The Collateral Consequences of Exoneration

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a person with his hand n another person's shoulder

Troy Burner welcomed by his mother after his release from prison in 2018. He was exonerated two years later. Photo courtesy The Innocence Project

The holiday season is often a time for family gatherings, and while many will be preparing for reunions in the coming days, it is important to remember the roadblocks returning citizens face.

For instance, background checks cause thousands of potential collateral consequences that can impact things like housing or employment. As my story explains, these consequences can even inappropriately spill over to a family reunification.

On May 27, 1994, I lost my freedom. I was sent to prison for a crime I did not commit..

Everything I knew suddenly and tragically dissipated right before my eyes. I vividly remember my mother’s wails as I was found guilty. From that moment on, I longed for, dreamed of, and worked toward regaining my freedom.

The general belief is that freedom is reestablished once released from custody. I have come to learn just how untrue that is.

One may be physically free, but the stigma and stain of incarceration always remains. Thousands come home every year only to be subjected to collateral consequences, stringent parole or probation conditions, and overall barriers to the simplest life experiences.

These continue your incarceration.

Since being released, I have been denied employment because of my incarceration. Applying for housing has been another major obstacle. Even applying with a qualified family member, the history of incarceration does not allow my name on the lease. This practice essentially renders me homeless.

I have felt the stain of being incarcerated, and it persists, despite being exonerated from my crime two years ago. I am a free man, but my experience over Thanksgiving this past year reminds me that I am far from free.

On Thanksgiving weekend, my wife and I drove 23 hours from DC to Colorado Springs to spend the holiday with our children, grandchildren and other family members. This gathering took place on Fort Carson Army Base where our son is stationed.

After driving 23 hours straight, a background check was done and I was denied entrance. I was told that due to my conviction for homicide, I would not be permitted on the base.

Nothing changed, even after informing them that I had been exonerated, and that the national database would prove that. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect my past to block me from being with family.

It was expressed to me that it was not their decision and the denial came from the state. We were to speak to someone in a joint office at 5:00 am to gain clarity. Frustrated by not knowing what to do, at 1:00 am my wife and I checked into a hotel with the intention to rest overnight and drive home the next day.

Our son met us at the joint office after returning to the base the next morning. Despite having hard copies to support my claim, the officer in charge claimed to search various databases only to find that the conviction remained.

He told us:

I’m not saying that this is what you have done, but anybody can get on the computer and make this up.

Never mind the fact that one can go online to find  the relevant information about my case. I asked him if I produced the court order with seal, would that suffice?

The officer replied, “It’s above my pay scale; there’s nothing I can do.”

I sat there tired, quiet, discouraged, but also seething with anger and frustration. I felt condemned and attacked once again. However, to act on all those emotions would only serve to make my seat hotter as proof that my treatment was acceptable. We made our way back to the hotel.

On our return to the hotel, our son’s determination turned the situation. We learned that he accessed various relevant databases himself and pulled all the relevant information that the officer claimed he couldn’t find, presented it, and ultimately cleared my name.

‘I Didn’t Know’

The officer profusely apologized and said, “I didn’t know.”

I was handed my visitor pass. If it wasn’t for my son’s persistence, we would have been on our way home.

Was the apology sincere? I have my thoughts. What I know for a fact is, it was unnecessary and avoidable.

My story does not stand alone.

Every day, someone returning home from prison must deal with the collateral consequences of incarceration. Exonerees have an additional burden.

Even as an exoneree, every time I am questioned it places me in the mental state of continued confinement, trying to disprove and erase the stain that I didn’t earn or deserve.

I can’t get time back, but our system must be definitive in its intention to restore as much as possible to the wrongfully convicted. And for those that return home for a second chance, regardless of their committing offense, they have earned the right to be truly free from continued punitive measures and free to be with family.

This is also serves as a reminder that a clean slate is necessary for all returning citizens.

How can one move on if they are not removed from that stigma and stain?

As we approach the holiday season, we need to remember that returning home comes with barriers that need to be addressed. Whether it is at an army base, another state, or at home, all returning citizens must have the opportunity to be with family, away from the stigma they fight every day.

photo of man in white hirt

Troy Burner

On all other accounts, I otherwise fully enjoyed and appreciated my holiday weekend. I thank God and my son, whose rank ultimately allowed me to enjoy our Thanksgiving dinner together.

That weekend surely gave me great feelings of love, joy and a sense of being free, but the question remains… what is freedom?

Troy Burner an Associate with the Justice Policy Institute, spent more than 24 years incarcerated for a crime he did not commit. He was exonerated in March, 2020.

2 thoughts on “The Collateral Consequences of Exoneration

  1. And for those who actually did commit a crime but have served their punishment, where are all the bible thumping Christians offering their “forgiveness” and “redemption”? We are one heck of a judgmental society while claiming to be a Christian country.
    Dear “Christians”, the next time you pat yourselves on the back for helping the homeless, make sure you understand WHY many of those people are homeless. Then make sure you keep your mouths shut on social media when you get the urge to leave comments about “FeLoNs” like you always do. 370+ million people are not all going to be perfect. And neither are you.
    It’s a shame that this is a first world country yet we hold people’s pasts against them and refuse them housing and employment. So much for “forgiveness and redemption”, I guess.

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