ArticlePDF Available

Public Perceptions of the Stigmatization of Wrongly Convicted Individuals: Findings from Semi-Structured Interviews


Abstract and Figures

Many exonerees report stigmatizing experiences and difficulties securing gainful employment postincarceration. Although researchers have begun to investigate public perceptions of wrongful conviction, there remains a dearth of knowledge about public perceptions of exonerees. To provide insight into how the public perceives exonerees, face-to-face interviews were conducted with members (n=30) of a suburban city in South Central Ontario. Data analysis included a constructed grounded approach to reveal emergent themes in the transcripts. All interviewees acknowledged that wrongly convicted individuals are stigmatized by the public and that this can have negative effects in many of their lived experiences. In addition, findings of this exploratory study suggest that some interviewees, indirectly or directly, stigmatize exonerees in their responses while being interviewed—lending insight into how the public views and reacts to exonerees. Findings and policy implications are theoretically framed in Erving Goffman’s (1963) seminal work on stigma. Implications include the potential role of research and education in informing community members, and all levels of government, about wrongful convictions in general, and the negative implications of stigma, in particular.
No caption available
Content may be subject to copyright.
e Qualitative Report
(74=5. C =5+.: :<2,4.
Public Perceptions of the Stigmatization of
Wrongly Convicted Individuals: Findings from
Semi-Structured Interviews
Isabella M. Blandisi
University of Ontario 2;*+.44*+4*6-2;2=72<,*
Kimberley A. Clow
University of Ontario 325+.:4.A,47?=72<,*
Rosemary Ricciardelli
Memorial University of Newfoundland ::2,,2*:-.445=6,*
7447?<12;*6-*--2<276*4?7:3;*< 1J86;=?7:3;67>*.-=<9:
"*:<7/<1. #=*6<2<*<2>.#=*42<*<2>.758*:*<2>.*6-2;<7:2,*4.<17-74702.;75576;*6-
<1. %7,2*4%<*<2;<2,;75576;
H2;:<2,4.2;+:7=01<<7A7=/7:/:..*6-78.6*,,.;;+A<1.H.#=*42<*<2>.$.87:<*< %')7:3;<1*;+..6*,,.8<.-/7:26,4=;27626H.
#=*42<*<2>.$.87:<+A*6*=<17:2B.-*-5262;<:*<7:7/ %')7:3;
26-260;/:75%.52%<:=,<=:.-6<.:>2.?; e Qualitative Report20$.<:2.>.-/:75 1J86;=?7:3;67>*.-=
Public Perceptions of the Stigmatization of Wrongly Convicted
Individuals: Findings from Semi-Structured Interviews
H2;*:<2,4.2;*>*24*+4.26H.#=*42<*<2>.$.87:< 1J86;=?7:3;67>*.-=<9:>742;;
The Qualitative Report 2015 Volume 20, Number 11, Article 9, 1881-1904.
Public Perceptions of the Stigmatization of Wrongly Convicted
Individuals: Findings from Semi-Structured Interviews
Isabella M. Blandisi and Kimberley A. Clow
University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Oshawa, Ontario, Canada
Rosemary Ricciardelli
Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada
Many exonerees report stigmatizing experiences and difficulties securing
gainful employment post-incarceration. Although researchers have begun to
investigate public perceptions of wrongful conviction, there remains a dearth of
knowledge about public perceptions of exonerees. To provide insight into how
the public perceives exonerees, face-to-face interviews were conducted with
members (n=30) of a suburban city in South Central Ontario. Data analysis
included a constructed grounded approach to reveal emergent themes in the
transcripts. All interviewees acknowledged that wrongly convicted individuals
are stigmatized by the public and that this can have negative effects in many of
their lived experiences. In addition, findings of this exploratory study suggest
that some interviewees, indirectly or directly, stigmatize exonerees in their
responses while being interviewedlending insight into how the public views
and reacts to exonerees. Findings and policy implications are theoretically
framed in Erving Goffman’s (1963) seminal work on stigma. Implications
include the potential role of research and education in informing community
members, and all levels of government, about wrongful convictions in general,
and the negative implications of stigma, in particular. Keywords: Public
Perception, Stigma, Schematic Framing, Wrongful Conviction, Exonerees,
Semi-Structured Interviews, Constructed Grounded Theory
Consider the following experience (as reported in Grounds, 2005): An exoneree walks
into a supermarket in his community. As he enters the store, he hears a young girl say, “That’s
the man who was on the TV, Mommy” (p. 7). Immediately, the mother grabs her daughter and
tells her not to go near the man. The exoneree, overwhelmed by this reaction, abandons his
groceries and walks out of the store (Grounds, 2005). Looking at this encounter, it appears that
stigma played a key role in determining how this wrongly convicted individual was perceived
and responded to in this public venue.
With the above experience in mind, we draw on Goffman’s (1963) classic theory of
stigma because it is a seminal benchmark for stigma research and continues to have relevant
applications in present-day discussions of stigmatization. Particularly, stigma will be discussed
in reference to wrongful conviction in order to lend insight into the discriminatory situations
exonerees may encounter post-conviction. In addition to stigma theory, framing approaches
related to in-group and out-group formations, as well as prognostic framing, will also be
presented and explored. These approaches look at how the public creates groups of similar
others and mobilize to exclude those who seemingly do not belong, which may lead to the
stigmatization of exonerees.
Isabella M. Blandisi, Kimberley A. Clow, and Rosemary Ricciardelli
Stigma: Defining the “Other”
Stigma is a discrediting label that “marks” an individual, indicating that he or she should
be discounted from society (Goffman, 1963). In the minds of others, the marked individual is
reduced from a whole and usual person to a tainted, disregarded one (Goffman, 1963, p. 3).
Especially when this discrediting effect is extensive, the individual is viewed to be different
from others and tied to uninviting markers such as bad, dangerous, or weak. In the previous
example, for instance, the exoneree had been marked as deviant and interactions were
immediately avoided based on the negative attributes associated with this group (e.g., bad,
dangerous). Goffman (1963) argued that stigmas can take several forms, including
abominations of the body, blemishes of individual character, and tribal stigmas.
Abominations of the body are physical deformities or disabilities that render a person
visibly different from others. As these individuals do not look like the rest of society, often due
to factors outside of their own control, their every action is perceived differently as well. As
Goffman (1963) explained, a blind individual is no longer perceived like everyone else: “his
once most ordinary deedswalking nonchalantly up the street, locating the peas on his plate,
lighting a cigarette—are no longer ordinary” (p. 15). In contrast, blemishes of individual
character are not readily visible to others and must be inferred once a discrediting attribute
about the person is discovered. For example, learning that an individual has a psychological
disorder, has been incarcerated, has an addiction, or is unemployed sets him or her apart from
others by linking this person to undesirable characteristics (Link & Phelan, 2001). These
undesirable characteristics are then used to discount all other positive attributes the individual
might possess (Goffman, 1963). Should this blemished individual encounter any difficulties in
life, others relate the difficulties to the stigmatizing attribute(s), as opposed to possible
situational influences. Lastly, tribal stigmas are derived from belonging to a particular
stigmatized group, such as an ethnic minority group, a foreign country, or the non-dominant
religion in a society. In many cases, these individuals are born into their stigmas by being
descendants of a “tribe” or group that is devalued by that society’s dominant group(s).
Regardless of its form, stigma spoils an individual’s social identity and reduces his/her
“life chances,” causing him or her to face a negative or “unaccepting world” (Goffman, 1963,
p. 19). In essence, stigmatized individuals are perceived as subhuman or not whole. As a result,
others view them as inferior and rationalize any obstacles that limit their societal opportunities.
For example, when a stranger or unknown individual comes into the presence of others, he or
she is immediately categorized based on first impressions and associated attributes (Goffman,
1963). Accordingly, people may make assumptions on who the individual ought to be rather
than who he or she truly is—what Goffman (1963) called a “virtual social identity.” The
characterizations and labels given to the individual are often made from generalizations about
persons within the same group and without knowing the personal attributes the individual
actually possesses (Goffman, 1963). Should the stranger possess some sort of stigma, however,
these depictions are linked to uninviting traits that often prompt discriminatory behaviour by
others. Goffman (1974) argued that stigmatization via framing processes, or “schemata of
interpretation,” (p. 21) was an active phenomenon in which individuals have agency and
control over their construction of reality. In other words, framing satisfies the human need to
categorize reality. This enables members of the public to locate, perceive, and label occurrences
within their lives or society, targeting experiences and people who stand out (Benford & Snow,
2000). For example, the fact that an exoneree has gone through the criminal justice system
possibly for a serious crime like murderfacilitates the perception that exonerees are different
from regular people. Collectively, people with similar views are mobilized, garnering mutual
support to omit the perceived “antagonists” from society (Snow & Benford, 1988, p. 198).
1883 The Qualitative Report 2015
Indeed, exonerees do report encountering considerable stigma post-incarceration (e.g.,
Blume, 2008; Chunias & Aufgang, 2008; Kauzlarich, Matthews, & Miller, 2001). For instance,
exoneree, Ken Wyniemko, described wrongful conviction as “walking around with a scarlet
letter” (as cited in Roberts & Stanton, 2007, p. 2). This represents a blemish of character stigma,
as the discovery of a discrediting attribute (i.e., wrongful conviction) prompts discriminatory
actions against the exoneree. Stigma can tarnish an individual’s identity and reduce his or her
life chances (Goffman, 1963)in these examples, employment opportunities and financial
viability for exonerees. In essence, assumptions are made about exonerees’ character—despite
their demeanour or qualificationsdue to their stigmatizing attribute. Their true identity is then
replaced with a virtual social identity based on the knowledge and/or characterizations
(whether accurate or not) others have about that stigmatized group.
Prejudice often occurs as a means for individuals to rationalize their fear of the marked
person and the danger this individual is assumed to pose (Goffman, 1963). The public, for
example, may feel that experiences of incarcerationlet alone having been incarcerated for a
crime one did not commitchanged the exoneree somehow, making his or her personality less
predictable and less safe post-incarceration (Clow, Ricciardelli, & Cain, 2012). Grounds (2005)
argued that wrongful conviction can alter personality and often results in psychological
disorders (e.g., post-traumatic stress disorder). Although he was concerned for the welfare of
exonerees, prejudiced individuals may perceive personality change and mental illness as
character blemishes and use them to justify their fears of exonerees. Research has demonstrated
that people stigmatize and discriminate against individuals suffering from mental illness (e.g.,
Corrigan, Powell, & Rüsch, 2012). Ultimately, wrongly convicted individuals may be
incorrectly framed as having psychological issues based on assumptions about their
experiences and how others expect those experiences to negatively impact them.
Wrongful conviction itself introduces the discussion of whether stigmas are readily
obvious to others or not. Goffman (1963) differentiated between stigmas that are visible and
those that are not. First, a “discredited stigma” is observable to others in social settings because
the stigmatizing attribute is visibly apparent (e.g., physical deformity). In contrast, stigmas that
are not observable are considered to be “discreditable.” While individuals who are discredited
by their stigma cannot control who knows about it (it is observed), individuals with a
discreditable stigma can select whether to divulge or conceal their stigmatizing attribute
(Goffman, 1963). Unfortunately for exonerees, even though their wrongful convictions are not
observable, media coverage of their cases may publicize and impose stigma on them. The
exoneree may be fearful that everyone he or she encounters knows his or her story, granting
less control over when and whom to inform about his or her pasttransforming the stigma
from discreditable to discredited.
