We learned last week that three men, incarcerated for 36 years in Maryland, were exonerated of the murder of 14-year-old DeWitt Duckett. This tragic failure of our criminal justice system is a shameful stain on our nation, and the reverberations of this miscarriage of justice will be felt for generations. Though finally free, these men will experience numerous challenges as they reenter their communities, readjust to their daily lives and address the complex trauma they have experienced.
Yet they aren’t the only ones who will be forever changed by these wrongful convictions. The original victims in these cases, along with their family members, also feel the reverberations when people are released after serving time for crimes they had nothing to do with. I should know. It happened to me. In 1984, as a college student, I was brutally raped at knifepoint. Following the terrifying ordeal, which I barely survived, I was asked by police to participate in the investigation through an eyewitness identification process.
Unknown to me, police had focused on a local man, Ronald Cotton, and had placed him in the police line up. Also unknown to me, my actual attacker was not in the line up. A decade after his conviction, DNA evidence proved Mr. Cotton’s innocence and identified the actual assailant, a serial rapist named Bobby Poole. Mr. Poole had gone on to rape numerous other women before finally being apprehended.
I was devastated to learn that the wrong person had been convicted. However, I also knew that I had done my best in the wake of my attack to help catch my assailant. I was not the one who caused the mistake; it was the police procedures, now known to be fallible, that were the problem. The vast majority of wrongful convictions are the result of actual mistakes in which the criminal justice system failed because of flawed interview or investigative procedures.
The blame, however, is often placed on the original victims, who are vilified for their “participation” in identifying the wrong person. We should never blame the victim when this happens, especially in cases where the procedure creates mistakes in the memories of eyewitnesses, particularly those who have been recently traumatized by violent crime. It is simply not our fault.
Take for example, the case of another survivor from North Carolina. When she was 12 years old, a stranger broke into her home and assaulted her while she was asleep in her bedroom. Though only a child, and both terrorized and traumatized by the attack, she did her best to assist police with apprehending the assailant. A man was charged and convicted of the crime, but 17 years later DNA testing led to his exoneration. While the true perpetrator was ultimately identified and convicted, the exoneration process caused the survivor to feel re-victimized and re-traumatized and forced to begin the healing process all over again. There were no services and no support for her or her family to deal with this explosive discovery.
Post-conviction exonerations also cause deep pain and suffering to the families of murder victims, who are devastated to discover that the person who killed their loved one was not caught and are forced to relive the trauma and victimization of the original crime. Most of these families only learn of the exoneration through the media, with no prior notification, and most feel they have nowhere to turn to get their questions answered or needs addressed.
As a result of my experience, I started a non-profit called Healing Justice in 2015 dedicated to addressing the harm caused to all in these cases. Through our work, we provide services for victims, exonerees and their family members. In 2016, we were awarded a competitive grant from the Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime to create practical tools for criminal justice practitioners, as well as develop peer support materials for crime survivors and their families. This was a major step forward, but there is much more to be done.
It is paramount to remember that for almost every exoneration, there is a crime survivor who was the first person to be impacted. It is important to provide advocacy and support for these victims, as they are often forgotten and blamed and, as a result, suffer unimaginably. By recognizing the wide-reaching impact of exonerations, we can have a profound and measurable effect on all the individuals and communities touched by wrongful conviction.