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Beyond the Bars

Exploring the Lives of Exonerees & Their Loved Ones as they Cope with Miscarriages of Justice 

The project

In recent years wrongful conviction research has grown significantly, expanding our understanding of what it means to experience being convicted of a crime for which you are innocent. Still, many questions are left unanswered – particularly regarding how those closest to the exoneree coped with and experienced the miscarriage of justice. This proposed research project seeks to examine some of these issues more closely to gather a clearer picture of the impact of a wrongful conviction.  

Though some studies have provided insight into the lives of secondary exonerees, the existing literature tends to focus predominantly on the impact the wrongful conviction has on the interpersonal relationships between the exoneree and their immediate family following release from prison. Since research suggests that the negative impact of a conviction on family members begins prior to sentencing (Sharp, 2005), more research is needed to determine the total impact of wrongful conviction on the lives and relationships of those closest to the exoneree from first accusation to after release. The current research seeks to fill these gaps by examining the first-person experiences of secondary exonerees at all stages and levels of the conviction process – including their reactions and perceptions of the crime investigation, interrogation, arrest, trial/plea arrangement, imprisonment, release/exoneration, and post-release living. A variety of individual (i.e., age, personality characteristics, level of involvement in case/alibi provided, closeness to crime victim, belief in innocence), relational (i.e., relationship type, closeness with accused), and situational/case-specific factors (i.e., strength of evidence, official misconduct present or absent, racial makeup of jury/legal actors, and number/type of contributing causes of conviction) is expected to be to be important in this respect. 

The current project is qualitative in nature and focuses on the lived experiences of individuals who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit as well as the experiences of their loved ones. Approximately 50 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with primary and secondary exonerees will be conducted over the course of this study. Participants will be asked general questions probing a reflection on the entirety of their experience, but specific topics will also be explored including: social support and family dynamics, mental health and social services (availability, need and recommendations), impacts on relationships with loved ones, stigmatization, labeling and community reactions, post-release experiences and barriers to employment, compensation, and support, and perceptions of the criminal justice system and social justice activism. This study will follow a grounded theory approach which involves memo writing, theoretical sampling, and constant comparative analysis will be utilized to develop themes, codes, and theories for further exploration. A team of undergraduate researchers in the LEAD lab will assist the analysis by transcribing and coding data for the themes identified.


Sharp, S. F. (2005). Hidden victims: The effects of the death penalty on families of the accused. Rutgers University Press.

The Team

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