The way the media (television news, newspapers) presents criminal justice issues to the
public can influence how societal members frame individuals who come in contact with the
criminal justice system (see Hough & Park, 2002). Specifically, sensationalized portrayals
often deal with serious crimes such as murder and offenders are typically described using
negative language like “armed and dangerous.” The public may be concerned or fearful that
the dangerous offenders portrayed in the media may be released back into society (e.g.,
Roberts, 2007)justifying a desire to avoid contact with these types of people. Exonerees have
experienced the correctional system; many have lived alongside prisoners convicted of serious
crimes. Thus, these dangerous labels are conceivably applied to exonereesespecially if their
cases are publicizedfurther contributing to their stigmatization (Clow, Ricciardelli, & Cain,
2012). At times, stigma is extended to include persons who associate with the stigmatized
individual as well (e.g., Goffman, 1963; Neuberg, Smith, Hoffman, & Russell, 1994).
“Courtesy stigma” or stigma-by-association occurs when previously non-stigmatized
Isabella M. Blandisi, Kimberley A. Clow, and Rosemary Ricciardelli
individuals are discriminated against due to their association with the discredited person
(Goffman, 1963). From this perspective, it is possible that people apply a courtesy stigma to
exonerees due to their exposure to actual offenders while incarcerated, rather than due to any
discrediting attribute thought to be possessed by exonerees (Clow, Ricciardelli, & Cain, 2012).
Said another way, exonerees are tainted from their non-voluntary exposure to offenders and
prison. According to exoneree, Calvin Willis, even though an exoneree is free, people still
view him or her as contaminated because of the years incarcerated in a “criminalistic
environment” (Innocence Project, 2009, p. 11). The perception may be that the exoneree was
corrupted by these experiences and should be avoided as a precaution.
Clearly, some people devalue certain identities for fear of acquiring a label themselves
(Goffman, 1963). The tendency for stigma to spread from the stigmatized person to prospective
others possibly explains why people bearing a stigma are avoided and relationships are
terminated upon its disclosure. This tactic is used to prevent the transfer of a marked
individual’s stigma to another person. Reminiscent of Goffman’s (1963) courtesy stigma, an
employer may avoid hiring someone who has been wrongly convictedespecially if his or her
criminal record has not been expunged—because society’s reaction to this public figure may
negatively impact how the business is viewed. Therefore, the fear that the exoneree’s stigma
will be imparted on others should they choose to associate with him or her, acts as a strong
motivator to avoid any interaction.
Given that the public may have uncertainties about exonerees, framing can be used to
justify the labelling of exonerees as separate from other people. Allport (1979) argued that
these perceptions reflect an “us” (in-group) versus “them” (out-group) mentality. Likewise, he
believed that people are naturally conditioned to create categories and interact with individuals
who they view as similar to themselves. Therefore, frames or categories are created for people
to quickly identify individuals who do not belong within their in-group, facilitating prejudice
(Allport, 1979). For many people, individuals who have not been incarcerated form the in-
group, while individuals who have been incarcerated (even exonerees) make up the out-group.
This stems from the perception that out-group members are often assumed to possess negative
or undesirable traits. Allport (1979) contended that these negative assumptions cause people to
automatically avoid members of the out-group and develop habits of rejection. And, on a
collective level, frames are created when like-minded persons choose to reject people based on
their negative characteristics. Thus, the public’s actions and prejudices are guided by frames
based on the desire to separate the out-group from others, prompting the in-group to avoid these
out-group individuals, such as people who have encountered the criminal justice system.
Discriminating behaviours can also be explained using “prognostic framing,” which
involves the articulation of a problem or debate and offers reasonable strategies (e.g., acts of
mobilization) for resolving the issue by the concerned individuals (Benford, 1987; Benford &
Snow, 2000). Once the problem has been established, invested individuals decide how to
handle the situation using schemas of interpretation. For instance, researchers have stated that
more guilty individuals are judicially released than innocent individuals (e.g., Huff, Rattner, &
Sagarin, 1996); thus, the public may be more aware of these guilty individuals going free
creating uncertainties regarding the innocence of exonerees and possibly making them second-
guess wrongful convictions.
Why Do Public Perceptions Matter?
How the public frames wrongful conviction and labels exonerees impacts reintegration
efforts and exonerees’ quality of life. If these perceptions are negative, as interviews with
exonerees have suggested (e.g., Campbell & Denov, 2004; Westervelt & Cook, 2008), a greater
understanding of the public’s schemata of interpretation may lead to better strategies to
1885 The Qualitative Report 2015
challenge this negative framing. In addition, public perception research specific to wrongful
convictions can identify areas where there is a current need for further education, or may
suggest policies that would or would not garner public support (e.g., Angus Reid, 1995; Clow,
Blandisi, Ricciardelli, & Schuller, 2012). In turn, this may encourage governments to change
existing practices and procedures. For example, public perception research may lead to the
implementation of new policies to better assist those who have been wrongfully convicted (e.g.,
providing post-exoneration services to exonerees) as well as reduce stigmatization (e.g.,
education and awareness). By shedding light on the effects of stigmatization in cases of
wrongful conviction, research may assist with advocating for positive change. Indeed,
Ricciardelli and Clow (2012) found that a guest lecture delivered by an exoneree positively
impacted schematic interpretations of wrongful conviction.
Current Study
At present, there is limited research looking at public perceptions of exonerees and
wrongful conviction. However, as mentioned, the existing literature suggests positive attitudes
toward exonerees (e.g., Angus Reid, 1995; Bell, Clow, & Ricciardelli, 2008). For example, the
Angus Reid (1995) survey found that 9 out of 10 Canadians believed exonerees deserved
compensation for their wrongful conviction. Additionally, 65% of respondents believed that
the government should increase its efforts to prevent wrongful convictions from occurring
(Angus, 1995). Similarly, Bell and Clow (2007) found that more than half of their respondents
(59.2%) disagreed with the statement “wrongful convictions are not a problem in the Canadian
criminal justice system” (p. 101). An American study found comparable results57.4% of
respondents believed that wrongful convictions occur frequently enough to warrant major
systematic changes (Zalman, Larson, & Smith, 2012). While this research positively supports
wrongly convicted individuals by advocating for reformative policies, it seems to contradict
the negative experiences reported by exonerees themselves (e.g., Campbell & Denov, 2004,
2005; Vollen & Eggers, 2005).
The abovementioned research on public perceptions of wrongful convictions has been
mostly quantitative in nature (e.g., Angus Reid, 1995; Bell & Clow, 2007; Zalman et al., 2012),
whereas the research investigating the stigmatizing experiences of exonerees has been mostly
qualitative (e.g., Campbell & Denov, 2004, 2005). Thus, to complement the exoneree research
and to expand the research on public perceptions, we opted to use a qualitative approach (e.g.,
open-ended, semi-structured interviews) in order to give interviewees the opportunity to
express their views using rich descriptions. Specifically, we wanted to explore and assess how
members of the public perceived the lived experiences of exonerees resulting from their
wrongful convictionin an attempt to offer insight on the seemingly contradictory findings
between survey data and exonerees’ narratives. We used a constructed grounded approach to
analyze our data (Charmaz, 2014; Mills, Bonner, & Francis, 2006), which enables issues
deemed important by respondents (e.g., stigma) to emerge from the data instead of approaching
the data with perceived hypotheses guiding our analyses. In particular, we focused on public
opinion and perceptions of exonerees. To this end, we interviewed individuals of a suburban
city in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) to determine whether exonerees’ negative experiences
with stigma and prejudice are echoed in society’s schematic interpretations of wrongful
conviction. Attention is directed to the themes of stigma that arose from the data.
Role of the Researchers
Isabella M. Blandisi, Kimberley A. Clow, and Rosemary Ricciardelli
Our research team consisted of three people: a criminology graduate student (MA from
the University of Ontario Institute of Technology), a psychology associate professor
(University of Ontario Institute of Technology), and a sociology assistant professor (Memorial
University of Newfoundland). I. Blandisi’s research interest in wrongful convictions began
during her undergraduate practicum where she was a student case reviewer for the Association
in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC). Inspired by her interactions with exonerees
and advocates working with AIDWYC, her graduate thesis examined public perceptions of
wrongful convictions. As a developing scholar, I. Blandisi’s research interests are situated in
theories of stigma and the hardships of wrongful convictions more generally. Both professors
have experience withand an appreciation forqualitative and quantitative research designs.
Although K. Clow has greater experience with laboratory experiments, and R. Ricciardelli has
greater experience with qualitative field research, they frequently collaborate to bring different
skills and knowledge to the work. K. Clow’s research background is situated in psychological
approaches to stereotypes and prejudice, as well as social-cognitive methodologies, whereas
R. Ricciardelli is known for her sociological work on masculinities, prisoners/prisons, and
correctional/police officers.
K. Clow's uses a mixed methods approach to her research. Much of her work is
structured within Social Role Theory, Role Congruity Theory, Ambivalent Sexism, and
attribution theories of helping behaviour. R. Ricciardelli firmly believes that doing research in
the field and listening tohearingthe voices of the persons she speaks with is essential to
developing research questions and analyzing data. She frames her research across an
interconnection of diverse frameworks that draw from the traditions of risk and the interpretive
paradigm. The multidisciplinary nature of our team allows us to approach the interdisciplinary
issue of wrongful conviction from diverse perspectives.
Semi-structured face-to-face interviews (n=30) were conducted until theme saturation
was achieved. In essence, new individuals were interviewed until data saturation occurred; the
point at which analyses failed to uncover any new perspectives or insights (Bowen, 2008). As
such, the interviewees were 18 men and 12 women recruited from a city on the outskirts of the
Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Education levels included respondents who stopped after high
school (n=4), were currently working toward university bachelor degrees (n=15), had attained
college diplomas (n=6), and had attained university degrees (n=5)with two of these
interviewees holding post-graduate degrees. Ages ranged from 18 to 69 years of age
Even though these interviews were conducted within one particular suburban city,
interviewees generally lived throughout the GTA. As such, recruitment was two-fold: some
interviewees were recruited through a nearby university, and others through coffee shops
located within the city. In the university, students were informed about the study through an
advertisement posted on the university’s research recruitment website, where they could earn
partial course credit for participating. Those interested in participating were able to sign-up for
available timeslots through this research softwarea common practice at the university. These
individuals were interviewed in a private room at one of the university’s psychology
laboratories, where informed and voluntary consent were secured prior to commencing the
interviews. To ensure voluntary participation, interviewees were told they would receive their
partial course credit even if they decided not to finish the interview. All interviewees who were
recruited via the university’s research website chose to complete their interviews.
1887 The Qualitative Report 2015
Community members were recruited by the first author in various coffee shops in the
downtown area of the city and offered a small honorarium (10 dollars). The coffee shops were
selected to cover a range of clientele, such as Tim Horton’s (less expensive chain), an
independent store, and Coffee Culture (more expensive chain). Permission to conduct
interviews on site in the coffee shops was acquired from management prior to data collection
and only lone coffee shop patrons (e.g., those who were not with another person) were
approached for participation. Of the approached patrons, three men declined to participate. For
those who agreed to participate, the interview was conducted at the coffee establishment
(except for one respondent who requested to reconvene at her place of employment) either
immediately or at a more convenient future date. Across interview locations, the procedure
always began with informed consent and voluntary participation. Specifically, interviewees
were informed that they would receive the honorarium even if they did not complete the
interview and could stop the interview at any time. All respondents who agreed to participate
finished their interviews.
