Just Wrong: The Aftermath of Wrongful Convictions
The strength of our criminal justice system depends on its ability to convict the guilty and clear the innocent. But we know that innocent people are sometimes wrongfully convicted and the guilty remain free to victimize others. The consequences of a wrongful conviction are far-reaching for the wrongfully convicted and the survivors and victims of the original crimes.
The documentary Just Wrong: The Aftermath of Wrongful Convictions, From Crime Victims to Exonerees, chronicles the experiences of six individuals — three exonerees who spent decades in prison for crimes they did not commit and three crime victims or survivors whose lives were impacted by a wrongful conviction.
Watch Just Wrong to see how their lives were interrupted and the challenges they face; then read below to learn about the story behind the video.
We are listening. To examine the impact of wrongful convictions and better understand their needs, in February 2016, NIJ, along with its partners in the Office of Justice Programs and external organizations, hosted listening sessions with victims or survivors of crimes that resulted in wrongful convictions and individuals who have been exonerated. Both original victims and exonerees described the need for specialized services after a wrongful conviction, but usually they did not have access to these services. Read the summary notes from this meeting (pdf, 28 pages).
While there has been substantial attention devoted to the causes of erroneous convictions, there has been limited focus on what happens after an exoneration occurs. Just Wrong: The Aftermath of Wrongful Convictions, From Crime Victims to Exonerees, revisits several participants of these listening sessions to provide them with a forum to explain how wrongful conviction changed their lives and how they are coping with the consequences of that today. Watch Just Wrong to hear their stories.
The National Institute of Justice is dedicated to using science to learn about the causes and consequences of wrongful convictions. Only with this understanding will we minimize these miscarriages of justice, support victims, and restore their confidence in the justice system.
Tomeshia Artis, rape survivor: My daughters are ages 23 and 18 and my son is 14 years old. I have to know where my children are at all times. They have to call me on their cell phone or send me a text.
Gloria Killian, exoneree: And I have to say that lots of times I’m just like everybody else.
Fernando Bermudez, exoneree: I’m everything in my kids’ life. My wife says I’m OCD. I’ll make them run up the stairs instead of taking the elevator for physical fitness, but they love it, they love it.
Peppy Carter, mother of murder victim: I’m just partial to little girls.(You’re a sweetheart – that’s what you are.) Little girls are just…of course that’s all I had was girls. I had three daughters.
Gary Drinkard, exoneree: I was a kind of rough around the edges but you know a perfect family. Three children, dog, cat. If I would have went to Hollywood when I wanted to, Clint Eastwood and I would be side by side.
Tomeshia Artis: I’m the 12-year-old little girl that was raped and the wrong man went to prison for 17 years.
On-screen text: Tomeshia Artis, Rape survivor whose case resulted in a wrongful conviction
Gloria Killian: And your brain just rockets around inside your skull because you think, “They can’t possibly execute me for something I didn’t do. Oh my God, they’re going to execute me.”
On-screen text: Gloria Killian, Wrongfully convicted exoneree & author, non-profit founder
Fernando Bermudez: I was a dad, so I couldn’t function in a state of constant misery and anger and a grudge. I fought to prove my innocence for over 18 years.
On-screen text: Fernando Bermudez, Wrongfully convicted exoneree & global public speaker
Peggy Carter: When they told me they hadn’t done it, I was just sick because I thought well, they don’t have the right ones, now what am I gonna do?
On-screen text: Peggy “Peppy” Carter, Mother of murder victim Debbie Carter, case resulted in two wrongful convictions
Gary Drinkard: My wife was actually fired once they found out she was married to me, someone accused of capital murder. And it’s not only unfair for the victim’s family, it’s unfair for society because the real killer is still out there.
On-screen text: Gary Drinkard, Wrongfully convicted exoneree & Witness to Innocence board member
Just Wrong: The Aftermath of Wrongful Convictions, From Crime Victims to Exonerees
Gary Drinkard: It was August, hot, we didn’t have AC so fans and doors open and early one morning we got the shock of our lives when the police just run in and threw us on the floor, handcuffing us.
