Wrongly convicted walk away with scars
By Stephanie Armour, USA TODAY
Ocober 13, 2004
Even after his pardon, they called Kirk Bloodworth a child killer. After nearly nine years in prison, Bloodworth walked away in 1993 when DNA tests showed he was wrongly convicted of raping and murdering a 9-year-old girl.
He was now a free man, the first death row prisoner exonerated because of DNA evidence. But his trials weren't over.
Employers were leery of hiring someone who'd spent so long in jail. When he landed a job at a tool company, co-workers left newspaper clippings about the crime at his workstation. Suspicions followed him like a shadow. Bloodworth got a door-to-door fundraising job, but a homeowner recognized him and began yelling "child killer" at him as Bloodworth stood on the front stoop.
"I never got a fair shake," says Bloodworth, 44, of Cambridge, Md., who works as a crab fisherman on his boat, Freedom, and is a program officer with The Justice Project, a group that campaigns for criminal justice reform. "It's hard to come back to this world and be accepted after you've been in prison so long, especially to the workplace. That's very sad."
With the advent of DNA testing, more prisoners are being freed after wrongful convictions. The pace of exonerations has jumped sharply, from about 12 a year through the early 1990s to an average of 43 a year since 2000, according to a study by the University of Michigan. There have been at least 328 exonerations since 1989, and about half of those since 1999 were based on DNA evidence. There are at least 41 Innocence Projects in 31 states providing legal assistance to inmates.
But as the number of exonerees grows, concerns are mounting about the difficulties these former prisoners experience in finding employment once they're free. While prison parolees typically get free job placement assistance, temporary housing and counseling, the exonerated often are released into an employment no-man's land.
They get scant help finding work. They have résumé gaps from spending years in prison. The average time from conviction to exoneration is more than 11 years, according to the University of Michigan study. They often get little more than a new overcoat or bus money.
Only 18 states, the federal government and Washington, D.C., have laws for compensating the exonerated. Compensation can take years to get, and the laws often aren't used by exonerees because they may need an official pardon or a court must declare them innocent.
Compensation amounts can vary widely. Some states, such as West Virginia, have no cap on the amount that can be received; others, such as Maine, set a maximum of $300,000.
Employers are leery of hiring convicts who may have been wrongfully convicted. Job skills are so obsolete that some exonerees have never sent an e-mail or typed on a computer.
A large number of these men — more than 95% are men, according to the Michigan study — grapple with emotional problems. Some have narrowly escaped execution on death row. Others have been assaulted by other inmates or kept in isolation. Many are angry. Some resort to crime after their release.
"Innocent people do some of the hardest time. They never reconcile themselves to why they're in prison. They feel their lives have been taken away," says Justin Brooks, executive director of the Innocence Project chapter at California Western School of Law in San Diego. "We expect them to just start functioning in the workforce. But there's a stigma to having been incarcerated."
Help finding jobs
Now, new efforts are getting underway to provide some employment help. A project, Life After Exoneration, formed last year to provide support services to the wrongly convicted after they're freed. The Berkeley, Calif.-based group is negotiating with a private job agency in hopes of launching a first-ever national employment services program for the exonerated. The program would include skills assessment, training for three or four months and job placement.
[ See below: 'What Help States Offer']
It's a potent need: A survey of nearly 60 exonerees found a third are financially dependent on family or friends after they are freed.
"Exonerees identified employment as their No. 1 need," says Ernest Duff, executive director. "These are pretty macho guys. They don't want to go right into counseling. What they want is to go back to work."
But they have no legal right to get their former jobs back. And many find that new employers are wary of hiring anyone who's been in jail, even if it turned out to be a wrongful conviction.
Ray Krone, 47, of Dover, Pa., has become a public speaker against the death penalty, traveling across the country and to Europe. He was convicted of the 1991 murder of a female bartender and sent to Arizona's death row. In 1995, that conviction was reversed and a new trial was ordered. A second jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to life in prison. In 2002, new DNA evidence cleared him of the crime. He was free.