Data collection. This study was approved by a university Research Ethics Board (REB)
based on its compliance with the standards set out in the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical
Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS). The interviews were conducted over 4
months, from May 31, 2011 to August 3, 2011. Interviews ranged in duration from 15 to 60
minutes, with the average interview lasting approximately 30 minutes.
The data for this paper come from a larger study, which used a 20-item interview guide
to cover a range of topics relevant to wrongful conviction (see Appendix A). Specifically,
questions were created in light of a knowledge gap evinced in the current public perception
research and our desire to take strides toward closing this gap with empirical findings from
face-to-face interviews with the public (versus survey methods previously done). While
interviewees were directly asked questions noted in this guide, the conservational path that
emerged followed what was put forth by the intervieweenot the interviewer. Thus, to
facilitate discussion, additional questions may have been posed to respondents outside of this
guide to solicit clarification or further discussion of a topic of interest.
The interview questions did not specifically ask about stigmatization (it was an
emergent theme) because we did not want to force the concept of stigma into the dialogue.
Instead, we wanted to see if stigma emerged from the datalearning about stigma without
sensitizing interviewees to the issue intentionally. Indeed, if stigma had not been spontaneously
raised by interviewees, then that would also be telling. As stigma was a theme that did emerge
of the interviewees’ accord, it is clear that stigma is an issue of concern for interviewees when
considering exonerees. The questions that frequently elicited discussions of stigmatization
pertained to topics such as respondents’ feelings about the criminal justice system (e.g., how
do you generally feel about the Canadian criminal justice system?), factors leading to wrongful
convictions, (e.g., why do you think wrongful convictions happen?), public apologies (e.g., do
you think wrongly convicted individuals should receive an apology?), compensation (e.g., do
you think the wrongly convicted should be financially compensated?), prospective level of
comfort around an exoneree (e.g., would you be comfortable around him or her?) as well as
how they felt about an identified exoneree’s case (e.g., how do you feel about…?).
Analysis and coding. All interviews were transcribed verbatim by the first author (i.e.,
the interviewer). Then, inductive analysis was used to examine the transcribed data, wherein
the categories, themes, and patterns came from the data (Janesick, 1998). Thus, a constructed
grounded approach was our method of analysis (Charmaz, 2014). It is important to note that
the themes and categories that were constructed from the interviews were not imposed prior to
data collection. The codebook was an extensive Excel spreadsheet/table in which we organized
the research categories, subcategories, and tallied interviewees’ responses. We also included
interviewees’ demographic information (e.g., sex, education). Preliminary pseudonyms (e.g.,
Isabella M. Blandisi, Kimberley A. Clow, and Rosemary Ricciardelli
P8, P9) were used in the codebook. The interviewees’ responses were recorded as coding
progressed, with topics being added as they emerged (e.g., stigmatization).
During the initial reading of the data, the first author located themes and assigned initial
codes in an attempt to condense the data into organized categories. This form of “open coding”
brought themes to the surface from deep within the data (Charmaz, 2014; Neuman, 2003). The
first author determined emergent themes based on a topic or concept that recurred repeatedly,
with multiple interviewees expressing a similar perspective. This prompted her to examine
these themes in more depth as coding advanced. Respondents were included in every theme or
subtheme they mentioned; therefore they could be represented in several categories
simultaneously. For instance, a respondent could have made a statement, placing him or her
within a main category (e.g., reasons for stigmatization). Then, components of their response
could also be tallied under descriptors of that theme (e.g., doubt, incarceration). Please refer to
Appendix B for thematic breakdown.
During the second reading of the data, the first author reviewed and examined the initial
codes, with a focus on linking emergent themes. In particular, she looked for categories or
concepts that clustered together (Charmaz, 2014; Neuman, 2003). For example, “stigma”
formed the main theme and a subtheme included “reasons for stigmatization.” The first author
further broke down this subtheme into descriptive topics such as “media and technology.” In
essence, the first author created and tallied detailed subcategories for each major theme at this
stage. In the final stages of coding, the major themes and subcategories were established and
the first author conducted another sweep of the dataensuring that all cases illustrating the
established codes were included.
To finalize these codes, the second author read all transcripts and examined the coding
scheme. If any discrepancies or concerns arose, the first two authors attempted to resolve the
issue through discussion and/or reanalysis of the transcripts, which resulted in additional
subcategories and/or the collapsing of similar topics. More than one coder (first and second
authors) analyzed the data in order to ensure the rigor of the study by “passing” reliability and
dependability checks (Saumure & Given, 2008). Through communication between these two
coders during the coding process, we ensured the same thematic interpretations were observed
across different researchers.
The first and second authors also maintained comparability throughout by ensuring the
analysis was conducted with constant comparison within and across the data, and in light of
current research (Mills et al., 2006; Saumure & Given, 2008). Within the data, they consistently
examined various responses in order to establish themes/subthemes that represented the voices
of persons in the study group (Saumure & Given, 2008). In terms of current research, emergent
themes were viewed parallel to the literature on perceptions of wrongful conviction (e.g., Clow
& Leach, 2015) as well as exonerees’ experiences (e.g., Westervelt & Cook, 2012). As such,
our exploratory findings related to broader research contexts (Saumure & Given, 2008)
establishing similarities, differences, and new areas of inquiry for future researchers to pursue.
It is important to note that all authors used pseudonyms in order to protect the confidentiality
of interviewees. In addition, the first and second authors made minor edits to respondents’
quotes to improve grammar, reduce speech fillers or utterances (e.g., pauses), and to improve
comprehensibility and flow.
Results and Discussion
Our results shed light on how the public perceives wrongly convicted persons to be
stigmatized. The following themes emerged from interviewees’ responses: (a) blatant versus
subtle stigma, (b) reasons for stigmatization, and (c) being against stigma (see Appendix B).
The findings are situated in stigma theory and framing.
1889 The Qualitative Report 2015
Blatant Stigma Versus Subtle Stigma
Eight respondents admitted to having their own biases toward exonerees (i.e., blatant
stigma), describing these biases as their own views and how they personally felt, rather than
how they expected others would feel. Of those 8, 3 people specifically mentioned being
uncomfortable with the fact that the exoneree had been in prison:
If I didn’t know [about incarceration]. . .at the time, I don’t think it would be a
big deal, but once finding out, I don’t know. I’d just be like, “Oh. . .this guy
went to jail.” So, I don’t know. I’ve never been around someone that’s been to
prison and accused of such crimes (Todd).
This comment supports previous research, where being incarcerated was found to be off
putting, leading to stigmatization (Clow, Ricciardelli, & Cain, 2012). That is, simply being
imprisoned can impart a stigma on the individualwhether he or she committed the crime or
not. Moreover, a pervasive view was that being in prison with “offenders” could change an
exoneree, or that simply being incarcerated would alter his or her personality in negative ways.
As Wayne explained:
I wouldn’t really be comfortable [socializing with an exoneree] because of what
happened and what he’s been through in jail
. The people he met. And
sometimes, [from being in] jail, peopleeven if you were a good person, the
situation [incarceration] you are put inoften changes your behaviour and the
way you think.
Wayne’s words demonstrate the belief that an exoneree’s personality and demeanour can
negatively change as a result of non-voluntary exposure to offenders and prison, justifying
the public’s discomfort and desire to avoid exonerees.
Three of these eight interviewees also suggested that exonerees contribute to their own
wrongful convictions. For instance, Kelly implied that exonerees contribute to their own plight
when she said: “I personally feel like I would never have to worry about being wrongfully
convicted, just because I don’t put myself in those situations.” Based on this comment, she
appears to feel immune to wrongful conviction and suggests it is exonerees’ fault for being in
compromising situations. This thought process fuels the exoneree’s virtual social identity of
guilt or being at fault in some wayfacilitating incorrect judgements about his or her
personality based on the view that certain people can be wrongly convicted, but not others. In
disregarding the possibility of being wrongfully convicted herself, Kelly corroborated research
on the transfer of blame (e.g., Kauzlarich et al., 2001) to exonerees. Adding to this, Derek
believed, “most innocent people aren’t really charged for these crimes on a daily basis, right?
That’s what I think. . .he [exoneree] probably did something [to be convicted].” Perceiving
exonerees as contributors to their wrongful conviction appeases the public’s concern for
wrongful conviction by justifying the criminal justice system’s conduct and, thus, regular
people would not have to worry about being erroneously convicted.
If only other people, or bad people, are at risk of wrongful conviction, then the world
remains a fair and just place (see Lerner, 1980) even with the existence of wrongful
Respondents used jail and prison synonymously. Thus, the quotes have been interpreted using the term “prison,”
but the original term (i.e., “jail”) was maintained in the interviewees’ quotes.
Isabella M. Blandisi, Kimberley A. Clow, and Rosemary Ricciardelli
convictions. It further supports Allport’s (1979) argument of in-group and out-group
formations; people view themselves as one group and exonerees as an out-group who are in
situations that can lead to being wrongly convicted. As people prefer and choose to interact
with individuals who have similar characterizations (e.g., Allport, 1979; Snow & Benford,
1988), this sort of categorization might lead people to isolate and discriminate against wrongly
convicted persons as they are misperceived as being at fault for their erroneous convictions.
Interviewees also described being apprehensive if they found themselves in a room with
an exoneree based on uncertainties surrounding the exoneree’s innocence: “[If he was] right
there it might raise a little flag in the back of my head. . .even though he was wrongfully
convicted, I could still look at him and [feel] awkward, you know?” (Joshua). This “little flag”
of doubt seemed to raise interviewees’ anxieties about being in an exoneree’s presence, perhaps
because they did not trust that a potential exoneree would be truly innocent. As Jack explained,
“People can say anything they want, right? I can’t believe what he [exoneree] says [unless]
there’s evidence to prove that he didn’t do it.” These viewpoints express uncertainty
surrounding exonerees’ innocence and may explain the negative stigma exonerees report when
interacting with the public (Grounds, 2005)—specifically, feeling relegated from the “us” to
the “them” category due to apprehension surrounding their innocence.
Additionally, two respondents stated that the word, conviction, stood out for them more
than the word, wrongful, when it came to the term wrongful conviction. For these interviewees,
wrongful conviction seemed to be framed as a type of conviction instead of a type of wrongful
action or error:
If I was [an] employer and I knew someone was wrongfully convicted, I would
still probably have second thoughts [because]. . .anyone who encounters a
criminal situation and who has been convicted—just that word conviction”
really stands out. So, I guess people tend not to think of the “wrongful” part
when they hear about a wrongful conviction. It’s the conviction part that really
stands out and that’s why I [personally] would have second thoughts (Peter).
As Peter explained, the conviction part is salient and causes doubt. In a similar vein, when
explaining his hesitation to converse with an exoneree, Joshua said, “I don’t know, he
killed. . . [Well], he didn’t kill anyone, but the fact that he was convicted. The conviction part
[stands out to me].” Based on these viewpoints, being tied to a criminal conviction may
facilitate the negative framing of exonerees, and may overshadow the knowledge of their
Although only 8 interviewees openly discussed their personal biases, this does not mean
other respondents did not hold stigmatizing views. These 8 interviewees were suspected to be
upfront and honest about their biases. Despite other respondents claiming to not hold
stigmatizing views, they may not have been aware of their own biases or were aware of their
biases but chose to hide them in order to appear more socially presentable.
