5 Things You NEED to Know About Wrongful Convictions
Wrongful convictions are a very important social, legal, and human rights issue that need to be talked about more. If you don’t know much about wrongful convictions, this post is for you.
1. Exoneration takes years and is not an easy process
Wrongful convictions don’t immediately get overturned. You may think it’s as simple as writing to Innocence Canada and getting a lawyer on your side. Innocence Canada has offices full of boxes and casefiles, it’s not even easy to reach out to them. If any appeals brought forward by an exoneree are successful, the court can either stay the charges, drop the charges completely, or go forward with a new trial. Thomas Sophonow went through three trials before he was acquitted. His first trial ended with a hung jury and so a second trial was called. He was convicted and appealed as the judge didn’t properly present the full defense case. A third trial was called for by the Appeal Court of Manitoba. Thomas was once again convicted but appealed for the same reason as the second trial. He was finally acquitted by the Appeal Court after three trials and 45 months in jail. Exonerees in Canada are never truly officially exonerated. There is no wrongful conviction designation in Canada.
2. Compensation isn’t guaranteed
After being wrongfully convicted for the murder of his girlfriend, whose body was never found, Robert Baltovich sued the Ontario Government for the 8 years he spent in prison. Anthony Hanemaayer was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault in 1987 and was also seeking compensation. Attorney General Chris Bentley claimed that only “rare, unusual cases” of wrongful conviction could be financially compensated and apparently both Baltovich and Hanemaayer didn’t fit into this category. You’d think the government would be willing to make up for the emotional, physical, and mental hardship any exoneree suffered from being imprisoned and convicted for crimes they didn’t commit. It took five years after being exonerated for Ivan Henry’s lawsuit against the province of BC to be properly compensated for his time in prison.
3. The cause of wrongful conviction is human error
If you go to any innocence or wrongful convictions website, they’re likely to list causes of wrongful conviction. These so-called causes include eyewitness error, false confessions, tunnel vision, faulty science, and others. The root of wrongful convictions is human error. It is as simple as that. The difficult thing is that the people in power who make these errors are often unwilling to admit these errors were made. Apologies are not something that the wrongfully convicted get. The legal system is a human system, there’s bound to be the occasional mistake, but we need the government to take responsibility when these errors happen.
4. Exonerees’ criminal records don’t automatically get wiped
A criminal record is something that follows you around, in cases of wrongful convictions, crimes that weren’t committed by the exonerees are stuck on their record unless they apply for it to be expunged. Sabrina Butler was wrongfully convicted of the death of her infant son in Mississippi in 1989. She was exonerated in 1995 and tried to get jobs but was turned down every time. She had to petition the state herself in order to get her record cleared after 17 years of being released. Mandery and Shlosberg (2014) conducted a study looking at 118 exonerees and found that one-third still had their charges on their criminal records even decades after they’ve been exonerated. There are some states that have a process of erasing or sealing criminal records after someone’s been wrongfully convicted, this includes New York and Illinois. And this is just the criminal record, for most exonerees, when you google their name, the crime they were wrongfully convicted of still comes up. They can’t ever escape the effect of the media and prejudice.
5. There is a major lack of resources for exonerees
There is no support for the wrongfully convicted to find when they’re released from custody. Many exonerees spend years in prison and don’t learn about new technologies or how things on the outside change. I heard Kristine Bunch speak once for a class, and she told us a story about using a washroom after being freed where the faucet in the sink was automatic and she didn’t know how to use it. Kristine is an incredible human being who started her own organization to help her fellow exonerees called Justis4Justus. She had to do this because there was no support for her when she got out, she didn’t want others to have to jump through the same hoops and face the same struggles she did. In Canada, we are lacking organizations like Kristine’s.
If you’re interested in learning more about wrongful convictions or if you want to volunteer, follow @wrongfulconvictionscollective on Instagram. You can also check out their podcast, A Whole Life Later on all major podcast platforms.
Shlosberg, A., Mandery, E. J., West, V., & Callaghan, B. (2014). Expungement and post-exoneration offending. J. Crim. L. & Criminology, 104, 353.