Perpetually Stigmatized: False Confessions Prompt Underlying Mechanisms That Motivate Negative Perceptions of Exonerees

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Abstract

Even in the fortunate instances of being exonerated of their wrongful convictions, exonerees often struggle to assimilate back into society. Although research has established that exonerees experience stigma and a general lack of reintegration support, little is known about underlying reasons that motivate such negative perceptions. This research examined whether the evidence and crime associated with a wrongful conviction could initiate a process that alters people’s perceptions of exonerees’ intelligence and mental health status, and, in turn, undermine people’s judgments of exonerees’ guilt and subsequent willingness to support reintegration services. Participants (N = 253) read a news story about an exoneree who was wrongfully convicted of either murder or grand theft auto resulting from either a false confession or eyewitness misidentification. Participants then offered their perceptions of the exoneree’s intelligence and mental health followed by guilt-confidence judgments. Last, participants indicated their willingness to support reintegration services (psychological counseling, career counseling, and job training). Results indicated that wrongful convictions stemming from a false confession caused people to perceive the exoneree as less intelligent and these judgments, in turn, were associated with perceptions that the exoneree suffered from mental health issues which, subsequently, influenced participants’ uncertainty of the exoneree’s innocence. The string of perceptions and judgments consequently undermined people’s willingness to support each of the reintegration services. The observed effects provide empirical evidence for reforms that automatically guarantee support services for exonerees in order to overcome potential biases aimed as those who have been wrongfully convicted.

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