Indeed, 3 other interviewees made comments that seemed indicative of underlying
stigma. Although these respondents explained that they were personally not biased and would
not stigmatize exonerees, some of their word choices suggested negative framing and stigma
(i.e., subtle stigma). For example, when discussing whether he would be comfortable
interacting with exonerees, Philip said, “I would feel comfortable around those individuals
[exonerees]. I mean, being wrongfully convicted doesn’t make you a bad person.” Referring to
exonerees as “those individuals” may indicate the distinction of in-group and out-group
dynamics. Allport (1979) argued that this us versus them mentality leads to prejudicial
1891 The Qualitative Report 2015
Other interviewees seemed to distance themselves from their stigmatizing comments,
suggesting that other peoplenot the intervieweemight stigmatize exonerees. For example,
Ruth commented that “if you have children, even if they prove that that person [exoneree]
didn’t do it, somebody as a mother or father would probably not leave their child alone with
that person.” Although not explicitly saying that she would feel this way, Ruth used prognostic
framing to justify discrimination against exonerees in this particular situation. Specifically, the
public may feel justified in denying an exoneree direct contact with othersespecially if
individuals are protective of that social setting (e.g., their home, school, daycare). As argued
by Allport (1979), these types of views often facilitate in-group and out-group formations
the idea of keeping danger (or the prospect of danger) at a distance. Although not as obvious
and forward as the interviewees expressing blatant stigma, these three respondents appeared to
indirectly exhibit stigma through their language choices (for additional information, see
Shattell, 2009).
Reasons for Stigmatization
Twenty-six respondents mentioned why they believed exonerees are stigmatized by the
public. These comments focused on how the public sees exonerees, not what the interviewees
themselves believed. Of these respondents, 6 people felt that media coverage of exonerees’
cases facilitated their stigmatization. They acknowledged that early media coverage of the case
(i.e., when the exoneree was assumed to be guilty) could have detrimental and lingering
impacts on exonerees. James explained this process: “[For wrongly convicted people] having
their names dragged in the mud all those years [can be problematic]the media puts that seed
in your brain.” In this way, the media could essentially tarnish how others viewed the exoneree
based on how the media framed him or her earlier on. For these interviewees, seeing an
exoneree’s story in the media prior to the wrongful conviction may form the basis for how he
or she is viewed by the public years later:
I think it’s because bad news spreads faster than wrongful convictions or better
news [like an exoneration]. Convictions concern everyone. . .people tend to pay
attention to bad news first and that spreads really fast. Let’s say a person was
arrested for somethingalmost everyone would know because of the Internet,
the media…they like the “juicy” stuff, right? (Charles).
As evinced in Charles’ words, broadcasters who typically report negative stories can taint an
exoneree’s reputation after (or if) their story received coverage. That is, the public would
remember the arrest or sensationalized details of the case, making it difficult to accept news
that contradicts thisfacilitating prejudice and discrimination even after exoneration.
Given current technologies (e.g., Google searches, news-video archives) that allow the
history of the exoneree to be easily accessible to the public, the impact of negatively framed
media reports may linger for years. For instance, when an exoneree tries to reintegrate post-
exoneration by applying to rent an apartment, he or she can be easily Googled or searched by
a landlord, which exposes news stories covering the earlier assumptions of guilt as well as the
updated stories of his or her innocence. Searches can also present both fiction and factoften
interchangeably. Thus, modern technologies may facilitate the framing process, wherein
people may seek to avoid an exoneree based on a stereotype of danger or uncertainties about
his or her person. Moreover, this information may easily be shared by social media and other
networking technologies among peers and acquaintances, possibly leading to a shared desire
to exclude or avoid the exoneree.
Isabella M. Blandisi, Kimberley A. Clow, and Rosemary Ricciardelli
Five respondents felt that people do not have extensive knowledge on the functioning
of the criminal justice system, in general, or wrongful convictions, in particular. As Lynn
explained, “I would say [stigma occurs] because not a lot of people know about our justice
system or anything, so it’s just a lack of that education.” These interviewees felt that stigma
occurs because societal members are relying on information that may be inaccurate and/or
incomplete. Moreover, lack of exposure to wrongful conviction in certain communities was
also thought to facilitate stigma toward exonerees. For example, Sean noted:
I think it’s [stigma] a factor where you’re dealing with [wrongful conviction]
cases within a community where. . .exposure is very small. I feel that tends to
[occur] when you’re dealing with people who are really not exposed and they’re
living in a “small world.”
This limited knowledge may enable the stigmatization of exonerees due to the public’s lack of
awareness about the prevalence of wrongful convictions (e.g., Bell et al., 2008), factors that
can lead to wrongful convictions (see Campbell & Denov, 2005), post-exoneration obstacles
(e.g., Grounds, 2005), or the implications of stigmatization for exonerees (e.g., Westervelt &
Cook, 2008, 2010). More importantly, these perceptions stress the importance of expanding
education on wrongful convictions beyond the academic realm, as education may positively
impact schematic interpretations of exonerees (Ricciardelli & Clow, 2012).
Ten interviewees commented on how the incarceration of wrongly convicted
individuals contributed to their stigma. Interestingly, this theme echoes an earlier theme in
which respondents admitted to being personally biased toward an exoneree based on their
contact with prison and offenders. However, the general view here was that other people (not
the interviewees themselves) negatively view prison and, as a result, exonerees who have been
incarcerated become viewed negatively by association. Jack explained that despite an
exoneree’s innocence, for some people, prison is ultimately a place where criminals go:
Society wouldn’t accept them [exoneree]. To everybody, even though he’s been
wrongly convicted they’re going to still think, “Oh, look he’s been in jail or
she’s been in jail.” Once you go to jail, automatically, everyone thinks you’re a
bad person. It doesn’t matter if you’re good or bad. Once you’ve been in there,
and you come out, they automatically think you’re a bad person, so no one
would want to associate with you.
His comment shows how assumptions are made about an individual’s character based on a
stigmatizing attributein this case, having been incarcerated. Martin corroborated this further
when he said,
The fact that they [exonerees] were exposed to cons in jailsets them [people]
off even though he has been wrongfully convicted and released…It’s the
element of danger…You know, you’ve been in prison, you could [have]
be[come] a dangerous person. They [exoneree] could hurt you or attack
someone; they [exoneree] did some hard time.
Ultimately, these comments suggest that even though an exoneree is innocent, having been
incarcerated marks him or her as a societal danger and places him or her within this stigmatized
group for some individuals.
Just under half of the interviewees in this theme believed that people avoid and
stigmatize exonerees for fear of being victims of courtesy stigma. In this regard, James
1893 The Qualitative Report 2015
explained that people would not want to associate with exonerees because “they wouldn’t want
their own character damaged.” The desire to avoid a tarnished image—by associating with
someone who bears a stigmawas prevalent among respondents. This discussion on the fear
of courtesy stigma provides insight into how in-group and out-group memberships are
maintained among members of society. That is, by associating with an exoneree, people fear
losing their in-group position and being forced into the out-group alongside the wrongly
convicted individual. This fear of being cast out from their in-group encourages social distance
from exonerees.
Some respondents felt that courtesy stigma fears might be particularly concerning for
employers. As Philip described,
I mean first of all, the person has been wrongfully convicted. Although we
[know that the conviction] was wrong there may be a particular employer that
may not want to associate with that person [because] of the attention and the
publicity. A wrongful conviction is a history right? [By] going through this
process, everybody [wonders], “Oh where’s Bert, he was [that] wrongfully
convicted person, where is he working [now]?” [So] employers may be wary
[to hire someone who has been wrongly convicted].
Employers may believe that their business will decline if customers learn they hired someone
with a criminal record (whether innocent or not), so they opt to maintain the perceived integrity
of their business, as well as evade the risk of courtesy stigma, by denying employment
opportunities to exonerees (Roberts & Stanton, 2007; Westervelt & Cook, 2008). Since
exonerees have been in contact with the justice system, employers may presume that customers
and employees may not feel comfortable interacting, working with, and/or being served by
someone who has been wrongly convicted. These findings lend further insight into the
cognitive underpinnings of frames—particularly, the “us versus them” mentality that typically
facilitates this form of stigmatization.
Earlier, we discussed how respondents personally would hesitate to interact with an
exoneree based on doubt. In this theme, some respondents explained how others tended to
second-guess and question wrongful convictions. This topic of doubt was further discussed in
regards to: (a) the judicially released guilty, (b) the type of crime for which the exoneree was
wrongly convicted, and (c) if the exoneree had a past criminal record.
Indeed, just over half of the interviewees believed that exonerees were stigmatized
because the public doubted their innocence. Ruth, for example, explained that a person can
never be completely sure of another’s guilt or innocence:
I guess in some people’s minds, there will always be that doubt. You know,
when somebody has been accused of molesting someone and it comes out in the
public and it’s been shown [later] that they didn’t do it. I think that no matter
what, it has affected their [exoneree’s] life because people will always look at
them wondering, with that little bit of doubt, if they did or really didn’t do it or
[if] they just managed to get away with it.
Here, Ruth is not speaking of her own views, but explaining how other people might be
suspicious about exonerees. She hints that simply being tied to a horrible crime is enough to
leave doubt in some people’s minds.
Speaking hypothetically, Derek similarly commented:
Isabella M. Blandisi, Kimberley A. Clow, and Rosemary Ricciardelli
Well let’s say I’ve been put away for 5 years. People ask questions: why was
this person put away for 5 years even though he didn’t do anything? The justice
system is power[ful], so even though I didn’t do anything, they [society] can’t
make sense of how the justice system can make [these] mistakes. That’s why
they [the public] would act differently [toward the exoneree] because they
would think that [he/she is likely a] guilty criminal and that’s why [he/she was]
Similar to how this theme emerged in blatant stigma, Ruth and Derek’s comments further
explain why some people may be quick to create categories and frames that place exonerees
on the outskirts of a desirable social group. What is different from the expressions of doubt in
the earlier theme is that here, respondents are trying to explain how this doubt can emerge from
people’s faith in the infallibility of the criminal justice system.
Judicially released guilty. Even though the interviews focused exclusively on
wrongful conviction, 8 interviewees spontaneously raised the issue of the judicially released
guilty, suggesting that it was a pressing concern in their minds:
…there was a case where they let [a group] free because they didn’t get to court
soon enough or they didn’t get convicted soon enough, so they were all let free
and they had serious criminal charges. That’s what I mean…hardened criminals
getting away with too soft punishmentsSure [wrongful convictions] are
important, but I think it is a relatively small problem compared to all the other
problems we have (Edward).
Given that it is more common for guilty people to be judicially released than the innocent (e.g.,
Huff et al., 1996), the concern about dangerous individuals returning to society may be
contributing to the uncertainties some people feel toward exonerees’ innocence. Additionally,
Joshua commented that it is not just innocent individuals who are “exonerated:” “There [are]
people where a crime happened. . .the person did it, but they [justice system] didn’t have
enough facts to prove him guilty. So, his charges [have to be] dropped.” Considering these
perceptions, suspicions surrounding the judicially released guilty may spread to exonerees,
tarnishing their reputations. Thus, if the public doubtsor is uncertain ofthe innocence of
exonerees, they are more likely to engage in prognostic framing.