On-screen text: Gary Drinkard, Exoneree in wrongful death penalty murder conviction
Timeline text: 1993, Murder scene burns, destroys DNA evidence
Gary Drinkard: Had more evidence been taken I think the real killer could have probably been determined before I ever went to trial.
Timeline text: 1995, Jury sentences Drinkard to death row
Gary Drinkard: My oldest daughter she was 16 and just becoming a teenager, just learning to drive. It devastated her. She went crazy.
Timeline text: 1997, Appeal fails
Gary Drinkard: There was nothing I can do. I mean it was utter hopelessness.
Timeline text: 2000, Alabama Supreme Court orders new trial
Timeline text: 2001, Exoneration
Gary Drinkard: And when I was found not guilty and set free I knew that they weren’t going to voluntarily help me in any kind of way so I thought I would sue ‘em.
Timeline text: 2003, Time runs out for settlement
Gary Drinkard: They said you either had to bring the real perpetrator to justice or prove your innocence by DNA testing and I could do neither in my case.
Timeline text: 2006, Buys house with mother
Gary Drinkard: Having that on your record when they do a background check, no one’s going to hire you.
Timeline text: 2016, Bank forecloses
Gary Drinkard: To me, if you’re found not guilty, it should be automatically expunged.
Gloria Killian: The crime occurred on December 9th, 1981, and I was arrested on December 16th in 1981, a week later. I was immediately charged with the death penalty. And I was going to law school at the time that this whole case began.
On-screen text: Gloria Killian, Exoneree in wrongful double murder conviction
Timeline text: 1981, Police arrest Killian for double murder
Gloria Killian: The awful thing was the superior court judge had been my family law professor and there’s nothing like standing there in front of your professor in handcuffs and chains.
Timeline text: May 1983, Charges dropped
Gloria Killian: But he dismissed the case because there was no evidence against me. I mean, that was the whole point, I didn’t do it.
Timeline text: June 1983, Jailhouse informant fingers Killian
Gloria Killian: Ninety days after I went to prison the guy who testified against me wrote a letter to the Sacramento County DA in which he said “I lied my ass off for you on the stand, I gave you Killian.” And they suppressed it.
Timeline text: 1986, Begins 32-years to life
Gloria Killian: My entire family died while I was in prison, with the exception of my 85-year-old uncle. It all seems to circle around time.
Timeline text: 1987, Becomes prison law clerk, filing appeals for inmates
Gloria Killian: Because time is the only thing you have to do in there, but time is also the one thing that you don’t have. You don’t have time with your children. You don’t have time with your parents. You don’t have time to do the things that you want to do, but that’s all you have is time.
Timeline text: 2002, Exoneration
Timeline text: 2008, California Bar Association finds Deputy DA found guilty on two misconduct charges, no jail time
Peggy Carter: Losing Debbie is the hardest thing in the world. I’ll never go through anything like that. If it had been a car wreck or something, but it wasn’t. It was murder.
On-screen text: Peggy “Peppy” Carter, Mother of murder victim Debbie Carter
Christy Sheppard,cousin of murder victim: For me what sparked it all too was that, you know, she was Peppy’s daughter. She was our cousin.
On-screen text: Christy Sheppard, Cousin of murder victim Debbie Carter
Timeline text: 1982, Neighbors find Debbie Carter’s body
Christy Sheppard: I mean, she meant so much more than the last few horrific moments of her life.
Peggy Carter: She was in her little apartment; you had no right to do that. Why did you do that?
Timeline text: 1987, Prosecutor exhumes body
Peggy Carter: I remember, there’s this one day that they called me down and they needed to exhume her. I don’t want to do that, but I did because like I told them, nobody wants to know any more than me who done it.
Timeline text: 1988, Jury convicts Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz
Christy Sheppard: You initially start out with the prosecution and feeling like they’re going to seek justice in her name, this is what they do. Peppy called me one day and said, “Sugar, have you seen the paper? There’s this judge who says that Ron Williamson’s gonna get a new trial.”
