Sally Clark, a British solicitor (lawyer) has died. She was only 42 years old. Sally lost two sons to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), then was convicted of murdering them and spent 3 years in prison before she was exonerated. Sally’s conviction was based on junk medical testimony by Sir Roy Meadow, whose statistical theories have been roundly debunked. Her husband Stephen, also a solicitor, never doubted her innocence and was pushed to the brink of bankruptcy to pay the huge legal bills for her appeals. Sally’s conviction was reversed and she was released in January, 2003, after further testing showed her son, Harry, died of a bacterial infection.
The cause of Sally’s death has not yet been determined, but regardless what clinical terminology is eventually written on the death certificate, "broken heart" has certainly been a factor. Sadly, death seems to stalk many exonerees, deaths described as "tragic" or "untimely." Ron Williamson of Ada, Oklahoma, subject of John Grisham’s book, "The Innocent Man," was sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit, exonerated, and then died at 51. Kenneth Waters of Cambridge, Massachusetts spent 18 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. His sister, Betty Anne Waters, went to law school in order to prove his innocence, and she did. He was exonerated and released in March of 2001. Six months later, Kenneth died in a tragic fall that fractured his skull. Dan Young, Jr. of Chicago, Illinois spent more than 12 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit. He was exonerated and freed in early 2005. Like Kenneth Waters, Dan Young had a sister, Betty Ray, who never wavered in her belief that he was innocent, and who worked tirelessly to obtain his release. In April of 2006, Dan was killed as he walked near their home by a driver who jumped the curb, struck him and fled the scene. Dan was 45 years old. There are still no suspects. It is another open wound for Dan’s sister.
All of these people suffered terribly, in their personal losses, in their wrongful imprisonment, in the often protracted battles they fought to prove their innocence, and in the hardships endured by the families who loved them and continued to believe in them. After all that, the taint of incarceration followed them home. "There must have been something to it, or they would not have convicted," people whisper among themselves. "You wouldn’t want a murderer living near you, would you? You wouldn’t want a murderer working for you, would you?"
And so the doors close, backs turn, and innocent people–people who have proven their innocence–are still imprisoned. "Their first 15 minutes of fame is exhilarating," says Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Cardozo Innocence Project. "But after that, these people experience depression, trouble getting a job, trouble getting simple things like clothes and housing and health insurance. They don't even get access to the programs that are available for parolees."
Perhaps my impression that many of these exonerees die soon after exoneration is only that, an impression, like Sir Roy Meadow’s statistics, unsupported by objective research. But the taint that sticks to exonerees is not imaginary, and it is something for which we are collectively responsible.
What can we, as individuals, do about it? These days, you don’t have to look far from where you live to find exonerees. Reach out to them, after the 15 minutes of fame is over. Rent to them, or help them find a place to live. Clothe them, from a store with your own money or from your own closet if you can’t afford to take them shopping. Give them hair cuts. Teach them skills. Hire them, or help them find jobs. Invite them to dinner or bring a casserole to their homes. Demonstrate to them that good people understand that they, too, are good people.
Because you never know how long they will be around for you to do it.