Type of crime. Just over half of the 26 respondents in this theme suggested that the
public doubts and stigmatizes exonerees, in part, because of the crime for which they were
wrongly convicted. Todd, for instance, explained that, “The worse the crime, the more
someone feels scared. I guess scared or, doesn’t want to be around that person. . .even though
they’ve been wrongfully convicted.” This statement demonstrates that the more severe the
crime, the more negative the perception of the exoneree. Edward explained this further: “Some
people will only believe what they think. I don’t care about the facts I just don’t want to be in
the company of someone who has been convicted of murder or I think has been convicted of
murder or there was some reason why they were convicted of murder. These respondents are
saying that an exoneree is viewed to be more dangerous if he or she was wrongly convicted of
a more egregious crime, prompting increased social distance by others. Explaining this in more
detail, Danielle said:
If you were caught robbing a bank you can come back into society and people
aren’t going to run you down the street when they see you, but if you were
convicted of killing a child they’re not going to let their kids out in the yard
1895 The Qualitative Report 2015
whether you are exonerated or not. They’re not going to take the chance, they’re
not going to let you come over and babysit.
Her comment explains that members of the public may prevent interactions between children
and an exoneree based on the crime for which he or she was wrongly convicted. These
respondents indicated that serious crimes (e.g., murder) are framed differently than other
crimes (e.g., robbery) because they are associated with elevated danger. In other words, with
the presumption of danger being higher for serious crimes, this increasingly prevents
individuals from associating with an exoneree who falls within this particular framedespite
his or her innocence.
Past criminal record. Nine interviewees felt that exonerees were further stigmatized
and doubted if they had a criminal record prior to their wrongful conviction. Similar to the
other themes in this section, interviewees discussed the perceptions of others rather than their
own views. Edward exemplified this when he said, “Some people always have the perception
that if you were convicted of one crime, you probably did many other [crimes].” This comment
framed the exoneree based on the idea that committing one crime predisposes him or her to
commit others. That is, if someone assumes that an exoneree’s past criminal record led to his
or her wrongful conviction, that exonereewhile innocent of the present crimewill still be
considered dangerous or criminal. In addition, these interviewees discussed the idea that
exonerees with criminal records tend to have their innocence doubted further, which generates
more stigmatization by the public. Bruce described this:
. . . [people] get this feeling where [they think], “Oh yeah because he’s done
something wrong he is tainted” and “he’s done something wrong, he’s broken
the law [before]. If he’s broken it once, he can break it again. . . [To them],
something that happens once can always happen again.
In this observation, Goffman’s (1963) assertion that people justify discrimination and construct
stigmas based on an individual’s perceived danger is apparent. Consequently, if the exoneree
had a previous criminal record, he or she may be viewed as having the propensities to commit
crimes because he or she already has done soautomatically framing him or her as a
prospective recidivist. In this sense, a past criminal history acts as a stigmatizing marker for
exonerees. Bruce continued, “[People stigmatize when they say things like], He’s stolen
something [before]; he’s got a criminal record. Let’s not talk to him because he’s a negative
influence to our lives. This schematic interpretation of exonerees as criminalsgiven
previous criminal historiesmay perpetuate the creation of frames that enables the public to
negatively label, as well as avoid contact with, wrongly convicted individuals. In essence, such
responses corroborate reports that exonerees with past criminal records have an elevated
chance of being stigmatized (e.g., Blume, 2008).
Against Stigmatization
Only two respondents spoke out against stigma and prejudice toward exonerees. The
general dialogue was how stigma reduced opportunities for exonerees to move on and live a
normal life. Interviewees suggested that a lingering criminal record post-exoneration for the
crime they did not commit contributed to this: “First of all, [having this criminal record] affects
[exonerees] emotionally and mentally. . .when they get out there, they are judged because of a
record. I’m honestly against that” (Heather). This comment suggests that stigmatizing and
framing exonerees post-exoneration may lead to problematic outcomes, such as psychological
issues from continued prejudice and discrimination. Moreover, it was noted that criminal
Isabella M. Blandisi, Kimberley A. Clow, and Rosemary Ricciardelli
reference checks do not differentiate actual convictions from wrongful convictions,
encouraging unwarranted stigmas that make reintegration more difficult. As Amy said, “I don’t
think it [criminal reference checks] should be like that because they [exonerees] deserve to
have a chance at living a normal life too.” Here, interviewees personally spoke out against
these stigmas due to the detrimental impact on exonerees’ quality of life and ability to
reintegrateindirectly suggesting that criminal records should be automatically expunged
Minimal research has examined how the public views wrongful convictions and
exonerees (e.g., Bell et al., 2008). Even though our respondents were not directly asked about
stigma and wrongful conviction, most of the interviewees spontaneously voiced their views on
the topic. Respondents voluntarily discussed how stigma would make it difficult for exonerees
to acquire gainful employment, how being incarcerated contaminates exonerees with stigma,
how the innocence of exonerees may be doubted, and how others may be concerned about
acquiring a courtesy stigma if they interact or befriend an exoneree. Although these issues have
been noted by exonerees or previously suggested by researchers (e.g., Clow, Ricciardelli, &
Cain, 2012; Vollen & Eggers, 2005; Westervelt & Cook, 2008, 2010), our findings demonstrate
that members of the public are also aware of these issues, which has not been noted in the
literature presently.
In particular, our findings provide new insights into public knowledge regarding
wrongful conviction. Individuals are aware of numerous factors leading to stigma, recognize
that stigma manifests in many forms, and most importantly, the public seems to understand the
long-term implications of stigma for exonerees. Based on this, the continued lack of
government action (e.g., no Canadian legislation to provide compensation, governments failing
to offer apologies, false criminal records are not automatically expunged) is surprising.
The majority of interviewees believed that people stigmatized exonerees by discrediting
them in light of their wrongful conviction. Our findings suggest that an exoneree’s
incarceration elicits stigma. Interviewees applied their negative sentiments toward prisons onto
exonerees who have been imprisonedconstructing frames for exonerees originally used for
prisoners and offenders. Respondents also brought forth the idea that contact with prison and
offenders may negatively change the exoneree, leading people to avoid exonerees as a potential
threat or danger in and of themselves. Some respondents also acknowledged that courtesy
stigma fears contributed to discriminatory actions against exonerees. For instance, interviewees
presented the idea that employers may avoid hiring an exoneree in order to preserve the
reputation of their businesssuggesting prognostic framing techniques. Finally, in regards to
public doubt, the exoneree’s innocence and concerns over their prison experiences—including
fears of courtesy stigmaseemed to underlie stigmatization according to interviewees. When
discussing doubt, respondents mostly tied the exoneree to the crime for which he or she was
wrongly convicted. They felt exonerees were further stigmatized and doubted if they were
convicted of more serious crimes like murder or the sexual assault of children, which seems to
suggest that societal frames fluctuate based on the danger an individual is thought to represent.
In other words, the more serious the conviction, the more dangerous and avoidable the exoneree
is believed to be. Overall, the voices in our data can be interpreted to show an interplay between
stigma theory and the framing approach.
Limitations. Although data saturation was achieved, this study used a small convenient
group from the GTA. The employment of interviewees from other cities will be useful to further
understand perceptions of wrongful conviction on a more diverse scale. While efforts to expand
the group were made (the interviewer visited a variety of coffee shops), the study group is
1897 The Qualitative Report 2015
likely a range of educated, middle-class individuals. For instance, the fact that the interviews
were conducted in coffee shops indicates that interviewees had the means to pay for the goods
and services offered. It may be interesting to replicate this study in a similar middle-class city
in the United States or regions with varying socio-economic statuses and ethnicities. By having
viewpoints from multiple demographic groups, this may offer a more well-rounded
understanding on how people feel toward the stigmatization of exonerees. However, even
though the study was conducted in only one suburban city, interviewees indicated that they
resided in a variety of locations across the GTA. Therefore, not all respondents strictly came
from the area where the study was conducted, allowing other surrounding locations to be
represented. This was a preliminary, exploratory study, and greater research in public
perceptions of wrongful conviction is needed.
Future research. In identifying how exonerees are stigmatized and the factors that may
facilitate their stigmatization, interviewees generally shared similar perspectives. Considering
most respondents discussed stigma and framing from the perspective of others, future
researchers may wish to directly ask interviewees about their views of stigma in various social
situations (e.g., having an exoneree as a neighbour). In addition, researchers may wish to ask
respondents if they know anyone who has experienced imprisonment, wrongful conviction, or
the criminal justice system in general (e.g., a relative, friend). Interestingly, four respondents
spontaneously discussed that they knew a family member or friend who had experienced a
wrongful conviction and one went so far as to reveal her experiences with the criminal justice
system. Future research may wish to further explore whether this familiarity, or previous
knowledge, impacts perceptions of wrongful conviction.
Additionally, some interviewees were more open and willing to discuss their personal
biases and stigma toward exonerees and wrongful conviction compared to others. It is possible
that because the first author was a graduate student at the time, some interviewees may have
felt more comfortable being open and honest given a shared social position and similar age.
Conversely, other respondents could have been less upfront (e.g., may have held but not
expressed negative opinions of exonerees) during their interviews as a way to appear more
socially presentable or knowledgeable for the student-interviewer. This interpretation seems
plausible since some interviewees had responses that were indicative of prejudicial attitudes
while they explicitly maintained that they themselves were not biased. This reasoning may
also explain the contradiction between positive public opinion surveys and the negative
experiences reported by exonerees. The public may avoid expressing negative opinions in
surveys in order to provide more socially appropriate answers, possibly contributing to positive
findings. However, as most interviewees in this study supported exonerees by acknowledging
the detriments of stigma, it is also possible that a small portion of the public may hold negative
attitudes toward individuals who have been wrongly convictedinteractions with these few
prejudiced people may have a more lasting impact on exonerees than neutral or positive
encounters. Future researchers may wish to explore this idea further.
Policy implications. Ultimately, public awareness is essential to reduce the stigma and
discrimination wrongly convicted individuals’ experience. Our findings suggest that
individuals within a Canadian city are becoming more cognisant of criminal justice issues, like
wrongful convictions. Perhaps by informing the public of the repercussions of stigma, people
may become better equipped to understand how stigma impacts an exoneree’s quality of life
post-exoneration, thus continuing this trend. Sharing post-exoneration stories and/or current
research findings with people through popular public-mediums (television interviews,
classroom guest speakers, social media, etc.) may be one way to increase public knowledge
and awareness about wrongful conviction. While few interviewees indicated they were born
outside of Canada, we did not directly ask our respondents their origin of birth. Thus, to assess
the viability of the proposed applications, future research may also wish to look at the views of
Isabella M. Blandisi, Kimberley A. Clow, and Rosemary Ricciardelli
immigrants to Canada in addition to Canadian-born citizens. With this said, researchers (e.g.,
Angus Reid, 1995; Zalman et al., 2012) have found positive public support for exonerees (e.g.,
the public feels that the government should increase its wrongful conviction efforts), which is
encouraging given this may increase public support for reform, and stimulate public-driven
changes within the criminal justice system. For instance, the government may consider
implementing new policies to better assist people who have been wrongly convicted or provide
more information to the public about wrongful conviction in order to prevent negative stigmas.
Our hope is that further research and education will assist the public and governments in
becoming more aware of wrongful convictions in generaland the negative implications of
stigma specificallystimulating legislative and policy changes that diminish the negative
framing processes directed toward those who have been wrongly convicted.