Timeline text: 1994, Oklahoma grants Williamson stay, five days from execution
Christy Sheppard: And the judge apologizes and basically says this is awful and then…
Timeline text: 1995, Judge orders new trial
Christy Sheppard: …lowered the boom that there had been a DNA match and that that DNA match was actually a man who had testified against Ron and Dennis.
Timeline text: 1999, DNA exonerates Williamson and Fritz
Christy Sheppard: After the exoneration that morning they told us that the man that we had just found out a few minutes before was the actual murderer…
Timeline text: 2003, Glen Gore gets death sentence for Debbie Carter’s murder
Christy Sheppard: …that he had escaped from prison that same day and was on the run. They didn’t know where he was.
Timeline text: 2005, Appeals Court overturns Gore’s death sentence
Timeline text: 2006, Final trial sends Gore to life without parole
Peggy Carter: I get so tore up and upset because, here we go again, you know. But I’ve gotta know who done that to my little girl.
Tomeshia Artis:(What you all working on?) All my kids, well my daughters mainly, used to say that I was too overprotective, but as they got older they realized that ‘okay she’s doing it for a reason,’ so now they just go with the flow now.
On-screen text: Tomeshia Artis, Rape survivor in case resulting in wrongful conviction
Timeline text: 1987, Rapist brutalizes sixth-grader
Tomeshia Artis: The day that it happened, by the time I got back home from the hospital, they had crime scene tape up around our apartment. I remember the school bus was coming for the other kids to get on the school bus.
Timeline text: 1989, Dwayne Dail gets two life terms + 18 years
Tomeshia Artis: At the Superior Court downtown in Goldsboro, we had a trial, the man was convicted.
Timeline text: 1994, Someone destroys rape kit (physical evidence from crime)
Tomeshia Artis: I put walls up because no one could protest that 12-year-old little girl, so I was going to protect her now.
Timeline text: 2001, Innocence Project investigates missing DNA evidence
Tomeshia Artis: At work years later, they asked would I would be willing to do a DNA swab. I was 12 years old again, walking back to the detective’s office and sitting back there in that room again.
Timeline text: 2007, North Carolina exonerates Dwayne Dail
Tomeshia Artis: When they told me he was going to be exonerated, and Dwayne was not the one that did it, that it was a second person … I’m scared because this man is out for 17 years. He might know where I live at, my kids.
Timeline text: 2010, Final jury convicts William Neal of raping Artis
Tomeshia Artis: No it did not free me in any way. It was horrible for me. It was horrible. The comments that people was saying, that I needed to go to prison. I picked this guy out. I needed to pay. So the system just failed me all the way around. All I knew is this that man has went to prison for 17 years and you’re telling me he didn’t do it. I didn’t.. I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t feel human.
Fernando Bermudez: I just couldn’t believe it. I was so hurt and at the same time I just felt like I was just floating away from my body because I had been found guilty of murder. And I knew I wasn’t the person that they said I was and these witnesses had never seen me before.
On-screen text: Fernando Bermudez, Exoneree in wrongful murder conviction
Timeline text: 1990, Bermudez applies to college, plans to study medicine
Fernando Bermudez: The police report described the suspect as five ten, a hundred and sixty-five pounds.
Timeline text: 1991, Teenager killed at a New York nightclub, police arrest Bermudez
Fernando Bermudez: And I was six two, two hundred twenty pounds. I was forced to sit down in a lineup to hide the height and weight difference.
Timeline text: 1992, Gets 23-years-to-life sentence
Fernando Bermudez: But the judge didn’t want to hear anything and I was sentenced to life in prison.
Timeline text: 2003, Teaches Latin American and world history class to inmates
Fernando Bermudez: My wife and I, we met early on in the very early years of my incarceration and we got married. When my wife gave birth, I wasn’t able to be there because I was in prison.
Timeline text: 2005, Loses ninth appeal
Fernando Bermudez: Appeal after appeal, ten appeals in all until finally at the 11th hour, after eleven witnesses in my evidentiary hearing, I prevailed.
Timeline text: 2009, Exoneration after eleventh appeal
Fernando Bermudez: I had gotten arrested at 22 and I was 40 years old November 2009. And the judge asked me to rise and I felt my knees buckling. And the judge says, “In this case, I, the court, hereby declare Fernando Bermudez actually innocent.” He said actually innocent.