Before serving a decade in prison, he'd held a $30,000-a-year job as a postal worker. Now, he had nothing. He thought about getting his job back but realized it was a long shot because the U.S. Postal Service was under no legal obligation to rehire him. So he moved to a small town to be closer to his family and now does speaking engagements and odd jobs, such as mowing lawns, to help get by.
"Employers ask you what your job history is. What are you going to tell them as an exoneree?" Krone says. "Coming out, it's like you're an 18- or 19-year-old again."
The past also follows the exonerated when they apply for jobs. Job applications typically ask if applicants have an arrest or conviction record. The exonerated must still answer "yes," even if their conviction has been thrown out by a judge.
Employment experts say that an affirmative answer can scare off potential employers. Some desperate exonerees even take pardon papers to job interviews in hopes of allaying concerns.
Records often not updated
In other cases, exonerees may be freed, but their records will continue to show they were arrested, tried and convicted. Records are not automatically expunged, even in cases of a gubernatorial pardon. That means that employers doing a background check may come across the information and opt not to interview the applicant, especially with unemployment at 5.4%, as it was in September.
There are exceptions. Some exonerees have put themselves through law school, have parlayed their experiences into careers by going on the public-speaking circuit, or — in a very few cases — have been hired back by employers.
After a judge overturned his 1986 rape convictions, Lonnie Erby was freed in 2003. He'd served 17 years. He was rehired at the DaimlerChrysler plant in Fenton, Mo., where he'd worked before his sentence.
Some exonerees win millions of dollars in civil lawsuits, but legal experts say that's rare. Winning a case often means exonerees must show that those who prosecuted them engaged in misconduct. Some government agencies also have immunity if they acted in good faith.
Instead, many exonerees get by with help from friends and family. In some cases, the lawyer who helped clear the client sets up re-entry help, such as counseling, or finds the client a job.
Gary Gauger considers himself one of the lucky ones. He worked as an organic farmer before being sentenced to death for killing his parents in 1993. He was freed in 1996, and a year later two members of a motorcycle gang went to prison for the murders. He received a gubernatorial pardon. He was able to live temporarily with his sister and return to farming. Without that fallback, he says, he would have been lost.
"I was lucky that I could go back to farming and had an established career," says Gauger. He inherited his parents' farm. "I was screwed up. I didn't want to talk to anyone. All the money I had I gave to my lawyer. I still don't trust anyone."
Many exonerees feel such anger or alienation. Landing and keeping a steady job can be difficult because of the emotional fallout from years of resentment over the time they lost to prison.
Dana Holland can't find a job. The 36-year-old spent 10 years in prison but was released in June 2003 after a judge found him not guilty in a retrial of the 1993 attempted murder and armed robbery of a woman in Chicago. He also was convicted of rape, but DNA evidence helped clear him. He was sentenced to more than 100 years for both crimes.
The father of two teenagers worked at an industrial laundry facility before his incarceration. But after winning his freedom, Holland says, he's been unable to find work. He's received no compensation and is living with his brother. He says he is in the process of trying to get some compensation from the state, but that takes time.
He has applied to Walgreen's, food stores, meat companies and UPS. No employer will hire him, he says, because the crimes he was acquitted of are still on his record.
At first, he tried not telling employers about convictions. Now, he tells them and tries to show them records from his lawyers regarding his case.
"I'm a burden on my family," Holland says. "I'll do anything that pays bills and puts food on the table. But once you're a convicted sex offender, employers aren't going to hire you, because they think they'll put their company in jeopardy. You get all this publicity when you get out. Then it dies down and you get forgotten."
What Help States Offer
Just 18 states, Washington, D.C., and the federal government have compensation laws for the wrongly convicted. Amounts are sometimes determined by a state agency, sometimes by a court and can be capped by law. Final payments vary widely:
Alabama: Minimum of $50,000 for each year served.
Sources: Adele Bernhard, professor of law at Pace University; The Innocence Project
|Life After Exoneration
||Truth in Justice