Excerpted From: Lakia Faison, Laura Smalarz, Stephanie Madon, and Kimberley A. Clow, The Stigma of Wrongful Conviction Differs for White and Black Exonerees, 47 Law and Human Behavior 137(February 2023)(3 Footnotes/References)(Full Document)


FaisonSmalarzMadonClowTo date, 3,302 people have had their wrongful convictions overturned after spending a combined total of 28,461 years in prison--an average of 8.6 years each. Unfortunately, many exonerees report that their wrongful convictions continue to negatively affect them long after they have been exonerated and released. Kirk Bloodsworth--the first exonerated death row inmate--has described his life after exoneration as laden with financial and social struggles. Because people feared him, he had difficulty obtaining housing, employment, and even groceries without being derided by landlords, employers, and other shoppers. Ken Wyniemko, who was exonerated in 2003 after serving more than 8 years in prison for sexual assault, described his experience after being released as like “walking around with a scarlet letter”. Jerry Miller, who was exonerated after completing a 24-year prison sentence for the brutal rape and kidnapping of a Chicago woman, said “I thought prison was bad. But(outside) I was like the scum of the earth”.

The experiences of Bloodsworth, Wyniemko, and Miller are not uncommon among exonerees. Numerous anecdotal reports converge on the conclusion that exonerees are characterized by a flawed and devalued social identity consistent with a social stigma, and experimental research supports this idea. Indeed, people evaluate the character of exonerees less favorably than the character of people without prior convictions and report less willingness to be in the proximity of exonerees. Moreover, employers and hiring professionals consider exonerated job applicants to be less intelligent, less articulate, less competent, and unworthy of the same starting wages compared with applicants who have no prior convictions. The stigma of wrongful conviction affects not only people's perceptions of exonerees but also their behavior toward exonerees as well. Employers are less likely to respond to job inquiries when the inquirer is an exoneree than when an inquirer makes no mention of a prior conviction. Likewise, landlords are less likely to respond to housing inquiries from exonerated individuals than to inquiries from individuals with no prior convictio. Thus, many experiments using varying methodologies provide empirical support for exonerees' anecdotal claims that wrongful conviction constitutes a social stigma.

Comnsparatively little research, however, has examined whether the stigma of wrongful conviction differs for White and Black exonerees. This is a conspicuous gap in the literature given that people of color are disproportionately represented among the wrongfully convicted. Although Black people comprise less than 14% of the U.S. population, 33% of incarcerated individuals(Gramlich, 2019) and 53% of exonerated individuals are Black. The overrepresentation of Black people among incarcerated and exonerated people is at least partially attributable to racial discrimination that occurs within the legal system. Compared with White people, Black people are more likely to be deemed suspicious by laypeople and officers, are disproportionately stopped and frisked and arrested, are more likely to fall victim to investigative misconduct(e.g., police hiding evidence of innocence), and are subjected to harsher punishment by judges and(in some cases) jurors(. The negative effects of racial discrimination on Black individuals' experiences in the legal system appear to persist long after their judicial involvement ceases. For example, previously incarcerated Black people have a harder time obtaining employment( and housingthan previously incarcerated White people.

We theorized that this anti-Black racial discrimination, which permeates the legal system and society at large, might compound the effects of the stigma of wrongful conviction for Black exonerees. Put differently, because Black people and wrongfully convicted people are both stigmatized social groups, Black exonerees must contend with not one but two social stigmas. Thus, we predicted that the stigma of wrongful conviction, in conjunction with the stigma of being Black, might yield an additive detrimental effect on people's reactions to Black exonerees, leading people to stigmatize Black exonerees to a greater extent than White exonerees.


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The current research makes several important contributions to the literature on the stigma of wrongful conviction. First, our findings converge with those of previous research by demonstrating that wrongful conviction constitutes a social stigma. Second, our experiments reveal that the stigma of wrongful conviction varies as a function of an exoneree's race. Participants in our research consistently reacted more favorably to Black exonerees than to White exonerees, and this phenomenon did not appear to be merely the result of efforts to appear nonprejudiced. Rather, participants' reactions may have been driven by an awareness that Black exonerees are more likely to have faced injustices within the legal system than are White exonerees. It remains to be seen whether that effect is influenced by negative dispositional inferences(e.g., Scherr et al., 2018), attributions of responsibility(e.g., Savage et al., 2018; Weiner, 1993), or other factors. Critically, exonerees of all races have faced injustice in the legal system; otherwise, they would not have been wrongfully convicted. Continued research on this important topic will help draw attention to the plight of Black and White exonerees alike and, hopefully, facilitate their acceptance into society after their release from custody.


Jennifer S. Hunt served as Action Editor.

Lakia Faison(iD) https://orcid.org/0000-0003-4992-8195

Laura Smalarz(iD) https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2435-7843

Kimberley A. Clow(iD)https://orcid.org/0000-0003-4306-8956

Lakia Faison is now available at the Department of Criminology, Law and Society, George Mason University.