“One of the biggest things that I needed was time to process. You know when you’re faced with this… there’s so much news media going on around the exoneration and the exoneree that you get put on the backburner.”
- Crime Survivor
“I have some resentment towards the people who were supposed to be helping serve my family. We needed them to be there with some empathy, and some compassion, and some honesty, and some follow-up. And not only follow-up, but follow-through.”
- Murder Victim Family Member
“I didn’t need a phone call. I needed somebody to knock at my door, where I could face somebody, and have law enforcement have somebody trained there so that when people are informed of such tragedy, they can help.”
- Crime Survivor
“We needed more honesty. Tell me the truth. I’d rather you tell me straight up what’s going to happen, than for you to kind-of sugar coat it and try to make me feel okay so I don’t express myself in a way that you didn’t want to impact the case. No, tell me the truth… tell me now. So I know, so I can prepare myself.”
- Murder Victim Family Member
“It is important to put ourselves in the shoes of the victim. They have a right and deserve to know what’s going on.”
– Prosecuting Attorney
“Survivors need information. They often get lost in all of this. Sometimes they are made aware of this much later than maybe they could be. They need to have access to information as soon as possible.”
– Victim Service Professional
“The support system should be the very same as the very first day after the crime as after the exoneration, because the hurt is the same.”
- Police Investigator
“Police departments need to know: you still owe the customer service and support, because the victim’s needs are still there.”
- Police Investigator
Post-conviction claims of innocence and exonerations can cause the victims of the original crime to experience re-victimization and re-traumatization. While every case and victim are different, generally the earlier that a victim can learn about renewed case activity around a post-conviction claim of innocence and about a possible or impending exoneration, the better they can prepare for any potential outcome; take any steps they feel are necessary for their physical and psychological safety; and exercise any rights they have in the post-conviction process.
Notification in these cases should be provided by trained professionals, and victims should have ongoing access to a victim advocate and victim services, including legal services for consultation regarding victims’ rights. In addition, while the responsibility for contacting victims and offering services in these cases often falls to prosecution agencies involved in the post-conviction proceedings, other providers, such as law enforcement and corrections agencies, also play a key role. As such, collaboration across all agencies is critical, and a multi-disciplinary team approach is strongly recommended.
It is important to acknowledge that a case is not “over” after a conviction occurs and that victims continue to have rights post-conviction and during the offenders’ confinement and around release. Informing victims of their rights during the post-conviction exoneration process not only conforms with the law, but also can help alleviate stress and provide victims with a sense of control. Depending on federal, state, and tribal law, these rights commonly include the right to:
- Be treated with fairness, dignity, and respect;
- Privacy and confidentiality;
- Safety and security;
- Be informed about the status of the case;
- Confer with a state’s attorney;
- Be heard and participate in the criminal justice process;
- Restitution; and
- Re-apply for compensation.
We have created the following resources to assist victim service providers and allied professionals with providing victim-centered and trauma-informed notification and support in cases involving post-conviction claims of innocence and exonerations:
- Guiding Principles
- Guidelines for Practitioners
- Sample Agency Policy
- Sample Information Packet for Victims
These resources are intended to be used together, with the Guiding Principles setting forth the overarching values and goals and the Guidelines for Practitioners serving as a practical checklist. The Sample Agency Policy and Sample Information Packet are specific tools that can be adapted by individual agencies for use in the field. Also available are documentary videos of original victims’ stories and experiences, to help normalize what victims may be feeling and provide peer-to-peer support.
For Providing Notification and Support to Crime Victims
Guidelines for Practitioners
For Providing Notification and Support to Crime Victims
Sample Agency Policy
For Providing Notification and Support to Crime Victims
Sample Information Packet for Victims
Information for Crime Victims and Survivors
Legal Analysis on Victims' Rights
Victims' Law Position Paper
Responding to Original Victims in Wrongful Conviction Cases
Purpose of Resources
These resources have been created to ensure provision of timely, reliable, and thorough information and assistance to victims in cases involving post-conviction claims of innocence and exonerations. These resources aim to ensure that this provision of information and assistance in these cases is victim-centered and trauma-informed by:
- Demonstrating respect for and sensitivity to victims throughout the entire criminal justice process, including post-conviction;
- Providing victims with agency, choice, and control;
- Mitigating the emotional distress experienced by victims in cases involving post-conviction claims of innocence and exonerations;
- Ensuring victims’ safety and security;
- Regaining victims’ trust in the criminal justice system; and
- Re-engaging victims in future proceedings.
