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Despite the rapid advancement of the forensic and judicial processes, wrongful convictions remain an essential element of the criminal justice realities in the U.S. and the rest of the world. The psychological consequences of wrongful convictions can hardly be overstated. The goal of this paper is to review and propose explanations to the psychological impacts of wrongful conviction and imprisonment. The paper includes a real-life example of wrongful conviction. The typology of false confessions and its implications for psychological wellbeing are discussed. Issues of internalization, remorse, and stress are discussed. The paper provides a detailed analysis of the psychological consequences of wrongful conviction and exoneration. Recommendations for future research are provided.
After Exoneration: The Psychological Impact of Wrongful Conviction
Despite the rapid advancement of the forensic and judicial processes, wrongful convictions remain an essential ingredient of the criminal justice realities in the developed world. The incidence of false confessions and wrongful convictions is extremely difficult to assess, but it is clear that thousands of defendants are imprisoned either without substantive evidence linking them to the crime or as a result of false confessions (Meissner & Russano, 2003). The latter represent one of the most controversial aspects in the study of wrongful convictions and their legal and psychological consequences. As of today, the amount of information regarding the psychological impacts of wrongful convictions and exoneration is minimal. Until present, only one study systematically explored the psychological consequences of wrongful conviction and imprisonment (Grounds, 2004). A deeper insight into the psychological nature of false confessions may shed some light on the complexity of wrongful convictions. This being said, it is possible to assume that the psychological impact of wrongful conviction encompasses numerous elements, from the stress and internalization of false beliefs during police interrogations to panic disorders, enduring personality changes after catastrophic experiences, post-traumatic stress disorders and anxiety disorders during and after imprisonment/ exoneration.
Wrongful Conviction: In Defense of Danial William
The tragic story of Danial William dates back to July 8, 1997. On that day, his neighbor, Billy Bosko, found his wife, Michelle Bosko, dead in their house (Leo & Davis, 2009). Billy Bosko ran to Williams’ house to call 911, and Williams accompanied him back to his house, where they covered the dead woman with a blanket and waited for police (Leo & Davis, 2009). Upon their arrival, the policemen began to question neighbors about what they might have seen or heard; Michelle’s friend Tamika Taylor suggested that Williams could murder Michelle on the premise that he had been sexually obsessed with her (Leo & Davis, 2009). Taylor’s words were enough for Detective Maureen Evans to decide that Williams was guilty of rape and murdered Michelle Bosko (Leo & Davis, 2009).
It should be noted, that Danial Williams had no police record. Moreover, he could not be a likely suspect, simply because he had been married for only ten days and his wife said he had been with her at the time of the murder (Leo & Davis, 2009). Williams could not even imagine that he was the primary suspect, and he willingly arrived at the police station on the same day (Leo & Davis, 2009). For the next 12 hours, Williams would be aggressively interrogated, until he started to doubt his own innocence (Leo & Davis, 2009). He passed the polygraph test but was told he had failed (Leo & Davis, 2009). After more than 12 hours of aggressive interrogation, he started to make up the story of his involvement in the crime (Leo & Davis, 2009). Even the absence of his DNA in the crime scene could not persuade the detectives that he was not guilty (Leo & Davis, 2009). The story of Michelle Bosko’s rape and murder lasted almost 19 months, until the letter of Omar Ballard, the real murderer, reached the police station in 1999 (Leo & Davis, 2009).
Omar Ballard was one of Michelle Bosko’s acquaintances. Despite his violent crime record, he was never interrogated or suspected of the crime. Meanwhile, Williams had to plead guilty in order to avoid the death penalty (Leo & Davis, 2009). He spent 11 years in prison for the crime he had never committed. A total of 6 innocent people were convicted of the same crime during the 19 months of 1997-1999 (Leo & Davis, 2009). This is just one of the thousands cases demonstrating the seriousness of the psychological processes involved in false confessions, wrongful conviction, and exoneration. According to Leo and Davis (2009), wrongfully convicted defendants develop their emotional disorders in contexts that are inadequate for evaluating evidence objectively. Wrongful conviction in the absence of false confessions is no less serious, as it subjects defendants to the pressure of public judgment, due to the lack of obvious remorse for the crime they had never committed.
