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Life after Death Row

Exonerees' Search for Community and Identity

Saundra D Westervelt and Kimberly J Cook

Publication Year: 2012

Life after Death Row examines the post-incarceration struggles of individuals who have been wrongly convicted of capital crimes, sentenced to death, and subsequently exonerated.

Saundra D. Westervelt and Kimberly J. Cook present eighteen exonerees’ stories, focusing on three central areas: the invisibility of the innocent after release, the complicity of the justice system in that invisibility, and personal trauma management. Contrary to popular belief, exonerees are not automatically compensated by the state or provided adequate assistance in the transition to post-prison life. With no time and little support, many struggle to find homes, financial security, and community. They have limited or obsolete employment skills and difficulty managing such daily tasks as grocery shopping or banking. They struggle to regain independence, self-sufficiency, and identity.

            Drawing upon research on trauma, recovery, coping, and stigma, the authors weave a nuanced fabric of grief, loss, resilience, hope, and meaning to provide the richest account to date of the struggles faced by people striving to reclaim their lives after years of wrongful incarceration.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Series: Critical Issues in Crime and Society

Title Page

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pp. iii

Copyright Page

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pp. iv


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pp. v


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pp. vii-viii

Tables and Figures

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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xv

The idea for this project was born in November 2000 at the American Society of Criminology conference in San Francisco, California. I (Saundra) had organized a panel on wrongful conviction issues and asked Michael Radelet to serve as a discussant. Kim, a former student of Mike’s...

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Part I. Setting the Stage

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pp. 1-2

We began interviews with death row exonerees across the country in August 2003. For the next four years, we traveled from eastern North Carolina west to California and from the panhandle of Florida north to Chicago. We interviewed exonerees who had been...

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Chapter 1. Living the Aftermath of a Wrongful Conviction

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pp. 3-13

These data often are used to characterize “the innocent” in the United States, people who have been wrongly convicted of crimes and released from prison because of ample evidence of their factual innocence (as of September 2011)...

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Chapter 2. Researching the Innocent

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pp. 14-28

Historically, feminist methodology has emerged within a context of women scholars studying women subjects. Our project expands qualitative feminist methods to women scholars studying (predominantly) men subjects, in this case death row exonerees, by...

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Chapter 3. Introducing the Exonerees

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pp. 29-54

To give context to our analyses, it is important first to introduce the lives and wrongful convictions of our participants. Because the true population of wrongful conviction cases is not known, we cannot generalize the characteristics of these cases to the characteristics...

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Part II. Struggling with Life after Exoneration

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pp. 55-56

When we began this research in 2003, little was known about the lives exonerees led once they left prison. The issue of innocence was emerging in the national spotlight as a significant problem, mainly due to the publicized work on DNA exonerations by the...

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Chapter 4. Facing Practical Problems

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pp. 57-71

After release, our participants encountered many challenges as they rebuilt their everyday lives, challenges finding housing and employment, treating medical problems, using new technologies. As Gary Gauger adeptly summarizes, “It’s like God, where will I live?...

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Chapter 5. Managing Grief and Loss

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pp. 72-82

The feelings of loss and grief were palpable for our participants. Even many years later, they grieve loved ones who died while they were incarcerated and ruptured personal relationships with children, family, and friends. Adrian Grounds (2004, 170) found similar...

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Chapter 6. Rebuilding Relationships

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pp. 83-90

The impact of a wrongful conviction extends beyond the exoneree to include family members and partners (see also Grounds 2004; Sharp 2005). Studies of families of incarcerated inmates and trauma survivors similarly reveal that such experiences are disruptive...

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Chapter 7. Negotiating Emotional Terrain

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pp. 91-104

The range of emotions with which exonerees struggle after release is broad and deep and in some cases debilitating. This emotional turmoil interferes with their interpersonal relationships and employment and contributes to dependencies on drugs and alcohol...

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Part III. Coping with Innocence

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pp. 105-106

The day our participants walked out of prison the challenges described in part 2 were embedded in their daily struggles to rebuild their lives. They all needed to start a new life, to reconnect with partners, children, family, and friends, and to find a place away from the...

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Chapter 8. Confronting Life on Death Row

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pp. 107-128

Living under a sentence of death is an extremely stressful experience (R. Johnson 1982). According to Robert Johnson (1982, 140), “Death row is a pressure cooker in which feelings of helplessness, vulnerability, and loneliness are widespread.” Inmates are...

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Chapter 9. Coping With Life after Death Row

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pp. 129-167

How do you get over being taken from your home, convicted of something you did not do, told you were going to die for it, isolated on death row, incarcerated for many years, and then released back into society just as suddenly as you were first taken, with little assistance...

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Chapter 10. Reclaiming Innocence

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pp. 168-192

Their wrongful capital conviction and incarceration not only disrupt exonerees’ relationships with others and connections to community but also their sense of self, their identity, and very personal understandings of who they now are as free people. In addition...

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Part IV. Doing Justice

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pp. 193-194

When we conceived of this project in 2001, little attention had been given to life after exoneration, and few resources were available to assist exonerees in rebuilding their lives. Only fifteen states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government had...

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Chapter 11. Searching for Reintegration and Restoration

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pp. 195-221

Very little by way of assistance awaits exonerees upon release. What is available varies widely by state and location, may carry so many limitations and exceptions as to render assistance meaningless, and is most likely provided by a local nonprofit agency and not...

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Chapter 12. Moving Forward

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pp. 222-238

Our participants have conveyed the contours and dimensions of their experiences with wrongful capital convictions. Drawing from these experiences and from the work of other scholars and advocates, we provide here our thoughts and proposals regarding...

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pp. 239-246

Here, we provide brief summaries of the lives our participants have led since their exonerations and our interviews with them.1 We thank Casey Strange for her contributions to early drafts of this section...


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pp. 247-252


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pp. 253-268


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pp. 269-280

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About the Authors

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pp. 281

Saundra D. Westervelt lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with her husband, Van, and their son, Drew. She is an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her broad areas of interest include criminology and the sociology of law, but...

Title Series Information

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pp. 283-284

E-ISBN-13: 9780813553399
E-ISBN-10: 0813553393
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813553832
Print-ISBN-10: 0813553830

Page Count: 296
Illustrations: 6 figures
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Critical Issues in Crime and Society

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Death row inmates -- United States.
  • False imprisonment -- United States.
  • Prisoners -- Deinstitutionalization -- United States.
  • Ex-convicts -- United States -- Psychology.
  • Ex-convicts -- United States -- Social conditions.
  • Ex-convicts -- Services for -- United States.
  • Judicial error -- United States.
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