For Victims’ Families, the Torment of Exoneration
Relatives say overturned convictions leave them feeling overlooked, afraid and even angry
By Kate King, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 7, 2016 12:03 a.m. ET (updated)
Andrea Harrison was buying lemonade at the Wawa store on Route 38 in southern New Jersey when the man who she had grown up believing killed her mother walked in the door.
Ms. Harrison had never met Larry Peterson, who spent nearly 18 years in prison for the murder before his conviction was overturned. But she had studied his picture from the state’s online criminal database.
“I walked out of that store so fast,” Ms. Harrison said of the encounter several years ago. “I was stunned.”
A judge threw out Mr. Peterson’s conviction in 2005, after DNA analysis discredited the forensic evidence used against him in his 1989 trial. Prosecutors haven’t charged anyone else.
“I still don’t have my mom,” Ms. Harrison said. “And now I don’t even have satisfaction in knowing that whoever did kill her is away and they can’t hurt anybody else, they can’t hurt me.”
There have been 1,913 exonerations nationwide since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. The registry estimates the wrongfully convicted have lost a total of 16,699 years behind bars. Stories about dubious convictions, such as the case profiled in the podcast “Serial,” have attracted cultlike followings and helped win new trials.
Meanwhile, a 2013 report commissioned by the National Institute of Justice was a rare look at the experiences of crime victims and their families in wrongful conviction cases.
Erin Williamson, who worked on the federal study as a consultant for ICF International, a consulting and technological services firm, said the families of murder victims told her they felt overlooked as they watched the media and members of the community rally around the wrongfully convicted.
“The victims kind of said, ‘No one’s realizing that this all happened because our family member was murdered,’ ” Ms. Williamson said.
Steven Barnes was convicted of the 1985 murder and sexual assault of 16-year-old Kim Simon in upstate New York. DNA analysis of evidence freed him from prison in 2008. He received a $3.5 million settlement from the state.
‘I’m just angry at the system that failed me. I hope there’s closure in this case so they can put it to rest.’
—Steven Barnes, who was exonerated for murder and sexual assault
Todd Simon was 12 when his sister was killed. Now 43 and living in Florida, Mr. Simon said he feared for his safety after learning Mr. Barnes had been exonerated and asked police whether his family would receive protection. Law-enforcement officers assured Mr. Simon that he wasn’t in danger, but he still worried that Mr. Barnes would blame him or his family for his incarceration.
“I still had in the back of my mind, what could happen if this person is angry?” said Mr. Simon.
Mr. Barnes, who was 23 when he went into prison and 42 when he was released, said he holds no animosity toward the Simon family.
“I’m just angry at the system that failed me,” he said, adding that he hasn’t talked with the Simon family since his exoneration. “I hope there’s closure in this case so they can put it to rest.”
The 2013 federal study found that fear is common among family members after the person they long believed killed their loved one is exonerated and released from prison, said Ms. Williamson, the consultant. “It’s very hard to suddenly flip a switch and think differently about that person,” she said. “That fear is very genuine.”
Mr. Barnes used part of his settlement to buy a house near his mother in Marcy, N.Y. The Oneida County District Attorney’s Office spent close to $500,000 reinvestigating the Simon murder after Mr. Barnes’ exoneration, but it remains unsolved. Mr. Simon said he and his parents, who are now in their 70s, doubt they will ever see the case closed.
“Our family gets nothing,” Mr. Simon said. “People forget that we were the victims.”
It is difficult to determine how many underlying criminal cases remain open after exonerations. The national registry doesn’t keep comprehensive statistics on how many cases are later solved.
In Brooklyn, a conviction review unit of nine prosecutors and three investigators has overturned 21 convictions since 2014. One was Antonio Yarbough, who spent nearly 22 years in prison after he was convicted of killing his mother, sister and a family friend.
Mr. Yarbough, who grew up in Coney Island, said he had a stable childhood even though his mother, Annie Yarbough, was a heroin addict. “If you didn’t know, you would think I had the perfect mom,” he said.
One summer morning in 1992, Mr. Yarbough, then 18, arrived home after a night out with friends and found his mother; his 12-year-old half-sister, Chavonn Barnes; and her friend, Latasha Knox, also 12. They had been tied up with electrical cords, garroted and stabbed multiple times.
