Skip to main content

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.

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.

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.

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?

“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.”

Sounds to me that the problem here is that we seem to think that there are people who are below the law.
Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site