Doing Better at Doing Good

N.C. professor’s book looks at death-row inmates cleared of wrongdoing

June 8, 2013 

Alan Gell had a history of bad behavior.

By 1995, the 21-year-old North Carolinian had already been in trouble for drug offenses and car theft. But when Allen Ray Jenkins, a retired trucker, turned up dead that year with two shotgun blasts to the chest, authorities charged Gell with something far worse: first-degree murder.

Gell spent the next nine years in prison – four of them on death row for the killing in Aulander, a town 120 miles east of Raleigh.

There was just one problem. Gell never actually committed the crime.

A badly flawed investigation that ignored plentiful evidence in Gell’s favor and a prosecution that depended on unreliable witnesses finally unraveled in 2004, when Gell was acquitted at a retrial.

His story is among those highlighted in “Life After Death Row” by Saundra D. Westervelt, associate professor of sociology at UNC-Greensboro, and Kimberly J. Cook, professor and chair of the department of sociology and criminology at UNC-Wilmington.

Released late last year by Rutgers University Press, the book offers the nation’s first systematic study of the experiences of death-row inmates who are cleared of wrongdoing. It draws on in-depth interviews that Westervelt and Cook conducted with 18 people from across the country who spent time on death row, including Alfred Rivera, who was wrongly convicted in 1997 of killing two men in Winston-Salem. And from the book emerge important policy recommendations for the treatment of the wrongly convicted.

“There was really no conversation publicly or in academia about the aftermath of a wrongful conviction,” Westervelt says. “Nobody was focusing on what happened to these people after they got out.”

Westervelt and Cook found that wrongly convicted prisoners, especially those facing the terrifying prospect of execution, typically emerge with the same types of anger, depression, grief and post-traumatic stress experienced by survivors of natural disasters, abuse or combat. But unlike many trauma survivors, exonerees often receive little support – financially, socially or emotionally – as they try to rebuild their lives.

A troubled freedom

Predictably, the initial thrill of freedom often yields to a swift downward spiral.

Gell sued state officials after his acquittal and ultimately won a $3.9 million settlement in 2009. By the time it was awarded, however, he was already back in prison, serving a five-year sentence for indecent liberties with a minor after having sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend, who became pregnant, after being released in 2004.

That wasn’t an unusual outcome, Westervelt says. Exonerees often fail to mature emotionally and socially in prison, leading to some bad decisions after they get out. For Gell, that meant dating an underage woman half his age. He has since left prison and reunited with the child that relationship produced.

Better support systems can lead to better outcomes, Westervelt and Cook believe. So they are trying to alter public policy in North Carolina on behalf of the wrongfully convicted.

They like to point out that North Carolina has historically taken a leading role nationally in this arena. It was among the first states to reform eyewitness identification procedures, require videotaping of confessions to reduce false confessions, and create an “innocence commission” to reduce wrong convictions.

It is the only state to have a state-level Innocence Inquiry Commission that re-examines potential wrongful convictions.

A nonpartisan issue

Westervelt and Cook think there are several more steps the state can take to build on that progress. Currently, North Carolina does provide compensation to exonerees – but only if they are formally pardoned by the governor, an act that can take years if it ever occurs at all. The pardon requirement, the authors say, should be removed.

Since 1973, eight men in North Carolina have been exonerated of capital crimes. But Gell is the only one to have received compensation from the state. Another 23 people have been wrongfully convicted and then cleared of noncapital crimes. Of those, fewer than half received compensation.

It is also crucial, say Westervelt and Cook, to improve immediate post-release transitional services so that exonerees have a smoother re-entry into society, including assistance with job skills, housing, health care and transportation. That work could involve building on existing re-entry programs such as Charlotte’s Exodus Foundation or the Raleigh-based N.C. Second Chance Alliance.

The authors have shared their conclusions with the N.C. Governor’s Crime Commission, the N.C. Law and Policy Symposium and numerous other groups. And they are urging officials to act before the next wrongful conviction – and the prospect of another ruined life – emerges.

“This is not a Republican or a Democratic issue,” Westervelt says. “It’s an issue of doing what’s right.”

Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and the author of “Life Entrepreneurs.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of the forthcoming book “The Messy Quest for Meaning” and blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service