U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs; National Institute of Justice The Research, Development, and Evaluation Agency of the U.S. Department of Justice U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs National Institute of Justice The Research, Development, and Evaluation Agency of the U.S. Department of Justice

Effects of Wrongful Conviction Cases

Erin Williamson, ICF International, Great Falls,VA
NIJ Conference 2012
June 18-20

Erin Williamson: My name is Erin Williamson. I work with ICF International, and I currently serve as the project manager on a study examining the impact of wrongful convictions on crime victims.

Really, it's an exploratory study. They've put a lot of resources and a lot of attention has been paid to individuals who have been wrongfully convicted, and NIJ is also interested in looking at, in these cases, what is the impact on the original victim of the crime to get a better understanding of what their service needs are, and how we can better serve them both in terms of policy and practice.

Really, what we're finding is that victims want to have — be empowered, so they want to be notified that this is happening, but then they want to be empowered to tell — whether it be law enforcement or the prosecutor or a victim advocate — "This is the information that I would like going forward. This is how I would like the information." They'd like to know what services are out there, but they'd like to proactively be able to go out and seek out those services as opposed to having somebody put those services upon them. They really talk about the guilt that they feel and the loneliness that they feel upon notification. A lot of victims talk about the self-blame, especially if there was eyewitness misidentification, so they talk a lot about the need to be told and reminded that this is not their fault, that they did nothing wrong. They talk about kind of the switch in roles of moving from a crime victim to now in some ways being the bad person, the offender, and how what's written in the media and what's written on blogs can really be impactful. And they also talk about really being lonely.

It really has a huge impact. A lot of the victims that we've talked to have talked about especially their children not knowing about the victimization, and them having to tell their children that their mother or their father was brutally assaulted, and that the individual that was convicted was wrongfully convicted and is now going to get out. A lot of them have fear, have fear both that the original offender, the actual offender, is out and is not incarcerated, and fear that an individual was wrongfully convicted and may seek vengeance on them.

Going after the actual offender really depends on the crime and the laws within the jurisdiction. So there are issues of statute of limitations, especially for rape cases or cases of sexual assault, and I think that that is something that's very hard for victims to understand. A lot of victims talk about the fact that you're coming to me with DNA and you're saying because of this DNA, I can prove that this individual did not commit the crime against you. And then, I can prove through a CODIS match or through another source that this other individual actually did commit the crime. And so, they're saying they don't understand how DNA can result in somebody being released, but it can't then also be turned around and to use to incarcerate the individual that they know committed the crime. There have been some cases where they've been able to identify the individual and incarcerate that individual, and in some ways, that has brought a certain amount of closure to those victims. But there are a lot of cases where that's just not going to be the case and that's not going to happen.

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Date modified: September 21, 2012