There's an alarming story in today's New York Times about the perils often faced by those who have convictions overturned. Often, felony convictions remain on the books even after being thrown out, making it hard for them to rebuild their lives.
Across much of the country, sealing or clearing a criminal record after a wrongful conviction is a tangled and expensive process, advocates and former prisoners say. It can take years of appeals to courts and pleas to governors to wipe the slate clean. Even then, many felony convictions remain on federal databases and pop up during background checks or at traffic stops.In many cases, even after being exonerated, people still find themselves having to prove their innocence all over again. In some states, only a gubernatorial pardon can completely clear your name.
Aside from the practical challenges — a criminal record can impede big things like finding housing and employment, and smaller things like getting a hunting license — people who have been exonerated say they feel unfairly marked, branded with a scarlet letter from a justice system that should not have locked them up in the first place.
One of the most gut-wrenching cases highlighted in the story is that of Sabrina Butler. A Mississippi court sentenced her to death in 1989 for killing her son; police thought she'd beaten him to death. In truth, she was trying to perform CPR. The state supreme court threw out her conviction in 1992, and she was acquitted at a second trial in 1995. However, she got an unpleasant surprise when she tried to buy a gun--her original conviction was still on the books. After years of being turned down for jobs, the conviction was finally removed in 2012.
Another is that of Aubrey Edmunds, who was convicted in 1996 of shaking a child she was babysitting to death. However, she was exonerated in 2008 after an avalanche of evidence cast doubt on the original finding that the girl had died of shaken baby syndrome. Still, Edmunds was rejected for no fewer than three jobs because the original conviction is still on the record.
As surreal as it may seem, even when DNA proves you're innocent, it may not be enough to clear your name. Take the case of Vincent Moto, for instance. He was convicted of rape in 1987, but the conviction was thrown out in 1995 after DNA testing revealed Moto's DNA wasn't on the victim. However, when he tried to expunge his record in 2007, Pennsylvania fought that effort, arguing that it still believed Moto was the perp. Ultimately, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the conviction had to stay on his record. Moto has been unable to find steady work, and survives on a federal disability check.
Sadly, even for those who clear their names, it's not the end of the minefield.
Researchers have found that high percentages of the wrongfully convicted slide into poverty or substance abuse as they struggle to rebuild a life outside prison. How do you explain a 10-year gap on a résumé? How do you answer a yes-or-no question from a prospective employer asking whether you have ever been convicted of a felony?Sounds to me that the problem here is that we seem to think that there are people who are below the law.
“Employers, if they see a homicide conviction, dismissed or not, they’re not going to get past that,” said Saundra Westervelt, an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who has written extensively about exonerated death-row inmates. “The conviction is still there. You’re stuck.”