Timeline text: 2013, Judge dismisses initial suit against NYPD and Assistant District Attorney
Fernando Bermudez: In New York there is statute to put the mechanics in place for you to get compensated but it’s still a fight.
Timeline text: 2014, Wins record settlement from state of New York
Fernando Bermudez: I had to fight for five and a half years for my compensation.
Rebecca Brown, Director of Policy, Innocence Project: One of the first things that people ask me when they hear that I do policy work around the wrongfully convicted is what sort of compensation do people get. Only about 30 states provide any sort of monetary compensation to the wrongfully convicted and most state laws are woefully inadequate.
On-screen text: Rebecca Brown, Director of Policy at Innocence Project
Tomeshia Artis: I did not know who to believe or who to trust in this whole process. I couldn’t even trust myself because I felt like I picked out the wrong person.
On-screen text:Tomeshia Artis, Rape survivor
Tomeshia Artis: I was really on the edge of having a nervous breakdown so the DA, he said, “Tomeshia, I know this lady that you need to call.”(Miss Jennifer!) I called Miss Jennifer that night, we talked for hours, and that was the first time I could breathe because someone understood what I was going through.
Jennifer Thompson, Founder, Healing Justice: Because we both had these shared experiences, shared lived experiences of being survivors and rape victims that then resulted in a wrongful conviction case.
On-screen text:Jennifer Thompson, Founder of Healing Justice
Photocaption: Dwayne Dail, On the day of his exoneration of wrongful rape conviction
Jennifer Thompson: This person has been wrongfully imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit and they are free and this is a beautiful, wonderful occasion. But then you’ve got this person over here, this family, this crime survivor who now not only has to reconcile that the system failed, that maybe the identification they made was wrong, but going forward the media almost like turns on you, and the public begins to blame you. And there is no one there for you to talk to; like who are you going to talk to about this? And so more often than not what we do is we shut down and we just stop talking and we don’t share and we hide. And from that springs the depression and anxiety and substance abuse and all kinds of issues that kind of arise from that.
Gary Drinkard: It gave me problems…like now, I mean, I’ve basically created my own little cell in this room. I’ve got a TV in front of me; I’ve got a chair. I eat, sleep, and sit in most of the time. I was never like this before. I always had to be outside, had to be doing something, but after being in that little cell for so long, your muscles atrophy. Now I just want to be cooped up and be a recluse. When they would electrocute somebody you could actually smell flesh burning and I still have nightmares about that. I have dreams about them walking me around there to the electric chair and I can’t be around a lot of people.
On-screen text:Gary Drinkard, Exoneree
Gloria Killian: And I always said that if I ever got out I would do something about all of this mess.
On-screen text:Gloria Killian, Exoneree
Gloria Killian: We started what I call the Christmas Project the last year that I was in prison. Christmas is one of the hardest times of the year. So is Mother’s Day. It’s not just that I lost a part of my life, it’s that I know what Christmas is like in there and that I can do something about it. At the same time, it can be really heart wrenching depending on my own emotional state at that particular time. But every time I leave the prison it impacts me differently. Sometimes I’m just great and having a great time and other times I can barely make it to my car I’m just so depressed. And it has to do with how I heal or don’t heal as the case may be.
Rebecca Brown: Some people are never able to recover from a wrongful conviction. Other clients have become fire chiefs or lawyers, so I mean we’ve seen wide variations in how people are able to put their lives back together.
On-screen text:Rebecca Brown, Innocence Project
Fernando Bermudez: I was released from New York State Prison with nothing.
On-screen text:Fernando Bermudez, Exoneree
Fernando Bermudez: I had no social or psychological help. No money was given to me when I was released to get me on my feet or buy me clothes. No psychologist with what I would realize was problems in adjusting to the outside world.
Gloria Killian: I was on track to being a lawyer, I would have had a very good income and I would have been able to pay into social security. And I would get decent social security. I do not and I mean there are a couple thousand of us in this country and they could simply pass a law that would give us maximum social security and that would be it. I did not get a settlement. I don’t have any money. I live with my friend who is 92 years old and eventually you know that will come to an end and then what do I do?