Allport, G. W. (1979). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Perseus Books.
Angus Reid. (1995). Justice and public safety issues: Public perspectives on wrongful
convictions. The Angus Reid Report, 75-77.
Bell, J. G., & Clow, K. A. (2007). Student attitudes toward the post-conviction review process
in Canada. The Journal of the Institute of Justice and International Studies, 7, 93-106.
Bell, J. G., Clow, K. A., & Ricciardelli, R. (2008). Causes of wrongful conviction: Looking at
student knowledge. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 19(1), 1051-1253.
Benford, R. D. (1987). Framing activity, meaning, and social movement participation: The
nuclear disarmament movement. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest
Dissertations and Theses. (Accession Order No. 303611855).
Benford, R. D., & Snow, D. A. (2000). Framing processes and social movements: An overview
assessment. Annual Review of Sociology, 26, 611-639.
Blume, J. H. (2008). The dilemma of the criminal defendant with a prior recordLessons from
the wrongfully convicted. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, 5(3), 477-505.
Bowen, G. (2008). Naturalistic inquiry and the saturation concept: A research note. Qualitative
Research, 8(1), 137-152.
Campbell, K., & Denov, M. (2004). The burden of innocence: Coping with a wrongful
imprisonment. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 46(2), 140-
Campbell, K. M., & Denov, M. S. (2005). Understanding the causes, effects and responses to
wrongful conviction in Canada. Journal of Contemporary Justice, 21(3), 224-249.
Charmaz, K. (2014). Constructing grounded theory (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Chunias, J. L., & Aufgang, Y. D. (2008). Beyond monetary compensation: The need for
comprehensive services for the wrongfully convicted. Boston College Third World Law
Journal, 48(1), 1-26.
Clow, K. A., Blandisi, I. M., Ricciardelli, R., & Schuller, R. A. (2012). Public perception of
wrongful conviction: Support for compensation and apologies. Albany Law Review,
75(3), 1415-1438.
Clow, K. A., & Leach, A. M. (2015). Stigma and wrongful conviction. All exonerees are not
perceived equal. Psychology, Crime & Law, 21(2). 172-185.
Clow, K. A., Ricciardelli, R., & Cain, T. L. (2012). Stigma-by-association: Prejudicial effects
of the prison experience for offenders and exonerees. In D. W. Russell (Ed.), The
psychology of prejudice: Contemporary issues (pp. 127-154). New York, NY: Nova
Corrigan, P. W., Powell, K. J., & Rüsch, N. (2012). How does stigma affect work with people
with serious mental illnesses? Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 35(5), 381-384.
1899 The Qualitative Report 2015
Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. New York, NY:
Goffman, E. (1974). Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of the experience. New
York, NY: Harper Colophon.
Grounds, A. T. (2005). Understanding the effects of wrongful imprisonment. Crime and
Justice, 32, 1-58.
Hough, M., & Park, A. (2002). How malleable are attitudes to crime and punishment? Findings
from a British deliberative poll. In J. V. Roberts & M. Hough (Eds.), Changing attitudes
to punishment (pp. 163-183). Portland, OR: Willan.
Huff, C. R., Rattner, A., & Sagarin, E. (1996). Convicted but innocent: Wrongful conviction
and public policy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Innocence Project. (2009, December). Making up for lost time: What the wrongfully convicted
endure and how to provide fair compensation. An Innocence Project Report, 1-43.
Janesick, V. J. (1998). The dance of qualitative research and design: Metaphor, methodolatry,
and meaning. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Strategies of qualitative inquiry.
(pp. 35-55). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Kauzlarich, D., Matthews, R., & Miller, W. (2001). Toward a victimology of state crime.
Critical Criminology, 10(3), 173-194.
Lerner, M. J. (1980). The belief in a just world: A fundamental delusion (Critical issues in
social justice). New York, NY: Springer.
Link, B. G., & Phelan, J. C. (2001). Conceptualizing stigma. Annual Review of Sociology, 27,
Mills, J., Bonner, A., & Francis, K. (2006). The development of constructivist grounded theory.
International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 5(1), 1-10.
Neuberg, S. L., Smith, D. M., Hoffman, J. C., & Russell, F. J. (1994). When we observe
stigmatized and "normal" individuals interacting: Stigma by association. Personality
and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20(2), 196-209.
Neuman, W. L. (2003). Social research methods: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. (5th
ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.
Ricciardelli, R., & Clow, K. A. (2012). The impact of an exoneree’s guest lecture on students’
attitudes toward wrongly convicted persons. Journal of Criminal Justice Education,
23(2), 1-21.
Roberts, J., & Stanton, E. (2007, November 25). Free and uneasy: A long road back after
exoneration, and justice is slow to make amends. The New York Times. Retrieved from
Roberts, J. V. (2007). Public confidence in criminal justice in Canada. A comparative and
contextual analysis. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 49(2),
Saumure, K., & Given, L. M. (2008). Rigor in qualitative research. In L. M. Given (Ed.), The
SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods (pp. 796-797). Thousand Oaks,
CA: Sage.
Shattell, M. (2009). Stigmatizing language with unintended meanings: “Persons with mental
illness” or “mentally ill persons?” Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 30(3), 199.
Snow, D. A., & Benford, R. D. (1988). Ideology, frame resonance, and participant
mobilization. International Social Movement Research, 1, 197-218.
Vollen, L., & Eggers, D. (2005). Surviving justice: America’s wrongfully convicted and
exonerated. San Francisco, CA: McSweeney’s Books.
Westervelt, S. D., & Cook, K. J. (2008). Coping with innocence after death row. American
Sociological Association, 7(4), 1-6.
Isabella M. Blandisi, Kimberley A. Clow, and Rosemary Ricciardelli
Westervelt, S. D., & Cook, K. J. (2010). Framing innocents: The wrongly convicted as victims
of state harm. Crime Law and Social Change, 53, 259-275.
Westervelt, S. D., Cook, K. J. (2012). Life after death row: Exonerees’ search for community
and identity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University.
Zalman, M., Larson, M. J., & Smith, B. (2012). Citizens’ attitudes toward wrongful conviction.
Criminal Justice Review, 37(1), 51-69.
Appendix A: Interview Guide
“I just want to thank you for taking the time to participate in this interview. I really appreciate
your participation because it will help me with my studies.”
“Before we get started, I’d like to know a little bit about you”
“For instance,” do you live in the Durham Region?
* [If yes] “So do I. Which municipality? (Oshawa, Whitby, Ajax, etc.)
* Do you have a long commute? Where do you live?
[For students only] Are you currently employed?
[If yes] What do you do? Do you work in the Durham area? [Ask one and let them
talk, then ask the next.]
[For community members only] Have you attended a post-secondary institution?
(University or college)?
*Follow up: What did you study?
[For students only] “So, what are you studying?
“Ok, we are going to move onto the wrongful conviction questions now. Remember there are
no right or wrong answers; I’m looking for what you honestly believe, if you are
uncomfortable with answering anything, please let me know and we can move on. With that
being said, let me know if you are ready to begin.”
When you hear the phrase “wrongful conviction” what is the first thing that comes to
If you were asked to explain what a wrongful conviction was, what would you say?
*[If the definition matches ours] “Yes, a lot of people think that and that is the
definition we will be using throughout this study.”
*[If they are close] “Yes, a lot of people think that and for the purposes of this study,
we consider wrongful conviction to mean that someone was convicted of a crime that
he/she did not commit.”
1901 The Qualitative Report 2015
*[If the definition is completely off] “Yes, that’s one possibility, but for the rest of this
interview, let’s consider wrongful conviction to mean that someone was convicted of
a crime that he/she did not commit.”
How much do you feel you know about wrongful convictions?
In the last month or so, have you heard or seen any stories in the media relating to
wrongful convictions? For example, on the news or in the newspaper?
* If yes, what was the story generally about?
“With that being said”, can you think of the name of anyone who has been wrongfully
convicted? “It does not have to be a recent case”
*What do you think about this case?
*How do you feel about [insert the name of the wrongly convicted individual]?
*Would you be comfortable around [him/her]?
*Do you believe in [his/her] innocence?
*Do you think people should be exonerated?
*Do you think only innocent people are exonerated?)
*[If no] “Well, what percentage of wrongly convicted individuals do you think
are innocent?”
[If they cannot think of anyone] “Sometimes it is hard to come up with names on the spot. I
am going to mention a couple of names and let me know if you have heard anything about
these individuals or their cases: Guy Paul Morin, David Milgaard, Steven Truscott, Romeo
Phillion, William Mullins-Johnson, Robert Baltovitch. . .[Say one name and wait for
response, if no, go to next name. Stop once they have heard of one and then ask them the
questions above based on that case. Don’t mention more once they have heard of one].
Why do you think wrongful convictions happen?
Who do you think should take responsibility when a wrongful conviction occurs?
[Follow up if they don’t answer]: Well, who do you think is at fault?
Do you think wrongful convictions are more common in Canada or the United States?
*If they suggest a particular country: Why do you think wrongful convictions are
more common there?
How do you generally feel about the Canadian criminal justice system?
Do these feelings change when you hear about wrongful convictions?
*[Follow-up if necessary] How so?
Do you think the wrongly convicted should be financially compensated?
Isabella M. Blandisi, Kimberley A. Clow, and Rosemary Ricciardelli
*Do you think they should be compensated in any other way?
*Whose responsibility do you think it is to compensate these individuals?
What percentage of wrongly convicted people do you think are compensated?
*How much do you think they typically receive?
*In your opinion, what do you think should be considered to determine how much
money they receive?
“Last question” The wrongly convicted often say that no one even apologizes for their
wrongful convictions. Do you think they should receive an apology?
*[If yes], Who do you think should offer this apology?
“Well, that concludes our interview. I just want to thank you once again. . .you have been so
helpful and I appreciate you taking the time out from your day for this interview. If you have
any questions afterwards, please feel free to contact me.
1903 The Qualitative Report 2015
Appendix B: Thematic Diagram
Author Note
Isabella M. Blandisi received her Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in Criminology, Justice and
Policy Studies and her Master of Arts in Criminologyboth from the University of Ontario
Institute of Technology. Her Master’s thesis looked at public perceptions of wrongful
conviction through semi-structured interviews. Blandisi’s research interest in wrongful
convictions began during her time as a student case reviewer with the Association in Defence
of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC). Since then, she has looked to further understand
prejudice, stereotyping, discrimination, and stigmatization as it relates to the criminal justice
system. Correspondence regarding this article can be addressed directly to: Isabella M. Blandisi
at, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities,
55 Bond St. East, Oshawa, ON, LIG 0A5; E-mail:
Kimberley A. Clow joined the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in 2004.
She holds a PhD in Social Psychology from Western University (formerly the University of
Western Ontario) and is an Associate Professor in the Forensic Psychology program. Her
research focuses on stereotypes and prejudice. She is particularly interested in how individuals
perceive one another, the consequences of those perceptions, and possible ways of altering
perceptions. Currently, her main line of research investigates the stigma of wrongful
conviction, looking for ways to decrease the stigma that exonerees experience. She may be
contacted at Faculty of Social Sciences, Humanities at the University of Ontario Institute of
Technology, 55 Bond St. East, Oshawa, ON, L1G 0A5; Email:
Rosemary Ricciardelli is an Assistant Professor and the coordinator of the criminal
certification program at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Although involved in a social
Blatant vs.
