Published by USA Today 10/24/2016.
Every day for the past nine years I’ve been called a slut and murderer by total strangers. In prison, it was hate mail. Outside of prison, it’s social media and hate mail. “Teach me how to get away with murder.” “I hope you will be alone forever.” “Murderess.” “Psychopath.” “Whore.” One person promised, in a comment on my personal website, to kidnap me in broad daylight, rip out my teeth and fingernails, electrocute me, and carve Meredith Kercher’s name into my body.
Meredith was a kind and outgoing British student who was murdered by Rudy Guede. She was my roommate, and I was accused of her murder by a prosecutor whose insane theories and disregard for evidence landed me in prison for four years. Italy’s highest court ultimately exonerated me, finding “stunning flaws” in the investigation and “an absolute lack of biological traces” connecting me to the crime.
While the TV version of my life would end there, I have learned that condemnation doesn’t stop once you’re found innocent. From the moment I walked out of prison, my family and I have focused on healing and rebuilding our lives. But the beast of media sensationalism wasn’t satisfied. Tabloids snapped pictures of my every move, speculated on everything I did, and spun everything I said out of context. I was accused of buying my supporters, the media, and my freedom. I was shamed for having friends, opinions, fun — a life. Certain people made it their hobby to torment me and anyone close to me, so that we might never feel safe. And despite all the objective evidence confirming my innocence, the predominant narrative and subsequent discussion about my case still revolved around the question, “Did she do it?”
I can tune out the trolls, but the voices of seemingly reasonable people are more worrisome. “She brought it on herself,” some say. “She’s not the real victim.” Charlotte Gill, writing for The Independent, attributes public interest in my story to mere blood thirst and accuses me of capitalizing off Meredith’s tragic death. To her, my very presence is an affront. After years of wrongful imprisonment, having everything dear to me stripped away, I was released to an unceasing torrent of slut-shaming and slander. And Gill wants me to just disappear? I read that, curled up in a ball, and cried.
I didn’t get my old life back when I came home. No exoneree does. It took me years to feel comfortable and confident enough to trust new people. Random classmates at university took pictures of me and posted them to the Internet alongside lewd and aggressive commentary. Every employer who openly hired me was attacked for doing so. I took up self-defense classes, and everywhere I lived, I had an escape plan, just in case I was pursued by some crazy person who wanted to follow through with his threats.
I would like nothing more than to be simply Amanda Knox, family member, friend and writer, but I’ve had to accept that I’m also that girl who was wrongfully convicted of murder. It’s a realization that all exonerees must eventually face — once an exoneree, always an exoneree.
Many people can empathize with the murder victim and the murder victim’s family, but they cannot imagine being snatched up, as I was, as my family was, into a Kafkaesque nightmare. This is a problem because wrongful convictions happen more often than people realize, and they can happen to anyone. In many ways, mine was just an echo of the wrongful convictions that came before and a precursor to those that have come after. In other ways, mine was exceptional. My case was an international sensation that utterly dehumanized me, but that attention did put me in the unique position of being a rare exoneree whose voice is heard. I have the opportunity to shine light on the exoneree experience and the systematic errors that lead to wrongful convictions.
Professor Samuel Gross of the University of Michigan estimates that from 1973 to 1989, between 2.3% and 5% of death row inmates were innocent. He writes that 185,000 innocent people have served hard time. Since the first DNA exoneration took place, the Innocence Project has exonerated more than 345 people. There were 149 exonerations just last year, and every year that number keeps rising. Our media coverage often represents exonerees as two-dimensional artifacts, the fallout from brutal tragedy, or else in breezy, feel-good news flashes about “justice prevailing.” But after prison, exoneree lives grind on, and they suffer the consequences of society’s misconceptions and short attention span.
Most exonerees re-enter society with little support and even fewer guarantees. Government-sponsored programs designed to help guilty convicts reintegrate into society don’t normally exist for exonerees. Only 30 out of 50 states have compensation laws, and those are hamstrung by delays and a lack of uniformity. Those who were forced by police to falsely confess may not be entitled to any compensation. Many have also had to jump through numerous and expensive hoops to get their records expunged. Exonerees have lost years of networking and investment opportunities. They have a gaping hole in their résumé — the average number of years wrongfully served is 14. People who are young, poor and non-white are particularly vulnerable; the vast majority of exonerees are minority males. And while most don’t get international media coverage, they are marked in their own communities. Some don’t even have the support of their own families.
And of course, as I can attest, being exonerated does not mean that people will believe you are innocent.
To recognize the suffering of exonerees is to acknowledge that our justice system, and the people who implement it, may perpetrate injustice. It’s easier to believe that wrongful conviction is a distant anomaly, an unfortunate consequence triggered by questionable characters. We blame the wrongfully convicted for seeming suspicious just as we blame rape victims for wearing provocative clothing.
The exoneree also confuses our sympathies. When a wrongful conviction is overturned, the justice it represented evaporates. We had “closure,” and now we have nothing. But what feels like a loss is actually a gain, because that “closure” was really injustice disguised as justice. Every exoneration forces us to dredge up the original tragedy and accept the perceived perpetrator as a further victim.
Exonerees, for their part, provide us with unique perspectives that can improve the justice system and enrich our communities. For example, Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle advocate to abolish the death penalty. Ryan Ferguson investigates cases of wrongful conviction on the MTV series Unlocking the Truth. Marty Tankleff, Chris Ochoa and Jarrett Adams earned law degrees and now work to correct legal injustices. Brian Banks, Fernando Bermudez and Juan Rivera speak publicly, motivating others to overcome adversity, and Damien Echols is an artist and philosopher. These 10 exonerees alone served more than 140 years combined of wrongful imprisonment. Other exonerees are entrepreneurs, nurses, counselors, teachers, builders, artists, chefs, neighbors and friends.
I’m not a lawyer, investigator, researcher, or scientist. I was just a 20-year-old who loved languages and literature when I was locked away for a crime I didn’t commit. But I was fortunate. Intense media scrutiny drew experts and advocates to my defense. And because of their hard work, I now have opportunity to voice my experience and humanity as an exoneree. Most exonerees never get that chance, so I mean to share it. I will not disappear. I will advocate, I will bear witness.