Life after Exoneration

For so long, the wrongfully convicted were thought of as criminals and accused of being such, until one day they were no longer. This sudden shift in identity poses new challenges for wrongfully convicted exonerees as they reenter society.
By Ashley Nicole Miller
The case of Charles Chatman, the fifteenth man in Dallas County, TX to be freed by DNA evidence, serves as a prime example of wrongfully convicted exonerees and the challenges they face upon reentering society. Chapman served a total of 27 years behind bars, the longest term of wrongful imprisonment for any DNA exoneree in Texas and one of the longest in the United States.
Case Overview

On January 15, 1981, a 52-year-old woman named Madalaine Magin was raped and burglarized. Magin described her attacker as a five- foot-seven African American male with black hair and facial hair, wearing a dark cap pulled down over his head. Although Magin usually wore glasses, she did not at the time of the offense. Magin was medically examined and DNA evidence was collected. The investigator had Magin view a lineup of six African American men, none of whom she recognized as her attacker. She then viewed another lineup, and this time identified Charles Chatman as her attacker. Two weeks later, she viewed a live lineup and again identified Charles Chatman.

Chatman was charged with aggravated rape and tried by a Dallas jury in August, who convicted and sentenced him to 99 years in prison. While in prison, Chatman became eligible for parole, but because he refused to acknowledge any involvement in the crime, he was denied.

Two decades later, in 2001, Texas passed a law that allowed inmates to seek DNA testing if it had the potential to prove their innocence. Chatman’s petitions for access to DNA testing were granted in 2002, but it took two years to locate the evidence, which was then determined insufficient for testing at that time. Chatman’s attorney asked the lab to hold the evidence until new technology could be used to conduct the testing, which came in 2007 in the form of Y-STR testing – an advanced form of DNA testing that could determine a profile from a small sample.

The results proved Chatman’s innocence and his exoneration became official in 2008 after serving more than 26 years in prison and 7 months in jail for a crime he did not commit.

Life after Exoneration

Life after exoneration poses a myriad of challenges for those wrongfully convicted. Outside prison, many things change, such as cars, clothes, culture, and the like. Inside prison, though, things mostly remain the same. Since 1981, Chatman had much to learn upon being exonerated, including new technology such as cell phones, ATMs, and computers, new highways and buildings, and new family members. Indeed, Chatman became a first- time father at the age of 49 after his exoneration (Carlton, 2009). However, Chatman was fortunate in one respect: he was convicted and exonerated in the state of Texas. Texas has one of the most generous exoneration compensation statutes (Norris, 2012), which now allows for $80,000 for every year incarcerated and 120 hours of paid tuition at a public college. Chatman, who became a millionaire after receiving compensation funds, was quoted as saying that the money “will bring me some independence. Other people have a lot of control over my life” (Carlton, 2009).

Although Chatman does not “have the anger that [he] used to,” he wants “this situation addressed” (Associated Press, 2008). He has stated that he wants to work with the Innocence Project of Texas because he believes that there are hundreds more wrongly convicted individuals like him who have yet to be exonerated (Associated Press, 2008). While Chatman succeeded in putting his anger and resentment aside to dedicate the rest of his life to helping others like him, many wrongfully convicted exonerees have not been as successful in this regard. Some proportion of wrongfully convicted exonerees do not benefit from state compensation packages like Chatman. In fact, studies have illustrated that state compensation mechanisms are either nonexistent or deficient (Bernhard, 2003; Norris, 2012). In 1999, only 14 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government had compensation laws (Bernhard, 2003). However, this dismal fact seems to be improving. A little over a decade later, just more than half of American states had compensation statues for exonerees with the assistance varying tremendously from state to state (Norris, 2012). To date, 29 states and the District of Columbia have compensation statues for the wrongfully convicted and exonerated (Norris, 2014). Despite this recent increase, state compensation mechanisms for the exonerated remain “excessively restrictive in identifying who will be compensated, and cap the amount of recovery at artificially low levels,” with just three states offering meaningful post- release services such as reentry planning services (Chunias & Aufgang, 2008, p. 107).

Compensation is not the only area with room for improvement when it comes to helping wrongfully convicted exonerees reenter society. Post-release planning services could also be improved to benefit such persons in that many suffer psychological trauma as a result of their wrongful conviction(s). Studies conducted in the last decade have shed light on the harms resulting from erroneous prosecutions and convictions.

For example, one study interviewed individuals who were exonerated of capital crimes and concluded that their experiences were similar to “life-threatening traumas” (Westervelt & Cook, 2008, p. 35). Another study that interviewed this population concluded that “those released following wrongful conviction and imprisonment may have significant psychiatric and adjustment difficulties of the kind described in other groups of people who have suffered chronic psychological trauma” (Grounds, 2004, p. 178). An additional study of this population found similar results, indicating that a substantial portion of wrongfully convicted exonerees were suffering from clinical anxiety, depression, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or a combination of the three (Wildeman et al., 2011). These psychological studies of samples of individuals released after wrongful conviction illustrate the psychological trauma experienced by this population and the need for further research (Simon, 1993).

In addition to psychological trauma, exonerees face requirements that often go unmet upon reentering society, including, but not limited to, housing, medical attention, employment and training, financial support, anger management, reconnecting with family and children, addressing drug or alcohol dependency, negotiating social rejection and stigma, expunging records, and seeking gubernatorial pardons (Westervelt & Cook, 2013).

Research Ideas

It is evident that the harms of wrongful conviction are not fully understood nor adequately compensated. According to Grounds (2004), further research is needed regarding the psychological effects of being wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. In addition to the psychological effects, the impact of wrongful conviction on socioeconomic outcomes, emotions, and stigmatization also warrant further study. And finally, the perceptions of compensation laws among exonerees, and the actual impact of these policies, must be examined more closely.

To develop a more complete understanding of wrongful conviction aftermath, then, a multidisciplinary approach is necessary. The personal harms caused by an erroneous conviction must be systematically researched by psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and sociologists. Examinations of compensation policies can and should be conducted by all of the above, as well as political scientists and policy analysts. Such a multi-faceted approach will allow for a better determination of what post-release services, such as reentry planning services, are successful in lessening the severity of challenges faced by exonerees from a psychiatric, psychological, and sociological perspective. This is because more integrated approaches address the wide range of often interrelated social, economic, psychological, and mental health issues experienced by this population.


While 29 states and the District of Columbia have compensation laws, many are inadequate in terms of helping wrongfully convicted exonerees get back on their feet upon reentering society after release. Although innocence projects are working to create programs and pass laws nationwide for fair compensation, as well as to provide services to assist in the reentry process, a multidisciplinary approach to studying this population is needed. Such an approach can help to determine the psychological trauma experienced by this population, creating the most beneficial post-release services to assist in a successful reentry process. Although the label of ‘criminal’ technically no longer applies to exonerated individuals, the stigma of the label may remain.


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