Life after Death Row: Exonerees' Search for Community and Identity

Life after Death Row: Exonerees' Search for Community and Identity

Life after Death Row: Exonerees' Search for Community and Identity

Life after Death Row: Exonerees' Search for Community and Identity


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.


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 and good friend, attended to see Mike and hear some of the papers presented. Kim and I had never met. During his few minutes of discussion, Mike reeled off a list of topics related to wrongful conviction issues that had not been undertaken and that desperately needed attention. One of those topics was about life after exoneration: what is life like for exonerees once they leave prison? I immediately gravitated toward that particular topic among those Mike offered up. Having just finished work on my first project related to wrongful convictions, I was casting about for something new to work on, and this particular topic seemed intriguing. It combined my interests in wrongful convictions with my methodological preference for qualitative research. Unbeknownst to me, Kim was thinking exactly the same thing. Having completed work on some projects related to capital punishment, she found compelling the idea of combining her interests on the death penalty with a new area she did not know much about, wrongful conviction—a project on life after release for death row exonerees might be just the ticket. But, again, we did not know each other, so we had no way to know we were contemplating the same project.

That all changed later that afternoon when I was staffing the outreach table for the Division on Women and Crime, and Kim arrived to take the next shift. Kim recognized me from the earlier panel and told me how much she had gotten out of the papers, but in particular, how interesting she had found Mike’s discussant portion. We swapped funny stories about how we each had come to know Mike Radelet. I picked up on Kim’s earlier comment about his discussion and offered that my interest also had been piqued by a particular topic he had mentioned.

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