Innocence Blog

Women and Innocence: Building a Network

Posted: November 12, 2010 11:25 am

By Karen Wolff
Social Worker, the Innocence Project

Until last weekend, and most likely because we only handle DNA cases, I had only met a handful of women exonerees. 

That changed when fellow Innocence Project social worker Angela Amel and I attended the first (of many, hopefully) Women and Innocence Conference in Troy, Michigan. We learned at this incredible gathering that there is absolutely no shortage of women who have been wrongly incarcerated..  Most Innocence Project clients exonerated through DNA testing are men, partly because most DNA cases involve sex crimes or violent physical struggles, which most often are perpetrated by men.

At the last few annual Innocence Network Conferences, especially last year’s conference in Atlanta, the women exonerees expressed a desire to create some kind of innocence event or gathering tailored specifically for them.  That event finally happened this past weekend.  Many people helped make the conference happen, but the majority of the impetus, planning, organization and fundraising came through the hard work and vision of exonerees Julie Harper (Illinois) and Gloria Killian (California).

We met a mix of female exonerees, formerly incarcerated women waiting for exoneration, as well as mothers, fathers and other relatives of exonerees and women who are still incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit– all of whom fought or are still fighting for justice.  To a person, they were strong, determined and very committed to not only freeing their loved ones, but also to the innocence movement in general.  In addition, there were representatives of the following projects and organizations:  Northwestern Center for Wrongful Convictions, The Innocence Project, The Exoneree Project (Univ. of Texas, Arlington), Michigan Innocence Project, pre- law program of Kalamazoo College, Michigan Campaign for Justice, Life After Innocence - Loyola University School of Law, Chicago, Downstate Illinois Innocence Project and Proving Innocence from Detroit, Michigan.

Over the weekend, we listened to many tragic stories of police negligence, frame-up jobs, prosecutorial misconduct and total denial of justice. Mostly, we heard stories of lives and families ripped apart by false accusations and a criminal justice system gone haywire. 

Most of these cases (until further research I don’t know whether it was just that group or a more general trend) involve women wrongly accused of hurting or killing their own children.  Some of these women have been or are on death row. In several cases the women suffered serious bodily injury in attacks that resulted in deaths of children and the mothers were still blamed – based on theories that they mutilated themselves and staged the entire scene.  Many of these women were single mothers when the crimes were committed and they believe their status in society and/or lifestyle played a large part in the way they were blamed for the crimes and excoriated by the legal system, press and public in the process and afterwards.  Even with absolutely no physical evidence of these crimes, the women were convicted and then lost custody of their other children, their jobs, their homes and their reputations — all in addition to the crushing loss of the child(ren) who were actually injured or murdered by someone else.  None of these women have been compensated for their years of wrongful incarceration. 

The conference was intensely emotional for many, as well as educational, supportive and hopeful.  We discussed moving forward, including participation in the next Innocence Network Conference (April 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio) and building a bigger conference of women exonerees and their support people for next year – and the next year after that. This was hopefully just the beginning.