Application and Scope of Resources
Victim notification and support in cases involving post-conviction claims of innocence and/or exonerations is warranted at many different points, as required by state law or victims’ rights, or in instances where the victim could learn about renewed case activity from an untrained third party, such as the media or representative of the prisoner. These points include:
- A prisoner’s petition to a court for post-conviction DNA testing;
- A court hearing on the petition for or results of post-conviction DNA testing;
- A prisoner’s petition to a court for a writ of factual innocence (based on DNA or non-DNA evidence) and related hearings;
- A prisoner’s request for a new trial based on newly-discovered evidence and related hearings;
- A court finding of factual innocence;
- A hearing and/or decision by a governor’s office on a prisoner’s petition for a finding of factual innocence;
- The prisoner’s release from prison;
- Search for and prosecution of the actual perpetrator.
Generally, there should be early, initial contact about renewed case activity, after which victims determine for themselves whether and how they want to receive further information during the post-conviction process. No victim should learn about an impending exoneration and prisoner release at the last minute or after exoneration and release have already occurred.
Definitions for Resources
- Victim or original victim: The crime victim in the original case, also referred to as the survivor; includes surviving murder victim family members.
- Practitioners: Professional staff who work in the post-conviction setting, including victim service providers and allied professionals.
- Victim Service Provider (VSP): Victim service advocate or other professional who works in either a community-based or systems-based agency. Systems-based VSPs are affiliated with a government or state agency inclusive of prosecution, law enforcement and corrections. Community-based VSPs are typically associated with a nongovernmental advocacy or non-profit agency; they operate independent from law enforcement and prosecution agencies and tend to specialize in a particular type of victimization.
- Allied Professionals: Prosecutors, police investigators, and other criminal justice practitioners who have contact with victims during the post-conviction process in cases involving either a suspected or confirmed wrongful conviction.
- Wrongful Conviction: [A] case in which a government entity determines that the originally convicted individual factually did not commit the crime.
- Exoneration: The legal mechanism by which a government entity, by way of a pardon or judicial order, declares that the originally convicted individual is indeed factually innocent.
- Exoneration Process: The process by which a post-conviction claim of innocence is investigated and litigated, regardless of the ultimate outcome of the case; can be initiated by the prisoner or by a state agency.
- Notification: Any moment of communication with or delivery of information to a victim regarding the status of their case.
- Trauma-Informed: A system of care that starts with understanding the sources of many traumas that victims experience. This understanding can help programs support healing, acknowledge victims as whole people, and reduce re-traumatization.
- Victim-Centered: Placing the priorities, needs, and interests of victims at the center of an agency’s work, including: providing nonjudgmental assistance with an emphasis on self-determination; assisting them in making informed choices; restoring feelings of safety and security; safeguarding against policies and practices that may re-traumatize; and ensuring that their rights, voices, and perspectives are incorporated when developing and implementing efforts that impact victims.
From a Texas Police Official:
When a police detective in Texas learned that an innocence organization was investigating a case that he had worked on 25 years prior, he immediately thought about the original crime victim and wanted to inform her that DNA testing was being sought in her case. He set up a meeting with the victim because he knew that news coverage of the case would be traumatic for her, and he felt it was important to speak with her in person.
When he learned from the prosecutor’s office that the DNA testing from the case confirmed the innocence of the person in prison, he went to meet with the victim in person again as soon as he could because he did not want her to hear anything from the media first. He understood that it was vital that she be informed throughout the process by .... He also invited her mother to accompany him so that she could provide extra support when the news was shared.