Discomfort with
Contribute to Their
Own Wrongful
Doubt Leads to
in Interactions
Stands Out
Word Choices
Themselves from
Reasons for
Media and
Technology Lack of
Knowledge Incarceration Courtesy
Stigma Fears Doubt
Type of Crime
Past Criminal
*Thematic saturation occurred when further interviews did not reveal additional themes
Isabella M. Blandisi, Kimberley A. Clow, and Rosemary Ricciardelli
enterprise project that supports desistance from crime, her primary work at present is in
partnership with the RCMP, B Division, and focused on building Extrajudicial Measures in the
province within areas policed by the RCMP. Her work with police agencies also includes
looking at the paperwork burden, policing of sex offenses, cyber realities, risk and safety, and
police roles. Nonetheless, Dr. Ricciardelli remains a gender scholar. Her primary research
interests include evolving conceptualizations of masculinity, and experiences and issues within
different facets of the criminal justice system. Her work looks at prison culture, desistance, and
the coping strategies, risk perception and lived experiences of prisoners, correctional officers
and police officers. She may be contacted at Faculty of Arts, Memorial University of
Newfoundland, St. John's, NL, A1C 5S7; Email:
The authors would like to thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council
(SSHRC) of Canada for the funding that made this research possible.
Copyright 2015: Isabella M. Blandisi, Kimberley A. Clow, Rosemary Ricciardelli, and
Nova Southeastern University.
Article Citation
Blandisi, I. M., Clow, K. A., & Ricciardelli, R. (2015). Public perception of the stigmatization
of wrongly convicted individuals: Findings from semi-structured interviews. The
Qualitative Report, 20(11), 1881-1904.
... For example, research demonstrated that people perceive psychiatric nurses as less logical than other nurses (Halter, 2008), perceive partners of disabled individuals as less athletic and intelligent than partners of non-disabled individuals (Goldstein & Johnson, 1997), and that family members of overweight women (Pryor et al., 2012) and formerly incarcerated individuals (Austin, 2004;Levenson & Tewksbury, 2009) experience family-based stigma-by-association. The literature suggests that exonerees may similarly experience stigma-by-association through two mechanisms: (a) merely because they are associated with prison and individuals in prison or (b) due to the belief that exonerees are genuinely changed and tainted by their time in prison (Blandisi et al., 2015;Clow & Leach, 2015). Blandisi et al. (2015) conducted in-depth interviews with 30 Canadians to examine their perceptions of exonerees and found that just under half of the interviewees noted that members of the general public may avoid and stigmatize exonerees due to fear of being victims of stigma-by-association. ...
... The literature suggests that exonerees may similarly experience stigma-by-association through two mechanisms: (a) merely because they are associated with prison and individuals in prison or (b) due to the belief that exonerees are genuinely changed and tainted by their time in prison (Blandisi et al., 2015;Clow & Leach, 2015). Blandisi et al. (2015) conducted in-depth interviews with 30 Canadians to examine their perceptions of exonerees and found that just under half of the interviewees noted that members of the general public may avoid and stigmatize exonerees due to fear of being victims of stigma-by-association. Therefore, the fear that an exonerees' stigma will be transferred onto others if they associate with them may explain why landlords choose to avoid interacting or associating with exonerees. ...
... Moreover, Clow et al. (2012) argued that stigma-by-association may account for the stigma that exonerees experience insofar as being associated with prison and offenders can contaminate and stigmatize an individual. That is, because exonerees have experience with the prison system and have lived alongside "dangerous criminals," the stigma and negative stereotypes (e.g., Clow & Esses, 2007;MacLin & Herrera, 2006) associated with rightfully convicted individuals are applied to exonerees by association (Blandisi et al., 2015;Clow et al., 2012). Relatedly, individuals may be concerned about the impact of incarceration and how it changes someone, leading to a preferred social distance from exonerees, and ultimately contributing to the stigma and discrimination that exonerees experience post-release (Clow & Leach, 2015). ...
Full-text available
Researchers posit that stigma-by-association may account for the discrimination that exonerees experience post-release. Exonerees who serve a longer prison sentence may experience more stigma than exonerees who spent less time in prison. Across two studies, we examined whether criminal history (exoneree, releasee, control) or prison time (5 or 25 years) impacted landlords’ willingness to rent their apartment. Authors responded to apartment listings in the Greater Toronto Area inquiring about availability. The rental inquiries were identical apart from criminal history and prison time. Across both studies, results demonstrated that landlords were significantly less likely to respond, and indicate availability, to exonerees and releasees compared to control. Landlords discriminated against exonerees when the exoneree did not mention a formal exoneration (Study 1) and explicitly mentioned that he was exonerated by DNA evidence (Study 2). Prison time had no significant impact. A content analysis of landlords’ replies revealed that exonerees and releasees experienced more subtle forms of discrimination compared to individuals without a criminal history. Together, our results demonstrate that individuals who were formerly incarcerated and associated with prison – whether it be for 5 years or 25 years, or a rightful or wrongful conviction – experience housing discrimination post-release.
... In addition, exonerees face a number of challenges related to stigmatization, psychological health, and financial troubles (Blandisi et al., 2015;Clow & Leach, 2015a;Clow & Leach, 2015b;Weigand, 2009). Exonerees may be stereotyped more negatively, and people may desire a greater social distance from exonerees than from people in general (Clow & Leach, 2015a). ...
... In fact, Netflix reported that When They See Us was the streaming service's most-watched series, with over 23 million views as of June 2019 (Bennett, 2019;Yehuda Rahmanan, 2019). More of the public is now aware of wrongful conviction issues, which may lead to improved policies to assist those who have been wrongfully convicted (Blandisi et al., 2015). Public awareness and attention to wrongful convictions have had a significant influence on public policy response, specifically policy responses to the death penalty and reforms designed to reduce the possibility of future wrongful convictions (Baumgartner et al., 2014). ...
... In addition, the steps to obtain compensation described in the article reflect the compensation process in California (California Penal Code § 4904, 2021), where the study took place. Further, the hardships faced by the exoneree in the article reflect those challenges faced by many exonerees, including psychological and financial troubles upon reentry 4 (Baumgartner et al., 2014;Blandisi et al., 2015;Clow & Leach, 2015a;Weigand, 2009). ...
Compensation is one of the few resources available to exonerees, as they do not qualify for many of the same re-entry services available to parolees (Innocence Project, n.d.). Past research has shown public support for exoneree compensation (Bingham et al., 2013; Clow et al., 2012; Karaffa et. al, 2015); however, little is known about what factors influence perceptions of exonerees receiving compensation. The current study investigated the role of the contributing factor in an exoneree’s wrongful conviction case, participant characteristics, and perceptions of an exoneree and wrongful convictions, on perceptions of monetary compensation awards. Student participants were randomly assigned to read one of three fictitious news articles that varied in terms of the factor that led to an exoneree’s wrongful conviction (i.e., false confession, eyewitness misidentification, or police misconduct), and afterwards answered a series of questions assessing perceptions of assistance, of the exoneree, and of wrongful convictions. Results indicated that contributing factor (police misconduct), participant characteristics (men), and perceptions of the exoneree (more innocent than guilty, exoneree ‘Black’ or ‘Hispanic’) and of wrongful convictions (supportive of other forms of assistance) were significant predictors of monetary compensation awards. Keywords: compensation; exoneree; wrongful conviction; actual innocence; criminal justice system
... Body abominations occur when people are visibly different from others (e.g., physical deformities), blemishes of character occur when the stigma is not physically visible (e.g., having been incarcerated), and tribal stigmas occur when people belong to a stigmatized group by lineage (e.g., race; Goffman, 1963;Link & Phelan, 2001). Exonerees have reported experiencing stigma after exoneration (see Blandisi, Clow, & Ricciardelli, 2015;Westervelt & Cook, 2012), and research has indicated that the public stigmatizes exonerees more than people without contact with the criminal justice system (e.g., Clow & Leach, 2015a;Thompson et al., 2012). Thus, stigma toward exonerees is likely a result of blemishes of character (Blandisi et al., 2015). ...
... Exonerees have reported experiencing stigma after exoneration (see Blandisi, Clow, & Ricciardelli, 2015;Westervelt & Cook, 2012), and research has indicated that the public stigmatizes exonerees more than people without contact with the criminal justice system (e.g., Clow & Leach, 2015a;Thompson et al., 2012). Thus, stigma toward exonerees is likely a result of blemishes of character (Blandisi et al., 2015). ...
... Originally referred to as a "courtesy" stigma by Goffman (1963), stigma by association posits that simply being in contact with a stigmatized person is enough to be stigmatized . In addition, some people think that exonerees could be changed or contaminated by prison (Blandisi et al., 2015;Clow & Ricciardelli, 2010). Thus, even if people believe that exonerees were wrongfully convicted, they might still stigmatize exonerees simply as a result of the incarceration, negatively affecting reintegration. ...
Despite extensive research summarizing the causes of wrongful convictions, there is no summary of the literature on factors that influence exonerees’ reintegration into society. Given the growing number of exonerees, it is important to examine factors that influence their successful reintegration into society. This book chapter first discusses organizations and programs that assist exonerees. The chapter then discusses individual-level factors that can affect reintegration including factors that exist before the conviction (e.g., individual differences), factors that appear after the conviction (e.g., experience in prison, sentence length), and factors that occur after release (e.g., mental health, family support, and professional skills). The chapter then examines policies that affect reintegration (e.g., compensation laws, expungement laws, and employment and housing discrimination). The chapter also discusses community-level factors that affect reintegration such as stigma and discrimination against exonerees and community sentiment toward supporting exonerees (e.g., support for exoneree services and compensation). Lastly, the chapter closes with recommendations for future research and policy. Research discussed in the chapter is relevant for psychologists and lawyers involved in assisting the integration of exonerees, as well as legal actors who might influence the process (e.g., lawmakers who create compensation laws).
... This type of unconscious bias contributes to official misconduct, which is the second most common factor leading to the exonerations of no-crime wrongful convictions, making up forty-one percent of those instances (Scherr et al., 2020). This difficulty for actors to critically approach an event with an open mind leads to the devastating consequences of misclassifying events as crimes, leaving innocents to suffer the stigma of being labeled as criminals (Blandisi et al., 2015;Reichart, 2016). ...
... These recommendations should encourage all actors within the criminal justice system to do better in recognizing the factors associated with no-crime wrongful convictions. These suggestions appear to address what could work in curtailing the factors associated with innocents not only being wrongfully accused and sentenced for crimes that never happened, but also addresses those same issues related to these innocents from having to live with being labeled a criminal by society (Blandisi, 2015). ...
There are myriad reasons why innocent people become the target of an investigation then charged and convicted of a crime, and ultimately sentenced to prison. Instances such as these stem from factors that include witness misidentifications, forensic errors, mislabeling of natural and accidental events like crimes, official misconduct resulting in false confessions, and innocents’ acceptance of plea-bargaining deals to circumvent the possibility of a much harsher prison sentence if convicted in a trial setting (Alschuler, 2015; Reichart, 2016; Shaw & Porter, 2015). These reasons are but a few of the mitigating factors that serve to convict the innocent or may even encourage them into accepting the blame for crimes that they did not commit; and at times, being charged with or accepting responsibility for crimes that never existed in the first place (Henry, 2020). In her book, Smoke but No Fire: Convicting the Innocent of Crimes that Never Happened, Jessica S. Henry expounds upon
... A commonly overlooked solution in the literature is public education and awareness on wrongful convictions. The idea of social stigma on exonerations in the literature is noticeable (See Clow & Leach, 2015;Scherr, et al., 2020;Blandisi, Clow, & Ricciardelli, 2015). Clow & Leach (2015) have called on this need to examine whether awareness can "mitigate stigmatizing views of exonerees" (p. ...
