Habeas, 'actual innocence,' probation and misdemeanors
The debate over postconviction relief for "actual innocence" has mostly centered around extremely serious crimes involving rape or murder. That's mostly because DNA evidence didn't exist or wasn't preserved in other types of cases and without it, the odds of exoneration under existing legal standards are extraordinarily long. DNA evidence exists in 10% or less of violent crimes and not at all in most other cases, leaving few avenues for overturning convictions in less serious cases. But that doesn't mean false convictions don't occur in drug and property crimes or misdemeanor offenses, just that those defendants are far less likely to ever seek or receive relief.
Jordan Smith at the Austin Chronicle has a story of a man seeking habeas relief based on actual innocence for a misdemeanor assault for which he was convicted and received probation in high school (shooting a teacher with a bb-pistol from a moving car). The local press at the time (Statesman and Chronicle) ran heart-tugging stories featuring teachers calling for his prosecution and ouster from the school. The fellow who actually did the deed has come belatedly forward to accept responsibility. The conviction has prevented Cleo Hill from several jobs he sought, and now he wants the conviction overturned so he can attend nursing school. "This is the first filing to my knowledge [in Texas] of a writ of actual innocence for someone who's never been in jail," said his attorney. "In this case, Cleo wants to go to nursing school, something he can't do with an assault misdemeanor on his record." Wrote Smith:
Hill's experience provides a bitter confirmation that guilty or innocent – and whatever the punishment – a criminal history is a life sentence. While it differs in important ways from prison time, it remains a heavy, lifelong burden. Professor William Kelly, director of the Center for Criminology and Criminal Justice Research at the University of Texas, says policymakers generally consider only concrete terms of punishment like probation or jail time, seldom the legacy of conviction itself. "The reality is that the punishment continues into the future," said Kelly. Once the jail time or probation period has ended, there will always be that question on any job or housing application: Have you ever been convicted of a crime? "If we could dip offenders into punishment and pull them out, it would be okay," said Kelly. "But that's not how it works."'Sixteen and life to go'
Having a record can paradoxically force someone deeper into criminal activity. "Being labeled early on does nothing to ensure the likelihood of success," said Kelly. "In fact, it perpetuates a cycle of reoffending." Kelly concedes that many felony charges have justifiably significant, continuing consequences, but he believes a lifetime record is disproportional for a misdemeanor. "We have to ask ourselves, is this really the impact that we want to have?"
Continuing with the theme of innocent people not exonerated, John Browning at the Southeast Texas Record has part one of a story titled "Sixteen and life to go," in which he describes a likely innocent man who it now appears may never be exonerated. (See the story for details of the case.) Chad Uptergrove was tried as an adult when he was 16 and just celebrated his 32nd birthday in prison, having now spent half his life behind bars. The Court of Criminal Appeals recently denied him habeas relief. There was no DNA evidence to prove his innocence conclusively and a Brady violation (failing to tell the defense about an exculpatory witness) was deemed harmless error, which pretty much the only type of error the CCA thinks prosecutors ever make.
Struggling to succeed: Exoneration and reentry
Exoneree Calvin Johnson out of Waco spent 15 years behind bars for a rape and murder he didn't commit before he and his co-defendant were cleared by DNA of the offense in 2001. According to the Waco Tribune Herald, though (subscription only), Johnson struggled after his release, ultimately succumbing to a heroin addiction that has now landed him back in prison with an eight year sentence. The new conviction makes him ineligible for the annuity which was made retroactive in 2009. The Trib's Cindy Culp reported:
Washington’s experience is not unique. Experts who work with exonerees said the majority experience problems after their release. Most don’t go back to prison, but a “large minority” do, said Vanessa Potkin, a senior staff attorney for the national Innocence Project.
“It’s understandable for those who have been debilitated by what they’ve been through,” Potkin said. “It’s more shocking, I think, that so many thrive, do so well and contribute to society.”
A total of 272 people in the United States have been cleared by post-conviction DNA testing, according to the project. It does not have data on how many of them have been arrested after their release.
But research done by the New York Times in 2007 showed one-sixth of exonerees returned to prison or suffered from drug or alcohol addiction. Most struggled to keep a job, rebuild relationships and deal with the psychological scars of wrongful imprisonment, the newspaper reported.
The group played a key role in the passage of improved compensation measures during the past two legislative sessions, [Innocence Project of Texas policy director Cory] Session said. Plus, members show up every time a newly exonerated Texan is released.
“They travel around the state to help that next person,” Session said. “(Because of that), exonerees are getting a lot more help than ever before.”
Charles Chatman, who spent 27 years in prison after he was mistakenly identified in a rape case, said he can’t overstate how critical the group has been to him. Some of the issues exonerees face can’t be understood by anyone else, he said.
Family relationships often have to be rebuilt from “ground zero,” Chatman said. Navigating new technology can be tough, too. He said he can still remember how frustrated he felt the first time he tried to use an automatic checkout lane at the grocery store.
Finances can be another stumbling block, Chatman said. The compensation money is helpful, but it also creates problems. A number of people in the group have had to deal with demanding relatives or unscrupulous financial advisers, he said.
“Everybody takes advantage of us,” Chatman said. “It really hurts.”
The group doesn’t push specific advice on new exonerees, Chatman said. But it lets them know members are available to help as needed, he said.