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 exonerationTRACEY TYLER
LEGAL AFFAIRS REPORTER
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:
Enduring changes to a wrongly convicted person's personality, often noticed more by the family. They were often described as chronically moody, irritable, bitter, suspicious of other people and uncommunicative to the point of being unable to carry on conversations.
The effects tended to be different from the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which commonly include flashbacks, Grounds said. Last year, testifying as an expert witness at the inquiry into the Thomas Sophonow case, he said the wrongly convicted suffer the kind of trauma experienced by victims of war crimes.
In a recent interview with the Star, Grounds said some marriages that held together during the years the men were imprisoned broke up after their release. While they were in prison, their families were shielded from just how much they had changed, he said. Both spouses were focused on the goal of winning his release, and prison visits centered on offering support. The men would "try to put on a brave face," Grounds said.
At home, wives would warn children against burdening their father with their troubles, saying things like, "Don't tell him what we're going through. He's got enough on his plate."
A sense of being frozen in time. All of the men Grounds interviewed experienced significant personal losses in prison, ranging from the loss of their most productive years to the death of loved ones. Some had missed a whole generation of family life and felt guilty about that. Many reported feeling the same age they were when they went in. "They would say things like, "I'm 35, but I'm 20 in my head,'" he said, adding the sense of being out of sync with their peers is probably permanent.
Psychiatric disorders. Many displayed symptoms of anxiety and panic disorders and paranoia. "By and large, these were not people who suffered from any kind of psychiatric disorder in the past," Grounds said.
Lack of preparation for release. Unlike long-term prisoners carefully primed for release, the wrongly convicted are usually turfed out of prison with nobody to help them reintegrate.
In England, Paddy Hill, who spent 16 years in prison after being wrongly convicted, has started his own Miscarriages of Justice Organization (MOJO) to help others like himself, who, he says, are dumped like sacks of garbage on the street.
Need for acknowledgement: Though compensation was important, most men were more interested in a public declaration of their innocence and an apology from the state than money, Grounds said. Some had "well-founded fears" for their safety. They also had a pervasive sense that people were whispering behind their back and that police, especially, did not accept that they were innocent.
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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