Over the past two decades, lawyers, journalists and innocence crusaders have exposed flaws in the criminal justice system. But one area of wrongful convictions that remains overlooked, apart from media coverage about multi-million dollar lawsuits won by the few, is how exonerated prisoners struggle to reenter society and rebuild the lives and livelihoods they lost.
Exonerated prisoners encounter a world where they may have no place to sleep and no way to feed or clothe themselves; where family and friends have grown up, grown apart or died; where only 29 states and Washington, D.C., have passed compensation statutes, and even some of these laws fall short; where they continue to experience the stench of lockup and struggle to overcome years of institutionalization, often wrestling with post-traumatic stress disorder. On top of this, in Illinois criminal records are not automatically cleared when judges overturn convictions, interfering with the ability to find work and become part of a community.
These people do not even have a name. No dictionary I have found lists the word “exoneree,” even though as of this writing, there are 1,374 known men and women in the United States whose cases have been overturned since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
They are the voiceless.
Chicago Public Media’s yearlong “Exoneree Diaries” multimedia series on WBEZ takes place in Cook County, Ill., which leads the country in the number of exonerations. It chronicles the struggles of three men after their release from prison – Antione Day, Jacques Rivera and James Kluppelberg.
We introduced these exonerees to our audience in a video, immediately putting a face to those affected by the criminal justice crisis we were to explore. Weekly print pieces bolster the series, and I also have participated in monthly radio interviews and podcasts on WBEZ’s Morning Shift program, bringing in exonerees, as well as other special guests like Sister Helen Prejean of “Dead Man Walking.”
“Exoneree Diaries” is built upon a foundation of hundreds of hours of interviews with the exonerees; their family and friends; criminal justice experts and officials; and lawyers and students. More than 4,000 pages of records, some more than a quarter of a century old, support their accounts, including original trial transcripts; court filings, orders and dockets; police reports; letters; news stories; affidavits and other evidence.
It should be noted that we made the editorial choice to refer to the exonerees (and a few others) by their first names – one, in an effort to invite the reader into their personal stories and two, to restore their dignity after decades of being called by their Illinois Department of Corrections number or by their last name in court filings.
Through an online commentary and podcast, we also have highlighted how the innocence movement has largely left women behind, due to the nature of their cases and institutional sexism within the criminal justice system (See entry: “Is the exoneree movement leaving women behind?”)
Throughout our series, these exonerees have made themselves vulnerable to us, digging deep for their most painful memories. Their stories reveal that release from prison is not the victory it is perceived to be. It is, in fact, just the beginning of another narrative seldom told.