While he understood the potential harm that this news might cause the victim, he was not prepared for how it caused her to relive the original assault all over again: “It was very traumatic for me too; I felt kicked in the stomach. I knew it was bad–– that she had lived with the guilt of picking the wrong guy for lots of years, but what I didn’t realize was that it just brought the original assault back to her and she re-lived it all again. I was not prepared for that. I talked to her a lot and she did counseling – but even for the counselors this was new and they didn’t know what to do with that.”
For the victim, the detective’s involvement and sensitivity in delivering the news about the exoneration was a positive in the midst of the traumatizing event. As she shared: “What I was thankful for is he said later, ‘We knew when we got the DNA results that this was going to harm you. We knew this was something we didn’t know how to deal with and we knew that we didn’t know what to do. But even though we didn’t know what to do, we knew it was going to impact you.’ And what I’m really lucky and blessed with is that I did get phone calls, I did get care, and I did get hand-holding. So all these guys who had been part of the original crime somehow were in this 23 years later… and just caring compassionate advocates who said, ‘We don’t really have anyway to know. We don’t have a script. We’ve never been through this, but we know that it’s gonna hurt. I could ask them any questions. And there are so many days that I needed something, but I didn’t really know what I needed. I just needed somebody to listen… having an advocate, having somebody to be there for me.”
The rapport between the police detective and the victim enabled him to be sensitive towards her needs, as he shared: “One good thing for me was, I always had a good relationship with [her] even when the crime happened. It is important for all detectives and police officers to have that rapport.”
From a Virginia Police Official:
An investigator described a challenging case when it came to trying to notify a victim about an re-investigation of the case based on the prisoner’s claim of innocence. She knew that news of the possible exoneration would hit the media, and she felt it was important to notify the victim before the news was made public. She had difficulty finding the victim, and once she did find contact information, the victim would not answer her phone. She felt it was important to call the victim first before simply showing up at her house without advance notice. Once the victim answered, the investigator explained, “I don’t want you to see it in the newspaper. I want you to hear it from me.” Ideally, she would have talked with the victim in person, but the victim did not want to be visited, so the investigator communicated everything over the phone.
The investigator felt it was important to ensure that the victim did not feel blamed in any way, especially when the victim responded in disbelief and expressed confidence in the conviction and her eyewitness account. The investigator was open in sharing the details of the case that had not previously been shared so the victim could better understand the exoneration, and the investigator emphasized that it was in no way the victim’s fault. She went a step further and actively took away the blame, telling the victim, “You didn’t do anything wrong. You were shown a photo line-up with a man wearing something very similar to your attacker. This isn’t your fault, it’s the attacker who did this to you.”
The investigator also offered services and access to people who were available to meet with and support the victim. She also asked the victim if she could mail a letter with information about available victim services and resources. When the victim expressed that she did not want to be contacted again or for anyone to come to her house, the investigator respected her wishes.
From a Texas Prosecution Official:
A prosecutor faced challenges in notifying family members of a murder victim. In her experience, the post-conviction process is complicated, and it can be difficult knowing which family members should be notified post-conviction after so much time has passed since the crime and conviction.
She shared one such experience in particular, describing how they had specific family members who had been designated to receive notification during the original case: the parents of the victim, who was a mother of young children. 20 years later, when they were dealing with a possible exoneration, it was difficult to find the parents, who were now elderly and lived in a different state. When she finally talked with the parents, she specifically asked about the victim’s now-adult children, and they said that the children should not be contacted. The prosecutor explained that “it was a conflict of ‘what do I do’ when they were never involved to begin with and I want to be respectful, but they are adults now and may want to be informed.”
Ultimately, the adult children found out about the exoneration through the media. The prosecutor described: “We had gone through great pains and thought: ‘what about the children specifically’ and had been assured that it was not a good idea to contact them… but then a newspaper tracked down one daughter … And she calls the police department and asks, ‘What happened here?’ … Everything we were trying to avoid happened, and I felt like we completely misserved them.”
One victim shared how her first notification was so insensitive that she was catapulted back emotionally to when she was sexually assaulted as a child. In her case, police appeared at her workplace with no prior warning, 20 years after the conviction, in order to obtain a DNA sample. Three weeks after providing that DNA sample, she received word about the exoneration and learned that a release was happening 24 hours later. She described the utter absence of control and the terror she felt, just as she had experienced during the original crime.
A victim described learning about the exoneration as having “the wind knocked out of you… times about a thousand and then multiply that times months where you can’t breathe, and it hurts so bad and that’s not even close to how you feel through an exoneration.” When she learned that DNA results cleared the person convicted in her case, she received less than 48 hours’ notice to prepare for the exoneration and release. She was terrified of what might happen to her and did not have adequate time to talk to her children or plan for her safety.
A victim family member explained that she was never informed of the exoneration by an official and only learned about the exoneration through the media after an innocence organization took on the case. She expressed her need for information to the lawyers and law enforcement, but nobody kept her informed through the process.
A victim shared that she was shielded from the media through the local police department and prosecutor’s office. Following the exoneration, they protected her identity and gave her control over participating in media interviews. When media made a request to interview the victim, the police and prosecutors acted as mediators and let her decide if she wanted to contact the media or not. This gave her the opportunity to control what was happening and how her story was shared. She explained, “they can keep asking as much as they want, but that keeps me in control of the situation, and that’s super important.”
A victim expressed having a hard time with the media, from the way the original crime was sensationalized in news stories to how she continues to be blamed for the wrongful conviction. She described how she felt responsible for the wrongful conviction, and felt like it was her burden to carry, so she decided to go public with her story. She shared how interviewers always wanted to know how she “got it wrong”, describing how she became “the whipping boy” for everyone who was fascinated by the exoneration. She describes how this mistreatment and lack of sensitivity destroyed her in ways that she hasn’t been able to recover from. In her experience, every time someone has asked her to share her story, the focus has always turned to the exonerated individual with all blame for the wrongful conviction placed on her. She also describes how strangers commenting online have been threatening, frightening, and re-traumatizing. In the past she has taken the blame for what her rapist did to her and the exoneree in her case, but emphatically explains now that the narrative must change and that blame must be placed where it belongs: with the actual perpetrator and systemic mistakes.
For one victim family member, the greatest help came from advocates who protected her from unwanted media attention. In advance of court hearings about the impending exoneration, she requested that she not be mentioned or shown in the media, and two victim advocates protected her from this exposure. She expressed the importance of having an advocate be present at court hearings to assist and protect victims from the media. Her recommendation is that this advocate should be responsible for making sure the media knows that the victim is not to be approached, recorded, or videotaped.
- A News Media Guide for Victim Service Providers (Justice Solutions)
- Justice Solutions, A Website by Crime Victim Professionals for Crime Victim Professionals
- Communicating With Victims: “The DOs and DON’Ts”
- DNA & Crime Victims: Post-Conviction Testing And Exoneration (National Center for Victims of Crime)
- NIC Brochure: Victim Service Providers in Post-Conviction Settings (National Institute of Corrections)
- Survey of Key Laws in the Fifty States and District of Columbia Specifically Regarding Victims’ Right to Notice In Connection With Offenders’ Post-Conviction Release (NCVLI)
- Fundamentals of Victims’ Rights: A Summary of 12 Common Victims’ Rights (NCVLI, Victim Law Bulletin)
- LGBTQ Inclusive Language DOs and DON’Ts (The Safe Zone Project)
- Reaching All Victims Project (Vera Institute of Justice)
- Enhancing Services in Victim Service Organizations (End Abuse of People with Disabilities)
- Tribal Access to Justice Innovation: Resources and information for tribal justice practitioners
- A Tribal Probation Officers Guide to Working with Victims
We are interested in your feedback on the value and usefulness of this website and these resources. We would appreciate it if you take 10 minutes to complete this feedback form. Your responses will be used to better increase support and resources for victims.
Healing Justice is a national nonprofit organization committed to addressing the post-conviction needs of crime survivors and victims’ families through direct assistance, peer support, and opportunities for healing, as well as by providing training and technical assistance to victim service providers and allied professionals. To learn more or request assistance, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-738-4925.