Sociology professor’s book explores life after death row

Article by Betsi Robinson, University Relations

Imagine losing 10, 15, 20 years of your life, convicted of murder and sentenced to death for a crime you did not commit.

Imagine losing the opportunity to get married, start a family and watch your children grow up. Missing vacations, birthdays, graduations, and weddings.

Saundra D. Westervelt, an associate professor of sociology at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Kimberly J. Cook, chair of the Department of Sociology and Criminology at The University of North Carolina at Wilmington, traveled the country to meet 18 death row exonerees who experienced such losses. Their new book, “Life After Death Row: Exonerees’ Search for Community and Identity,” chronicles the exonerees’ struggles to reclaim their lives after being set free and examines how policy changes could mitigate those struggles for others.

“They were basically ignored and neglected, and very few of them received assistance or compensation when they got out. It seemed like the part of the story that absolutely had to be told,” Westervelt says.

“Short of being executed, they’ve had one of the most tragic things that can happen to you in the criminal justice system happen to them.”

Few exonerees (to date 141 death row exonerees have been released from prison, according to the Death Penalty Information Center) receive compensation for a wrongful conviction and imprisonment or help acclimating to life outside of prison. Only 27 states have compensation statutes.

Saundra Westervelt
Saundra D. Westervelt, Associate Professor, Sociology

“It’s amazing when you meet people who have had 15 or 20 years of their life taken from them. You wonder how they function at the end of the day,” Westervelt says. “It seems so tragic to me that we as a system would do that to our citizens and then not provide them with any kind of help once we realized we’d done it. It is tragic to have it happen, but the true tragedy was how invisible they were once they got out.”

Only two of the 18 exonerees interviewed for the book were offered compensation by their states, and one of those had to wait 14 years to get it, the professor said.

Some of the others sued and eventually won compensation through the court system, but did not receive what they were due until three or four years after their release.

“They needed a place to live, something to pay the rent with, eat on, buy clothes with, pay for counseling and get some job skills. They didn’t have it when they needed it,” Westervelt says. “How do we do that to somebody and not help them when they get out?”

For most of the exonerees, finding employment was a formidable roadblock. They’d been behind bars for years and the pace of technology had eclipsed any skills they may have had. And they still had murder convictions on their records. (In most states, getting a criminal record expunged is a separate process.)

“Everything revolves around employment,” Westervelt says. “You need a job to provide for basic everyday needs. It gives them structure to their lives. It gives them health care.”

The exonerees struggled over the long term with managing the anger and grief they felt because of everything they had lost – time, opportunities, relationships, careers, good health, their sense of security. But typically they didn’t have the resources to get the professional help they so desperately needed, she says.

“We argue for better compensation statutes. We also argue that compensation doesn’t make it all better. We like to think if we throw money at it, it makes it better,” Westervelt says. “But they need reintegration services. They need job skill services, they need education, they need counseling — you think it, they need it.”

The authors also argue that people in the criminal justice system should own up to the role they played in the miscarriages of justice and take part in exonerees’ reintegration into their communities.

“Part of the continuing trauma for exonerees is that oftentimes prosecutors continue to insist on their guilt publicly, and that just keeps the public conflicted, at best, if not believing they got out on a technicality of some kind,” Westervelt says.

“If you ask them what they want the most, they just want somebody to apologize to them. They just want somebody to own it, to say, “Gosh I’m so sorry this happened to you and we will try to make sure it never happens to somebody else. …But they rarely get that. Usually they get the opposite.”

“Life After Death Row: Exonerees’ Search for Community and Identity,”  296 pages, is published by Rutgers University Press

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