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Understanding Crime Victim Perspectives on Wrongful Convictions


Katie Monroe at the podium with (left to right) Jennifer Thompson, Yolanda Littlejohn and Christy Sheppard
By

Katie Monroe

, Innocence Project Senior Advocate for National Partnerships
Our advocacy work to improve the criminal justice system has benefitted enormously from the expert voices of victims and their families who bear witness to the fact that nobody benefits from a wrongful conviction.  However, I have found in talking to these individuals that speaking out about their experiences can also take a toll. To better understand how to work with crime victims and their families, I moderated a panel at the 2013 Innocence Network Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, and I invited three panelists to describe their experiences. 
A bit of background first: the

Innocence Network

, an affiliation of over 60 organizations both national and international, has long had a Victims Committee, and in 2008 it issued a landmark statement about regard for victims and victims’ families in wrongful conviction cases. The Innocence Network worked closely with victims and victims’ organizations in the creation of

this statement

and followed it with a breakthrough conference panel on the issue. 
Convened in April, our panel sought to continue the conversation. Jennifer Thompson, Yolanda Littlejohn and Christy Sheppard shared their experiences both from being involved in a wrongful conviction case and advocating for criminal justice reform.  They described the unique hardship faced by crime victims and victims’ families in such cases and discussed steps that innocence organizations might be able to take to help them get much needed support during the exoneration process. Victims and their families suffer from the knowledge that a mistake was made and the real perpetrator not apprehended or punished, from having to relive the trauma of the original crime, and from losing faith in a system that they relied on to protect them and serve them justice.  They also often feel lost and invisible when a claim of innocence is being pursued and won in court. 
Jennifer Thompson is an advocate for judicial reform, the need to combat sexual violence, abolition of the death penalty, the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, and the healing power of forgiveness. Her strong convictions were born of a brutal rape she suffered as a 22-year-old college student. Her compelling testimony sent a young man to a life term in prison for a crime he did not commit. That man,

Ronald Cotton

, was eventually freed thanks in large part to his persistence in maintaining his innocence and to DNA testing, which eventually identified the true perpetrator. Jennifer credits Ronald with teaching her the healing power of forgiveness and grace. Together they co-authored a joint memoir,

Picking Cotton

, a New York Times best-seller, which recounts their journeys, the tragedy that brought them together, and their mutual conviction that such errors must be recognized, and that concrete reforms can lessen the probability of such mistakes. 
 Yolanda Littlejohn’s sister, Jacquetta Thomas, was murdered in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1991. Two men were arrested for her murder. One was never convicted; the other, Greg Taylor, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. In 2009, Taylor was exonerated and released from prison when DNA evidence proved that he could not have been the killer. The murder of Jacquetta Thomas is now a cold case – an unsolved homicide. Yolanda has been active in the effort to repeal her state’s death penalty and has spoken to groups of victims, telling her story and discussing the effects of exoneration on victims’ families. Yolanda is co-founder and the Director of Victims After Exoneration, a project of Murder Victims Families for Human Rights.
Christy Sheppard is a Licensed Professional Counselor who specializes in child and family therapy. Christy is also an advocate for victims’ issues and awareness in cases where there has been an exoneration. Christy’s cousin, Debra Sue Carter, was murdered in 1982. Two men,

Ron Williamson

and

Dennis Fritz

where convicted and then exonerated for this crime after spending 12 years in prison and on death row. 
Jennifer, Yolanda and Christy also addressed ways the Network might be able to assist crime victims and victims’ families in connecting with and providing support for each other during exonerations.  Finally, they explored opportunities for crime victims and their families to help lead efforts to reform the criminal justice system and prevent wrongful convictions for the benefit of all.  Collaborating with crime victims in our innocence work is profoundly important, and I applaud the Network for its leadership, sensitivity, and vision.

5 Comments

  1. The criminal justice system of the past was so harsh and this is changing. The system is evolving and becoming more multi faceted; incorporating psychology, forensics, and restorative justice: whereby the perceived perpetrator meets the perceived victim and get to talk. Conflict mediation is also good.

  2. Eleanor Mcgair

    I am very pleased to know there are people out there who have taken time and commitment to be of assistance to the families of those who are wrongfully imprisoned , also people who find time to be a voice for the victim – and enabling the chance to be heard , criminal justice doesn’t only begin the second a victim has someone convicted – it should always be for the accused – as proven by cases of mistaken identity – to ensure that all avenues are covered before conviction takes place . Justice for all where it is required .

  3. mukhtiar

    Really great work. hatts off

  4. mukhtiar

    the pain of the innocent prisoners is unbearable , there must be hundreds of thousands of the innocent people behind the bars across the world. we need to enhance the idea that you have initiated and apply it to the whole of the world

  5. Patsy Dawson

    I am an Alabama mother. (Mobile, Alabama) My name is Patsy Dawson, I am 67 years old.
    Alabama does not have an innocent project. Each time I search for help, it makes me sick to see that other States have so much passion for the innocent, while Mobile, Alabama sucks innocent victims into prisons to make money.

    My son; Scott Hunter Jones was one of their victims. He was arrested, before the Grand Jury indicted him. Labeled for murder/attempted murder for a two year old cold crime, and sentenced to 2 life sentences, all on the word of a career criminal, searching for his own freedom. Every one was rewarded for my son\’s conviction. The snitch was set free, the 2 detectives was promoted to captain and lieutenant, and the assistant D.A. is a Judge. Also,
    the D.A. used our trial for her TV pilot tryout for a new TV program on Justice. There is no
    innocent people in Mobile, you are guilty until proven innocent.

    I need help! My son has been incarcerated for 5 years this coming October. No one in Mobile will help, as I believe there was corruption used to put my son in prison. The first person arrested for this crime had blood and a motive to commit this crime. His blood and the victims blood was found in his bedroom! Yet, the D.A. released him! No finger prints, or any other evidence was found against my son, and he did not have a criminal record. This was a first class railroad job by the D.A.

    Can you guide me to help? I have exhausted my funds, but still fighting for my son\’s freedom. The Georgia Innocent Project has tried to help us. Pam Woodley is watching our case, and trying to help. Can you contact her? She is a volunteer there, and has been using all her influence to bring my son\’s case to the front line. Please help us. Can you call Pam?
    She will be happy to receive any advise or help, as would my son.

    Her contact number is; 404-884-5283. My cell is 251-422-4233. If you can be of help, please, please call. Any advise is better than none. God Bless, Praying for help.
    Patsy Dawson
    9970 Country Road
    Mobile, Alabama 36695

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