Police charged Mr. Yarbough and one of his friends with the murders. Both were convicted and spent more than two decades in prison before they were exonerated in February 2014.
During his years behind bars, Mr. Yarbough said his anger toward the justice system was compounded by his feelings of guilt over not being home to protect his family the night they were murdered.
“I wasn’t accused of killing somebody else,” he said. “I was accused of killing the most important people in my life.”
Mr. Yarbough was released after a DNA sample found under his mother’s fingernails matched a sample found on a woman who was raped and murdered while Mr. Yarbough was in prison. He received a $3.6 million settlement from New York state, which he used to buy a small home on the outskirts of Queens. He is suing the New York City Police Department for violating his civil rights. A spokesman for the city Law Department declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The person whose DNA sample led to Mr. Yarbough’s exoneration remains unidentified, and the murders of his mother, sister and family friend are still unsolved. The NYPD didn’t respond to requests for comment on the status of the case.
“I want him to get locked up, I want him to go to trial,” Mr. Yarbough said, referring to the killer.
Wrongful conviction cases that involve DNA or other forensic evidence stand the best chance of seeing the crime solved. But the evidence that gets someone released from prison doesn’t always lead to another conviction, said Joe Giacalone, a retired New York police sergeant.
Mr. Giacalone, who was commanding officer of the Bronx Cold Case Squad, said older cases are more difficult to solve because witnesses die and records are lost. In many cases, the original investigators had “tunnel vision,” focusing too early on a person or group and neglecting to pursue other leads, he said.
“Exoneration cases become, unfortunately, cold cases times two in many respects, because there are no other suspects,” Mr. Giacalone said.
Andrea Harrison was 3 when her mother, Jacqueline Harrison, was found dead near a soybean field in New Jersey’s Pemberton Township on Aug. 24, 1987. An autopsy found that Jacqueline Harrison had been sexually assaulted and strangled to death. She was 25 with two daughters.
In 1989, Larry Peterson was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison for the crime. Andrea Harrison said she grew up fixated on the loss of her mother but believed justice had been served. She was 21 when a judge threw out Mr. Peterson’s conviction and called for a new trial.
“We thought, OK, that was it. Case closed,” Ms. Harrison said. “And then this exoneration happened.”
Burlington County Prosecutor Robert Bernardi concluded that his office didn’t have strong enough evidence to retry Mr. Peterson and asked the court to dismiss the charges.
“At this time there are no other identified suspects in this heinous crime,” Mr. Bernardi wrote in a 2006 report outlining his decision.
Mr. Peterson couldn’t be reached for comment. He was the first person in New Jersey exonerated in a homicide case based on DNA analysis and won a $1 million settlement from the state. In 2013 he was arrested for allegedly threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend, according to court records. The charges were dismissed the following year.
At the time of her death, Jacqueline Harrison was dating Dwayne Jones, Andrea Harrison’s father. They had plans to marry, but Jacqueline Harrison “was involved in some stuff that she shouldn’t have been,” Mr. Jones said. He believes she went out with other drug users from the neighborhood on the night she was murdered.
“I wish they would have found out who did it,” Mr. Jones said.
Mr. Bernardi declined through a spokesman to comment.
Vanessa Potkin, an Innocence Project attorney who represented Mr. Peterson, said both crime victims and the wrongfully convicted deserve justice.
“It’s horrific enough to lose a family member, to add to that injury, finding out decades later that the wrong person was incarcerated—that can be unbearable,” Ms. Potkin said. “There is no finality in a case if an innocent person has been convicted and the true assailant is left unapprehended.”
Mr. Jones still lives in southern New Jersey, but the social gatherings that he used to enjoy have been clouded since Mr. Peterson’s exoneration. Today, Mr. Jones suspects people from the community have information about Jacqueline Harrison’s murder but don’t want to share it with police.
“They’re breaking bread with you and still keeping this big, deep dark secret,” said Mr. Jones.
Andrea Harrison, now 32, lives in Maryland with her 9-year-old daughter, Lavender. She can no longer remember the shape of her mother’s face or the sound of her voice. For the past three Christmases, she has asked her aunts for photographs of her mother. They sit on the mantel in her living room.
“Tell me about my mom, tell me what happened to her,” Andrea Harrison said. “I think I want to know, as long as it culminates with them being prosecuted and put away.”
Write to Kate King at Kate.King@wsj.com