Freed from prison but still not free

August 3, 2016

Lichi D’Amelio reviews a book about how the criminal justice system fails exonerees twice--first by wrongfully convicting them and then by failing to actually clear them.

IN THE summer of 1995 in Greensburg, Indiana, 22-year-old Kristine Bunch was charged with setting fire to her trailer home in the middle of the night and killing her beloved 3-year-old son Tony.

While no motive would ever be determined, city officials rapidly began making the case for arson, and Kristine would eventually be convicted of these crimes based primarily on a report by a forensic chemist--which later turned out to have been falsified--attesting to the presence of accelerants in the home.

Kristine's own words during the intense interrogation that immediately followed the traumatic loss of her child the night before would also be used against her. This common practice is used to portray victims of traumatic events as liars by focusing on inconsistencies in their stories--something various studies have shown to be a natural, frequent occurrence for trauma survivors and, in Kristine's case, was also likely attributable to the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning.

On top of this, the sheer depths of sexist degradation and cruelty leveled at Kristine, still in the first trimester of her second pregnancy during her trial, can perhaps best be summed up by the words of Decatur County Circuit Court Judge John Westhafer, who said to her:

James Kluppelberg on his release from prison
James Kluppelberg on his release from prison

I understand you have arranged to have yourself impregnated during the period of time that you were out of jail and prior to the trial. I can think of no other reason for that to have happened than that you thought it would work to your advantage somehow in this process. It will not...You will not raise that child. You will have nothing to do with that child.

He then sentenced her to 60 years in prison. It would be nearly 17 years before the truth was discovered and Kristine was finally released.

THE INJUSTICE perpetrated against Kristine serves as the opening vignette of Alison Flowers' book Exoneree Diaries: The Fight for Innocence, Independence and Identity, which chronicles the lives of four "exonerees," defined by Flowers as, "people freed from prison, innocent of the crimes that sent them there."

Flowers is taking on a subject that is rarely publicly discussed and, when it is, the stories are almost invariably short, focused on the brief moments immediately after release and the monetary compensation that ultimately very, very few exonerees actually ever receive.

What makes her book different and remarkably worthwhile is that Flowers goes beyond those surface, feel-good depictions of life after a long-term prison sentence and explains the very real structural barriers to building a new life that remain in place for exonerees--as well as the insurmountable emotional pain that comes with the rupture of familial and other bonds, long periods of isolation, accommodation to strict surveillance and routine, and the general disorientation of trying to catch up with a world that has moved on.

As Flowers explains:

Only 30 states have passed statutes that provide monetary compensation, and many of these state laws fall short. In Illinois, where three of those profiled in this book were convicted, exonerees must prove their own innocence to a judge in order to earn a certificate of innocence and thus become eligible for compensation. This requires a higher standard of proof than what was required to originally convict them. It is also much harder to prove innocence than to prove guilt: over the years of an incarceration, people who could testify on exonerees' behalf may have died; evidence may have been destroyed. Finally, in many states, criminal records--which exist online and are searchable--are not automatically cleared when judges overturn convictions. This interferes with the exonerees' ability to find housing and work, and to successfully reintegrate into the community.

THE STORY of James Kluppelberg, another of the exonerees featured in Flowers' book, is a case in point.

James was convicted in 1989 for setting fire to a home that killed a young woman and her five children and left the woman's husband permanently injured. The evidence against James was the testimony of Duane Glassco, who claimed to have seen James from a window at exactly the time and in the area that the fire had been set.

It turned out that Glassco had a beef with him--he was James' partner's ex-boyfriend--and he was trying to beat a sexual assault charge, which gave him even more motivation to "cooperate" with the police.

It would be many years before the lie was uncovered. But, even more infuriating is the false confession that was beaten out of James by detectives under the command of the now infamous Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge.

James was beaten so severely during his interrogation that he began urinating blood and would have to be hospitalized for kidney damage. It would be years before Burge's massive torture ring would come to light. But James would pay the price with nearly 25 years of his life.

Flowers shows in poignant detail that because of these events--which can hardly be dismissed as mistakes--James' ability to move forward, despite his almost unfathomable determination to do so, continued to be hampered. In one of the book's most devastating moments, James, excited about finally getting a call back from a Kmart distribution center, arrives for a job interview, only to be told, "We don't hire convicted murderers."

Though James desperately tried to explain his situation, it didn't matter that the charges had been dropped; it only mattered what the records showed. "The ambiguity of the exoneration process, in Illinois and across the United States, not only hindered exonerees like James from finding work, but it also publicly kept them behind a wall of suspicion," writes Flowers.

Aside from these types of persistent humiliations, the difficulty of finding work impairs the exonerees' ability to forge stable relationships and to provide for their families--another aspect of James' and the other exonerees' lives that Flowers recounts with tremendous compassion.

FLOWERS STRUCTURED the book to provide each portrait with careful attention to its unique set of circumstances, but various commonalities also show how they're deeply intertwined.

It's difficult not to notice some patterns that led to these four wrongful convictions: false or coerced confessions used as evidence; interrogations without legal representation; waiving the right to a jury trial in favor of a bench trial without being provided any explanation of the implications; racist and sexist judges, police, and prosecutors.

But the overarching theme, in my estimation, is how the consequences of poverty were used against all of them.

Some, though not all, of the exonerees profiled in the book, for example, had previous charges on their records that would serve as a means to paint them during their trials as "criminals." Because poor neighborhoods are so highly policed, it's difficult for residents to escape being hit with petty charges, thus leaving people vulnerable to more serious (though, often false) life-altering charges. The more "priors" that begin to accumulate, the more difficult it becomes to fight a charge.

In the instances where that's not the case, it's enough just to be poor and unable to acquire immediate, proper legal representation to find yourself trapped in the nightmare of a decades-long prison sentence.

In this way, each of the exonerees' stories calls into question the role of the criminal justice system as a whole. Though as Flowers reminds us, the number of innocent people behind bars is nearly impossible to determine, the ease with which these clearly innocent people were so quickly locked away, coupled with the fact that the U.S. currently incarcerates some 2.3 million people, suggests that the number could be in the tens of thousands at least.

COMING TO terms with the fact that innocent people go to prison--and, in some unknown number of cases, are even executed--for crimes they didn't commit is often the gateway to coming to more radical conclusions about the punitive nature of the U.S. legal system and whether or not incarceration--for anyone--is ever the answer.

This points to one of the most valuable aspects of a book like Exoneree Diaries--that criminal justice activists and prison abolitionists alike can employ this book as a tool to make our case.

Every single one of the victims of America's grotesque and brutal criminal justice system is a real human being, with a real life, a family, hopes, and faults--just like everybody else. The more we can do to uncover and detail the stories of our society's most invisible people, the more hope we can have of impacting the various injustices associated with the cruelty of incarceration--a cruelty that goes well beyond the prison walls.

As James Kluppelberg so astutely noted:

You know, I may have been deprived of my life for 25 years, but my children were deprived of the privilege of a father. That's something that a lot of people overlook. There's a lot of victims in this. It isn't just the people who perished in the fire. It isn't just me. It spider-webs and laterals to my children, my grandchildren, my wife, my sisters, my brother, my mother.

That humanity that each exoneree profiled in the book manages to hold on to, despite having lived through the horrors of incarceration, also holds some important lessons about resiliency and struggle. The stories of Kristine, James, Jacques Rivera, and Antione Day deserve more than just a hearing. They are profound, poignant reminders of just how far we have to go before real justice can ever be achieved.

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