Exonerated Ex-Inmates Struggle to Shed Stigma
Monday, April 28, 2008
CHICAGO -- Tabitha Pollock was asleep when her boyfriend killed her 3-year-old daughter. Charged with first-degree murder because prosecutors believed she should have known of the danger, Pollock spent more than six years in prison before the Illinois Supreme Court threw out the conviction.
"Should have known," the high court ruled, was not nearly enough to keep Pollock behind bars.
Five years later, Pollock remains in limbo, freed from prison but not free from the snags of a wrongful conviction that upended her life. With a felony record, she cannot become a teacher, as she wants. She cannot collect damages from the Illinois government. On a trip to Australia, where customs officials questioned her when she arrived, she learned that the murder conviction always follows her.
To fully clear her name, Pollock -- as well as a dozen or so other former Illinois inmates who have been exonerated -- needs an official pardon, which only the governor can give. She applied in 2002 but has received no word.
"I was raised to believe America is a wonderful country, but I have serious doubts about Illinois now," said Pollock, 37. "This whole experience has taught me not to have any hopes or dreams."
A spokesman for Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) said last month that the governor is flooded with petitions and has not had time to focus on Pollock's case.
Pollock's predicament is becoming more common across the country as more people are exonerated. The New York-based Innocence Project has tallied 215 wrongful convictions in the United States that have been reversed on the basis of DNA evidence.
Many of those former prisoners are seeking redress from the governments that mistakenly jailed them -- but they are kept waiting, whether because of the slow pace of bureaucracy or a lack of procedures or political will to handle their cases.
When the authorities do not certify innocence, "in effect, the sentence just goes on," said Stephen Saloom, policy director of the Innocence Project. Noting that legislators are recognizing "the lingering problems" of the exonerated after their release, he said 22 states and the District provide official compensation in one form or another.
"A recent trend is not only to compensate at a monetary value per year incarcerated, but also to provide immediate services upon release," said Saloom, who said the project's clients spent an average of 11 years in prison. Advocates say the exonerated need help making the transition back into society, especially finding a job.
"It's not enough to let the person out of prison," Saloom said.
Alabama pays exonerated ex-prisoners $50,000 for each year they were incarcerated. New Jersey pays $40,000 or twice the inmate's previous annual income. Louisiana offers $15,000 a year plus counseling, medical care and job training, according to Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions.