In Shattered Justice: Crime Victims’ Experiences with Wrongful Convictions and Exonerations, released in August 2022, University of North Carolina-Wilmington sociology and criminology professor Kimberly Cook explores how crime victims and their family members experience and process the trauma associated with the crime itself, the legal process, and the exoneration of the person they once believed to be the perpetrator.

Through direct interviews with twenty-one victims of fifteen different crimes, including murder victims’ family members whose cases led to death-row exonerations, Cook builds on previous research to determine how wrongful convictions and exonerations affect the victims of the underlying crimes, and what strategies they use to cope with these traumatic experiences.

Many criminological studies have focused on the “second assault” that rape victims face when reporting an incident to the police and going through legal proceedings, but these studies fail to look at what happens to crime victims and their families when the wrong person is convicted. All participants in Cook’s study faced primary trauma associated with direct victimization, secondary trauma of reporting a crime and going to court, and tertiary trauma brought up with the exoneration process, which is often marked by frustration, concern, and powerlessness.

For the participants in Cook’s study, emotional repair and recovery was a common theme following the exoneration process. Many talked about finding self-care practices, talking to exonerees about their experiences, looking for mutual forgiveness, and getting general peer support. Research on the impact of trauma has documented the concept of posttraumatic growth and resiliency, which “may include shifting priorities, reframing family relationships, improving self-care, and serving others who may also be experiencing similar changes.” These methods of growth were not only utilized by the original crime victims, but also by exonerees themselves. Among the study’s participants, several found themselves working in a legal advocacy realm, helping others access the support they did not have at the time of their victimization. Had these individuals been given suitable support and resources throughout the entire process, the agony of the exoneration process could have been mitigated. These participants hope for legal reform that prevents wrongful convictions, mitigates the severity of these convictions, and remedies the harm they produce.

Regardless of how the legal system treats victims, the investigation and trial proceedings add to the traumas and hardships each of them faces. This secondary trauma comes from the often-inadequate support and inaccessible information about criminal proceedings but differs for every crime victim. For the family members of murder victims, the trial process is emotional and tense, as many must sit through arguments and testimony that may blame their loved one(s) for what happened. This intensity can be amplified when the original crime victim is related to the alleged perpetrator. Cook tells the story of Nancy Wilhoit Vollersten, whose brother, Greg Wilhoit, was exonerated from Oklahoma death row after being accused of the rape and murder of his wife, Kathy, in 1985. Vollersten not only had to deal with the death of a family member, but also the wrongful incarceration and capital sentence her brother faced. Greg’s arrest came ten months after Kathy’s death, but law enforcement did not keep the family updated on the investigation, so his arrest was completely unexpected. Sudden arrests act as secondary trauma because investigators fail to acknowledge that family members are victims too and tend to withhold information. Vollersten witnessed her brother lose his mental health, “his physical health, his home, his livelihood, the opportunity to raise his children. He lost everything.” Vollersten was forced to take on the role of family caregiver – a responsibility and burden that came directly from her victimization. Kathy Wilhoit’s murder is now a cold case and remains unsolved because of law enforcement oversight and contamination of the crime scene. This has affected Vollersten’s beliefs about the criminal legal system and “the trust that [she] used to have that it works all the time has been destroyed.”

For crime victims, the legal system is expected to provide a sense of justice, but, Cook writes, the “system itself is traumagenic, as additional harms occur during the process,” and continue to occur beyond the conclusion of the original incident. Several participants found support in local innocence project attorneys, who reminded them that the legal system is flawed and that the system, rather than the victim, produced the wrongful conviction. This assurance allowed victims to take “the first step toward finding solace and understanding for what had happened and how the miscarriages of justice occurred.” The primary and secondary traumas these individuals face is compounded by the additional tertiary trauma of wrongful convictions and exonerations.

When a victim becomes part of an exoneration, they reopen “the wounds of the original crime that produced many agonizing effects, a loss of control of their lives, and a sense of helplessness in the investigations.” The complex trauma that arises can be manifested in avoidance, affect dysregulation, and negative self-image. For the racially oppressed, this is often manifested in “formal and informal segregation, stigmatization, and the criminalization [and] propagandization of the fear of Black men.” Many participants described how both racism and sexism affected their cases and their realization that the system they turned to for help and relief, produced trauma for them. These individuals felt guilt and shame, especially the assault victims who identified their attacker, for the wrongful convictions they played a role in. Jennifer Thompson, Founder of Healing Justice and a crime survivor herself, spoke about her initial support of capital punishment and how these views came to change with her victimization and participation in the wrongful conviction of Ronald Cotton. Through her involvement in the exoneration of Cotton, Thompson became involved with many Texas death row exonerees who were working to stop the execution of an innocent man. Thompson, now an advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, uses her experience “to urge people to work on preventing violent crime and stopping injustices in the first place.”