Toronto Star

Nov. 15, 2002. 01:00 AM

Once wrongly convicted, men are forever changed

Psychiatrist finds trauma lingers long after release: Depression often follows euphoria of exoneration

Toronto Star

The trauma of being wrongly convicted often produces irreversible personality changes in its victims, comparable to those caused by war, according to the first research into its long-term psychological effects.

Although victims of miscarriages of justice are frequently portrayed as remarkably free of bitterness — a perception fostered by pictures of euphoric celebrations when convictions are overturned — the reality is often profoundly different, the research involving British, Irish and Canadian victims shows.

When the rejoicing is over and the crowds have cleared from the courthouse steps, a newly exonerated person is often filled not with a sense of optimism and new beginning, but one of hopelessness and despair.

On a practical level, many feel like stroke victims, struggling to relearn everyday tasks like adjusting a thermostat or crossing a road.

Psychologically, they're not the same people, said Dr. Adrian Grounds, a forensic psychiatrist and lecturer at the University of Cambridge in England. The years in prison have taken their toll, frequently leaving them suspicious, moody, like strangers to their own family.

At certain moments, the difficulties of readjusting to life outside prison can be so overwhelming that a wrongly convicted person wishes he was back in jail, he said.

"I think the closest analogy is to Vietnam vets coming home," said Grounds, who will present his findings tomorrow at "Innocents Behind Bars," a Toronto conference hosted by the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted. "What happens with many wrongly convicted people who come back home and rejoin their families is very similar.

"Many of them have had to show enormous personal strength and courage to fight what used to be very isolated battles," he said in an interview. "When they're released, we get these pictures of great celebration, which conveys the impression the ordeal is over. But, of course, it's not."

Grounds examined 17 wrongly convicted people, all men and all but two convicted of murder. The group includes one Canadian. Although Grounds will not identify any (his subjects agreed to speak with him on condition of anonymity), he did say that five were convicted in connection with terrorist bombings of British pubs in the 1970s.

The sample size is admittedly too small to be considered scientifically accurate, Grounds said. However, "there's an accumulating body of evidence about these cases and, the more people I see with similar sorts of conditions, I think the more valid the findings become," he said.

While there were exceptions — "not everyone is terribly affected and disabled" — the majority had "very significant difficulties," Grounds said. "Nobody was completely free of problems. But some were doing better than others."

His research found:

Grounds believes his findings point to the need for a mechanism in every country for aggressively investigating claims of wrongful convictions and a formal support system.

Since victims tend to distrust government agencies, they should be offered long-term clinical support from doctors knowledgeable about the effects of trauma and imprisonment, Grounds said. Peer counseling from other wrongly convicted persons would also help, since "those who have been through it themselves are the best teachers and advisers."

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