more to help those who have suffered through the nightmare of being incarcerated for a crime they did not commit.  It is astonishing to see many exonerees receive no compensation whatsoever for the years they have lost. There are currently 23 states that offer no compensation and provide no assistance of any kind for exonerees. Many of the 27 states that do offer compensation have outdated laws that offer minimal monetary compensation.

Research shockingly shows that ex-convicts have many more options for seeking assistance in the United States than exonerees have. Many programs set up to help exonerees are often run by fellow exonerees. Why are these people who have been subjected to undeserved severe hardship at the hands of our justice system being left to fend for themselves? The current situation that exonerees face is an embarrassment to the United States.

Compensation laws need a major overhaul. Exonerees not only deserve the federal standard recommendation of $50,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment, they should also receive immediate assistance with housing, transportation, education, job placement, and health care.

Legislators must work to pass compensation laws in states that currently have no legislation on the books. States that already offer some form of compensation must reevaluate their current statutes to bring them up to the current federal recommendations.

Please visit Injustice-Anywhere.org to see if your state provides compensation for exonerees. It is up to the citizens of the United States to demand reform. If your state is lacking when it comes to exoneree compensation, please stand up and take action. Contact your state representatives today.