In an article published today on Slate.com, writer and attorney Lara Bazelon explores meaningful efforts that are being made to help the people most affected by wrongful convictions—exonerees and victims of crime who contributed to sending the wrong people to prison—to cope and heal.
As anyone who has heard a story of wrongful conviction knows, the road to recovery can be a long one not only for exonerees, but also for the victims; they can suffer first from the crime and again when they learn that the wrong person was punished and the perpetrator remained free. Sadly, there are few resources available to help either party deal with the challenges of coming to terms with a wrongful conviction. To fill the void, a select group of organizations geared at addressing problems within the criminal justice system have started unique initiatives based on principles of restorative justice to foster healing for both exonerees and victims.
Restorative justice, according to Bazelon, is “a centuries-old concept of bringing together the victims, the people who harmed them, and their respective communities to deal with the crime and agree upon a series of remedial measures designed to bring about reparations and healing rather than meting out punishment.” In the case of exonerees and victims—when no one involved is guilty of having done anything wrong—the context is completely different, but the restorative justice theory—“shared suffering, mutual understanding, forgiveness, and a will to move forward with positive concrete action” can be adapted to “fit the circumstances of a false conviction case.”
Last year, a restorative justice retreat brought together four exonerees, two crime victims and a family member of a murder victim at the Nature Bridge Conference Center north of San Francisco. The retreat was organized by David Onek, the then-executive director of the Northern California Innocence Project, and Jennifer Thompson, an innocence movement activist who has written and spoken extensively about her own misidentification of an innocent man, Ronald Cotton, as the man who raped her in 1984 and her role in sending him to prison for 11 years. The retreat included exercises that aimed to provoke all of the participants to “dig down into the trauma and the hurt and the pain and hear each other’s hearts and hold each other’s spirits in a safe place,” said Thompson to Slate.com.
Earlier this year, Thompson announced the founding of her own organization, Healing Justice. The mission is to “turn harm into healing by using restorative justice principles for all of those who are harmed by wrongful convictions,” says Thompson, according to Slate.com, including exonerees, crime victims, family members and eventually even attorneys and others involved in the criminal justice system. The organization may be partnering with the Northern California Innocence Project on future restorative justice initiatives.
Bazelon writes that restorative justice as applied to exoneration cases is still in its infancy. “At this early stage, it is impossible to say what its impact will be,” she writes. “Exonerees and the original crime victims will need different things from the process at different times—and at times, many may want to have nothing to do with it at all.”
Learn more about Healing Justice here:
Learn more about the Northern California Innocence Project here: