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Book Reviews- Spring 2015

Westervelt, Saundra D. and Kimberly J. Cook. 2012. Life After Death Row: Exonerees’ Search for Community and Identity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Dr. Westervelt is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.  Dr. Cook is a Professor of Sociology and Criminology at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

Reviewed by Samantha A. Wallace, GTA, Sociology Department, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK

Westervelt and Cook’s Life After Death Row (2012) chronicles the lives of eighteen former death row inmates, since exonerated of their wrongful convictions. Specifically, the authors examine exonerees’ post-incarceration lives, and the impact of permanent stigma and spoiled identity upon innocence. Respondents were identified using the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) and studied using qualitative feminist research methods. Data on respondent life histories were drawn from legal documents, press coverage, in-depth life history interviews, and field observations. Although exonerees vary demographically, they share a similar struggle in their attempts to live out their innocence and a lack of a plan or resources to cope with prison release. Having been mislabeled as criminals for so long, exonerees face obstacles with social reintegration, suffering from minimal social support and decreased life chances. Split into four parts, the book illuminates pathways to false incarceration, life after release, coping with innocence, and the process of and suggestions for social reintegration and restorative justice.

Part one provides a biographical history for each individual, and their pathways towards wrongful conviction. Westervelt and Cook illuminate the difficulties in researching a vulnerable population and methods deemed necessary to undertake research on this criminological subpopulation. Part two elaborates on the difficulties of exonerees’ lives post-incarceration. Negative secondary effects of wrongful incarceration include a loss of social mobility, damage to one’s reputation, emotional scarring, deterioration of mental and physical health, and restrictions in employment and housing. Part three examines exonerees’ experiences on death row, and the difficulty in adopting an identity of innocence thereafter. Thusly, they experience additional struggles with civilian readjustment due to the inability to provide for themselves post-prison. Part four reports the weaknesses of the U.S. criminal justice system and the lack of resources for exonerees after prison release. Numerous recommendations for policy are also provided. The epilogue provides an update on surviving exonerees, further embracing individuals as humans worthy of acceptance.

An unfortunate trend in criminological research is the tendency to merely report policy implications as a token afterthought. Life After Death Row’s inherent strength is in defying this trend. Westervelt and Cook’s identification of the plights of the wrongfully convicted vulnerable subpopulation, and the provision of both macro and micro solutions suggest practical measures for future restorative justice. The research methods used allow deep rapport to develop between the researchers and the respondents, allowing to accurately capture the magnitude of the impact of being an exoneree and having had a life on death row. Further, Westervelt and Cook identify several recommendations for reformation: macro systematic legal and structural changes to reduce the likelihood of wrongful conviction, reparations for exonerees, practical amenities and support resources to provide exonerees upon release, and individual steps the general public can take to support social reintegration and the acceptance of exonerees. Additionally, group efforts toward exoneree reintegration are reported, including the work of the Innocence Project.

The act of research appears to assist exonerees in alleviating permanent stigma, allowing individuals to be seen as normal human beings. One might argue that the continual emphasis on harsh post-incarceration life seems repetitious; a weakness. This emphasis, however, appears functional in accurately depicting the extreme weight of navigating permanent stigma as an exoneree. One might also argue that the authors become too involved in their subjects’ lives. Perhaps the impact of researchers’ personal relationships becomes indicative of a greater, general message to the public: it is possible to shape exonerees’ future lives of innocence in a positive way. Overall, Life After Death Row demonstrates that exoneree social reintegration is difficult, but it is possible - given the right conditions. It requires both individual and social changes. Exonerees deserve every opportunity for social justice, and to live out the remainder of their lives in innocence, and without consequence.

This book is appropriate for both undergraduate and graduate courses in Criminology, Deviance, Sociology, Social Work, Criminal Justice, and Applied Sociology.