The gaps in our lexicon tell us who and what we as a society often overlook. As Alison Flowers notes in the introduction to her book Exoneree Diaries, there was a long time when the English language didn’t have a word for a person wrongfully convicted of a crime and later released from prison. “This book gives a name to those who do not have one: Exoneree,” she writes.
After their triumphant releases, we rarely hear more about the people whose lives are interrupted by lengthy prison stays for crimes they did not commit. Built on hundreds of interviews with exonerees, their family and friends, criminal justice experts, lawyers, investigators, and students, Exoneree Diaries tells the stories of four exonerees in the Indiana and Chicago area.
Flowers goes on to write in her introduction that living in Chicago gave her access to many exonerees, as Cook County leads the country in number of exonerations. Illinois has one of the more generous compensation laws in the country for those wrongfully convicted, awarding up to $200,000 to exonerees able to prove they are completely innocent—a higher standard of proof than it takes to convict them in the first place—and who are able to prove that they did nothing to assist their guilty verdict.
The book is separated into four sections, each telling the story of a different person: Kristine Bunch, Jacques Rivera, James Kluppelberg, and Antione Day. Flowers looks at how the four of them grapple with the complexities of returning to the world after being wrongly convicted. In deeply personal accounts, the book gives its readers a near-complete look at each exoneree’s life before, during, and after prison.
Though Exoneree Diaries does not include a narrative centering on a woman of color, it tries to be representative, offering the stories of a white woman, a black man, a Latino man, and a white man. And while the story of each exoneree is unique, they follow broadly similar patterns in their approach to life after release.
All four seek basic happiness: a stable roof over their heads, the ability to support themselves, and companionship. All four feel isolated, but create support networks based on family members and romantic partners, the lawyers and students that helped overturn their convictions, and fellow exonerees.
All four have a degree of difficulty reconnecting with their families after their prison stays. In 1996, Bunch was a young mother in Indiana when she was falsely convicted for arson in a fire that took the life of her three-year-old son. She was separated from her second son Trent, born a few months into her prison stay. Much of her chapter details attempts to build their relationship after her long absence.
And all four have trouble finding work after their conviction. As Flowers explains, before an exoneree can petition for complete innocence, their convictions often remain on record. Kluppelberg, who was wrongly convicted of arson and sentenced to six life sentences, had difficulty finding work after failing a few background checks. For people with life sentences or near life sentences, prisons rarely offer advancement programs like the ones they offer to inmates with shorter terms. As Kluppelberg’s lawyers realize when they try to help him get settled, Flowers writes, “There was no playbook for helping an exoneree set up his life after nearly a quarter of a century behind bars.”
Going into Exoneree Diaries, one might be inclined to believe that the police officers and other people that bring about wrong convictions do so by mistake, not out of malice. But in her afterword, Flowers addresses the fact that there are a number of police detectives and victims of crimes that stand by their original convictions, refusing to admit wrongdoing or errors. Rivera, a former Latin Kings gang member, was wrongly convicted of the murder of a rival gang member. In his case, Orlando Lopez, twelve years old at the time of Rivera’s conviction and the only witness to the crime, accidentally misidentified Rivera as a suspect. Even though Lopez realized his mistake, he still identified Rivera in court after direction from officers. Lopez recanted his testimony nearly twenty years after the conviction, one of many pieces of evidence that helped overturn Rivera’s conviction. The book is full of such stories—accounts of police misconduct, false testimony, and blatant tampering of evidence—that make it clear just how severely our judicial system can break down.
In all of the cases from the book, the exoneree was advised to take a bench trial and waive their right to a jury. Bench trials are considered faster and cheaper than jury trials, but they leave a defendant’s fate to the judge and their individual prejudices. That’s what happened in the case of Antione Day. In 1992, Day, a former member of the Vice Lords gang, was convicted of murder and attempted murder by a judge who believed prison time deterred crime. Of course, poor representation from his lawyer, witness misidentification, and false testimony did not help his case.
Upon returning to the world after their time in prison, each exoneree in Exoneree Diaries tries to rebuild their life and come to terms with what has happened to them. All four turn to educating others and speaking to at-risk youth. Day, partnering with the Life After Innocence Project at Loyola University, worked to start Life After Justice, a program designed to provide housing for exonerees and help them get back on their feet.
As Day states in the book, “there was no escaping the past,” but all four exonerees found a way to live with their history and move forward. In telling their stories, Flowers highlights the fact that exonerees often become invisible after their release—we rarely recognize that there is a person left with the difficult task of rebuilding a life. Throughout his healing process Rivera would tell people about his story, his wrongful conviction, and what happened to him afterward. “He wants people to know him,” a co-worker said in the book. Because of Alison Flowers’s Exoneree Diaries, now we do.