Gary Drinkard: I would love to have some teeth so I could smile, so I could eat some of the foods that I love, but due to the opiates and due to no dental care while on death row, my teeth have just broken off.
Rebecca Brown: When you think about what has been taken away from the wrongfully convicted, it’s incalculable.
On-screen text:Rebecca Brown, Innocence Project
Rebecca Brown: Yet there are things that we can do to restore people as best that we can and we ought to be doing this. It is a fundamental issue of fairness.
Jennifer Thompson: We know that for every wrongful conviction, for every exoneree, there is a crime victim or family member that now has been told the system failed.
On-screen text:Jennifer Thompson, Healing Justice
Jennifer Thompson: One of the things it seems we see over and over again is the survivors or the family members are not given information until the very last moment. Oftentimes they don’t know anything’s happened until they’ve seen it in the newsstands.
Christy Sheppard: And so we found out in open court with the rest of the entire town who had killed her.
On-screen text: Christy Sheppard, Murder victim’s cousin
On-screen text: Peppy Carter, Murder victim’s mother
Christy Sheppard: And so they didn’t even see fit to tell Debbie’s mother. She needed a voice and an advocate that only had Peppy’s best interest in heart. That whatever she needed, the first trial, the fourth trial, whatever, that she got that. But when it all goes wrong and there’s an exoneration and there’s egos and whatever on the line, what Peppy got was, “Well I was doing my job. I was just doing my job.” I think when there’s a wrongful conviction there’s a multitude of victims.
Tomeshia Artis: Everyone must be held accountable for it from the beginning, from the first cop that came, to the judge, to the jury, because when Dwayne was exonerated, I was the only one that looked like who had made the mistake, had did this to him and his family. Nobody else, nobody else stood up and say, “I help take the blame, I share the blame with this 12-year-old child that feels like that she sent this man to prison.” Nobody did that. Nobody.
Christy Sheppard: I don’t think there’s any single thing that could be done just to fix wrongful convictions. I mean the process itself has to change, it has to evolve and be different. We can’t just continue to go down this same road and plead ignorance.
Peggy Carter: There needs to be changes. And that’s why I’m so proud of Christy because she’s in this trying to get changes, you know, for people like me.
Gary Drinkard: You can never compensate from holding your babies at night. (Can I braid it?) I’ve got one granddaughter now and a little boy on the way and my daughter is such a good mother. I’m so proud of her. That really keeps me going. I mean, I have a lot of anger built up inside of me for the way the system was. (Circumstantial cases shouldn’t be allowed.)This is basically the only way I can get it out is going out and talking to people and trying to make it so it won’t happen to anyone else.
Gloria Killian: When I was first released I would say I was an exoneree and people would go ‘what?’ Now there is a national registry of exoneration. The first thing about fixing a problem is being aware of a problem. The minute society, lawmakers, prosecutors, police, and everybody else says ‘oh yeah, it happens,’ then it’s going to shift the perspective immediately. It will move things over 10 degrees. And then people will look at it more seriously.
Fernando Bermudez:(It’s going to be ok.) Because DNA is only available in a fraction of cases to resolve them, I do not give the criminal justice system a pass for what it did to me and the lives of my family and the dysfunction it created.
Rebecca Brown: You know once scientifically supported reforms are in place to prevent wrongful convictions, that benefits the entire system – it helps law enforcement to better solve crimes, it prevents the horror of wrongful convictions, and it makes our communities safer.
In memory of Darryl Hunt and all victims of wrongful convictions.
With thanks to The Innocence Project, Witness to Innocence, and Healing Justice.
For more resources visit NIJ.gov, keywords: wrongful conviction.
The National Institute of Justice is dedicated to using science to learn more about the causes and consequences of wrongful convictions. Only with this understanding will we minimize these miscarriages of justice, support victims and restore their confidence in the justice system.
Opinions or points of view expressed in these recordings represent those of the speakers and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. Any commercial products and manufacturers discussed in these recordings are presented for informational purposes only and do not constitute product approval or endorsement by the U.S. Department of Justice.