Wrongful convictions are disturbingly common. In the USA alone, over 1,050 innocent people who were found guilty in court have subsequently been exonerated. A new study, the first to systematically study stigma towards convicted innocents, finds that the old adage is true – mud sticks. Convictions may be overturned, but stigma persists.
Kimberley Clow and Amy-May Leach surveyed 86 psychology students in Canada about either “people who have been wrongfully convicted of a crime”; “people who have been convicted of a crime that they actually committed”; or “people in general”.
The students rated wrongfully convicted people in a similar way to offenders, including perceiving them as incompetent and cold, and having negative attitudes towards them. Although the students desired less social distance from the wrongly convicted compared with offenders, they preferred to have more distance from them than people in general. And while they expressed more pity for wrongly convicted people than offenders, this didn’t translate into greater support for giving them assistance such as job training or subsidised housing. In fact, the students were more in favour of giving monthly living expenses to people in general as opposed to the wrongly convicted.
“A wrongly convicted individual should be viewed as any other non-convicted citizen,” said Clow and Leach. “Our findings, however, suggest that this does not occur … Wrongly convicted persons are not perceived as other citizens.”
Bear in mind these results are only a tentative first step towards greater understanding of this issue. It’s unsafe to generalise confidently from a student sample, and we haven’t learned much about why the participants stigmatised the wrongly convicted so harshly. It’s possible the students held a general belief that wrongly convicted people are likely guilty of other crimes. Or perhaps they believed them morally contaminated by their time in prison.
Despite its limitations, the new study chimes with anecdotal evidence. Consider the case of the unfortunately named Kirk Bloodsworth. In 1993, after nearly nine years in prison, Bloodsworth was a free man thanks to DNA testing that showed he was not guilty of raping and killing a nine-year-old girl – the first time the scientific technique had been used in this way. Yet despite his release, Bloodsworth continued to be vilified, including having “child killer” scrawled in dirt on his truck.