Full-text available
The past three decades have seen at least 3,200 exonerations across North America. While this number continues to grow, attention must be turned to facilitating successful re-entry amongst this group. By conducting a content analysis of 57 Canadian exonerees, I gathered demographics and common case characteristics to assess the re-entry success of exonerees. Successful re-entry was incredibly difficult for the majority of exonerees due to a lack of specialized re-entry services, counselling, compensation legislation, and healthcare. Exonerees are suffering in the same ways as legitimate offenders while incarcerated and afterward, all while being offered drastically less assistance from Canada’s institutions and government
... The extent to which the sentencing practices reflect public opinion defines the strength, acceptability, lawfulness, and public confidence in the criminal justice system (de Keijser et al., 2014). While ample research has been done in areas such as public attitudes toward criminal justice errors (Zhuo, 2021), public perceptions of WC stigmatization (Blandisi et al., 2015), citizens' attitudes toward WCs (Zalman et al., 2012), public perception of WCs (Clow et al., 2011), public opinion about police misconduct (Donovan & Klahm, 2018), and professionals' view of WCs (Ramsey & Frank, 2007;Smith et al., 2011), there is a vast literature gap on public perceptions of WCs in various dimensions. First, most of the previous studies focused on Western societies, and few on non-Western societies. ...
Full-text available
Wrongful convictions (WC) have been widely studied in law and social sciences, yet, previous research lacks a clear conceptualization and rigorous scientific measurement scale to measure stakeholders’ WC perceptions. Given the significance of stakeholders’ perceptions in influencing policy reforms and transforming the criminal justice system, developing such a measurement scale offers an effective tool to comprehensively understand the relationship between WC and criminal justice system errors/misconduct and guide policymaking. In this study, based on samples of multiple stakeholders in Pakistan, we adopted qualitative and quantitative techniques for WC perception scale development and empirical testing. The results indicated that WC in the criminal justice system context consists of six dimensions, including perceptions of errors and misconduct by the police, prosecutor, judiciary, defense attorney, eyewitness, and forensics. The resulting WC perception measurement scale demonstrated an acceptable level of reliability and validity. The WC perception latent construct with the six resultant dimensions was tested with a structural equation model to assess the association of each perceived sub-construct with WC perception. The findings indicated that the legal professionals, policymakers, and the general public tend to believe that the prosecutors’ and police errors and misconduct are the prime reasons for WC in Pakistan. This study also provides theoretical and practical implications for future studies in relevant fields.
... For example, Clow and Leach (2015) found that participants reported more negative evaluations of, and a stronger desire for social distance from, both convicted and wrongfully convicted individuals compared to members of the general public. Moreover, Blandisi et al. (2015) found that some interviewees -who claimed not to be prejudiced -used language indicative of othering and out-grouping when speaking about wrongfully convicted individuals. Thompson et al. (2011), however, found that wrongfully convicted individuals were more stigmatized compared to the average individual, but that convicted individuals were stigmatized most of all. ...
Full-text available
Research suggests that formerly incarcerated individuals, and individuals belonging to racial minority groups, experience stigma and housing discrimination. The current study explored landlords’ attitudes and differential communications toward formerly incarcerated individuals – particularly wrongfully convicted individuals – of varying races. Using data from an experimental audit study, we examined the content of landlords’ email responses to rental inquiries from fictitious convicted and wrongfully convicted individuals, and members of the general public (i.e., control), who were either Black, Indigenous, or White. A content analysis revealed three main themes: 1) responding with courtesy; 2) probing for additional information; and 3) willingness to set up a viewing. Logistic regressions revealed that landlords were more likely to justify the rental’s unavailability, inquire about the renter’s financial stability and references, and to say they would follow up later when corresponding with convicted and wrongfully convicted individuals compared to control. Landlords were also more likely to ask White renters about their criminal history compared to Black and Indigenous renters. Surprisingly, individuals belonging to racial minority groups were not disadvantaged further in this data. The findings are discussed in the context of post-incarceration support.
... Little is known about how people with justice involvement interpret the term 'wrongful conviction,' and the meanings associated with the concept (see Loeffler et al., 2019 for an exception). Scholars have shown that many community members may understand that wrongful conviction involves factual innocence (Blandisi et al., 2015), but anecdotal evidence from case studies suggest that some people believe exonerees are guilty individuals who were released through errors or technicalities (Clow et al., 2012;Cory, 2001;Westervelt & Cook, 2012). With few exceptions, persons who are wrongly convicted spend time-days, months, years, or decades-in prison with other prisoners, and the impact of incarceration on the lived experiences of prisoners is well documented (Ditchfield & Duncan, 1987;Lawrence & Andrews, 2004;Ricciardelli, 2014b;Ricciardelli & Sit, 2016;Trammell, 2009). ...
Full-text available
Wrongful convictions continue to occur, with over 350 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States, and a collection of over 2500 known cases of presumed factual innocence at the National Registry of Exonerations. Conversation with exonerees suggest that at least some innocent individuals have met other wrongfully convicted prisoners while incarcerated. In the current study, we explored formerly incarcerated men’s views of wrongful conviction through the lens of governmentality. Using thematic analysis of interview transcripts with over 50 formerly incarcerated Canadian men on supervised release, we reveal how these released men perceive wrongful conviction, and how their understandings are impacted and shaped by the power dynamics underpinning their social interactions and experiences within the criminal justice system. Two main themes emerged in releasees perceptions of wrongful conviction: (1) that factually innocent people were wrongfully convicted of crimes—whether those crimes occurred prior to, or during, incarceration, and (2) the perceived fairness of legal processes led some individuals to view convictions of even factually guilty individuals to also warrant the label of wrongful conviction.
... A person who has been stigmatized assumes a new social identity that is discrediting of their selfworth and reinforces prejudices against them. This new master status (Lofland, 1969), for example, "criminal," "convict or ex-convict," "prisoner," "inmate or ex-inmate," and "thief," potentially condemns that person to lifelong discrimination, ostracization, injustice, and disempowerment, and often they will be seen as useless in the eyes of community members (Blandisi et al., 2015). In most of these sub-Saharan African countries, Ghana included, it is perceived that formally incarcerated people are incorrigible, resistant to change, a bad influence, dangerous, lifelong criminals, and callous (Dako-Gyeke & Baffour, 2016). ...
The article investigates ex-convicts’ experiences of stigmatization and its effect on their well-being in selected prisons in Ghana. Qualitative data were collected from 20 male inmates who, after residing for a time in the community, were thereafter reincarcerated. Findings indicate that these men were subjected to stigmatization and degrading treatment in the community, which limited their chances of securing lawful employment, establishing romantic relationships, and even maintaining platonic and family ties. As a result, this negatively impacted upon their mental well-being, leading some to substance abuse and suicide ideation. The article thereafter discusses policy and future research implications that arise from these findings.
Wrongful convictions have received increased attention from both scholars and the media over the past several decades. Most of the research on this topic has focused on the factors that contribute to wrongful convictions and policy changes that may help prevent future miscarriages of justice. Scholars have also explored the post-release experiences of those who have been exonerated. Less attention has been paid to the advice exonerees would share with those who have been recently exonerated to help them navigate their new lives. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with individuals who were wrongfully convicted in the southern United States to explore this issue. While acknowledging that the post-exoneration transition could be challenging, the participants noted that they would advise those who are newly exonerated that faith, talking to other exonerees, learning how to be patient with the process, and finding a way to enjoy their new lives were important to navigating this process. This study highlights the value of exploring the perspectives of exonerees to increase our understanding of their experiences, while also using their insight to inform policy that will assist the wrongfully convicted after being exonerated and released from prison.
Full-text available
Stigma-by-association usually refers to the prejudice that can result from an individual interacting with a stigmatized person. This chapter extends the concept to include the stigma resulting from negative association with the Criminal Justice System. In particular, stigma related to incarceration--whether the individual is innocent (i.e., wrongly convicted) or not--is examined. Literature discussing the prejudice associated with the prison experience, regardless of innocence or guilt, is reviewed. Prison stigma can impede an individual's ability to find affordable housing and adequate employment, which are challenges faced by ex-offenders and exonerees when trying to reintegrate into society. Thus, to facilitate reintegration and to reduce recidivism, it is important to counter the prejudice associated with prison. Possibilities for reducing this stigma are discussed.
Life after Death Row examines the post-incarceration struggles of individuals who have been wrongly convicted of capital crimes, sentenced to death, and subsequently exonerated. Saundra D. Westervelt and Kimberly J. Cook present eighteen exonerees' stories, focusing on three central areas: the invisibility of the innocent after release, the complicity of the justice system in that invisibility, and personal trauma management. Contrary to popular belief, exonerees are not automatically compensated by the state or provided adequate assistance in the transition to post-prison life. With no time and little support, many struggle to find homes, financial security, and community. They have limited or obsolete employment skills and difficulty managing such daily tasks as grocery shopping or banking. They struggle to regain independence, self-sufficiency, and identity. Drawing upon research on trauma, recovery, coping, and stigma, the authors weave a nuanced fabric of grief, loss, resilience, hope, and meaning to provide the richest account to date of the struggles faced by people striving to reclaim their lives after years of wrongful incarceration. © 2012 by Saundra D. Westervelt and Kimberly J. Cook. All rights reserved.
Concern about cases of wrongful conviction has arisen across different jurisdictions in recent decades. Some wrongly convicted individuals have spent many years in prison before their convictions are quashed, but little is known about the psychological effects of such miscarriages of justice on them. A preliminary descriptive clinical study examined eighteen men referred for psychiatric assessment after their convictions were quashed on appeal and they were released from long-term imprisonment. Substantial psychiatric morbidity and problems of psychological and social adjustment were evident in most cases. The difficulties of the wrongly convicted and their families were similar to those described in the clinical literature concerning other groups, such as war veterans, who have been exposed to chronic psychological trauma. At least some of the postrelease adjustment problems appeared to be a product of long-term imprisonment per se, which suggests that the "prison effects" literature has significant limitations. Research on the effects of long-term imprisonment has been carried out almost exclusively on prisoners in custody. What is of most importance and relevance is how the effects of long-term imprisonment are manifested after release.
Social science research on stigma has grown dramatically over the past two decades, particularly in social psychology, where researchers have elucidated the ways in which people construct cognitive categories and link those categories to stereotyped beliefs. In the midst of this growth, the stigma concept has been criticized as being too vaguely defined and individually focused. In response to these criticisms, we define stigma as the co-occurrence of its components-labeling, stereotyping, separation, status loss, and discrimination-and further indicate that for stigmatization to occur, power must be exercised. The stigma concept we construct has implications for understanding several core issues in stigma research, ranging from the definition of the concept to the reasons stigma sometimes represents a very persistent predicament in the lives of persons affected by it. Finally, because there are so many stigmatized circumstances and because stigmatizing processes can affect multiple domains of people's lives, stigmatization probably has a dramatic bearing on the distribution of life chances in such areas as earnings, housing, criminal involvement, health, and life itself. It follows that social scientists who are interested in understanding the distribution of such life chances should also be interested in stigma.