Wrongful Conviction: The Story Begins
The current body of research into the psychological consequences of wrongful convictions is extremely scarce. However, it is possible to assume that the psychological change in wrongfully convicted individuals starts the moment they enter the police station for interrogation. Basically, false confessions are divided into three different types. First, a voluntary false confession is that which “occurs when a person confesses to a crime they did not commit and he/ she offers this confession absent any police coercion or pressure” (Meissner & Russano, 2003, p.54). Reasons why individuals accuse themselves voluntarily are numerous: from the pursuit of fame and glory to the desire to protect someone else (Meissner & Russano, 2003). Most probably, the psychological impacts of voluntary false confessions and the subsequent conviction will be relatively mild, either because the defendant manages to meet his/ her fame goal or because he/ she is conscious of what may result from the desire to protect someone else.
More controversial are coerced-compliant and coerced-internalized false confessions. A coerced-compliant false confession is when a person confesses for an immediate instrumental gain, even though he/ she is conscious that they never committed the crime (Meissner & Russano, 2003). In the case of Danial William, the immediate gain was avoiding the death penalty. From the psychological viewpoint, these individuals sacrifice long-term priorities for the sake of short-term benefits. They are either unaware of or erroneously assume that the long-term consequences of their false confession are less important than the short-term gains their confession may bring. Inherent in coerced-internalized false confessions is the process of internalization, when a person starts to believe that he/ she has actually committed the crime (Meissner & Russano, 2003). If coerced-internalized confessions result in wrongful conviction, two psychological outcomes are possible. First, a person accused of a crime may develop a belief that he/ she committed a crime but never develop memories of committing this crime (Meissner & Russano, 2003). Second, a person accused of a crime may develop both a belief and an actual memory of the crime events (Meissner & Russano, 2003).
That the presentation of false evidence during police interrogations induces suspects to internalize blame for the crimes they did not commit was established by Kassin and Kiechel (1996) in their social experiment. In addition, the process of police interrogations preceding and leading to wrongful conviction is the source of serious psychological stresses (Conti, 1999). The fact of imprisonment following police interrogations and, later, wrongful conviction, results in numerous psychological disturbances, including the loss of the sense of reality (Conti, 1999). These, however, are merely the beginnings of the long-term changes in defendants’ mental state following wrongful conviction.
Certainly, not all innocent suspects plead themselves guilty. In these situations, the absence of overt remorse becomes the most controversial psychological aspect of the entire judicial process. Suspects and defendants that do not display any remorse, even when they are obviously innocent, can be accused of demonstrating no affect (Weisman, 2004). Psychiatrists may diagnose such defendants with a sociopathic personality disorder or any other type of psychopathy (Weisman, 2004). The long-term consequences of such diagnoses are not difficult to predict: a “psychopathic” person released after years of wrongful imprisonment will need a huge amount of time to restore his/ her psychological wellbeing and reduce the scope of labeling and bias in his/ her community.
Wrongful Conviction: During and After
Based on the above information, the nature of police interrogations, the type of false confessions or their absence, and the type of defendants’ personality may readily contribute to the development of stressful moods in suspects and defendants. According to Weisman (2004), the psychological consequences of wrongful convictions are the products of a complex interplay between the defendant’s personality features, mental state and intelligence, as well as the circumstances in which the interrogation and conviction take place. Despite the minimal research on the psychological impacts of wrongful convictions after exoneration, it is clear that individuals released from prisons once their convictions are quashed experience a whole array of psychological complications and disorders (Grounds, 2004).
To begin with, individuals released from prison after serving a term on wrongful convictions experience an enduring personality change. This personality change is distressing for both the ex-prisoner and his/ her family members (Grounds, 2004). The prevailing majority of men released from prison when their convictions are quashed meet the criteria of the personality change following catastrophic experience (Grounds, 2004). The main features of this personality change include but are not limited to hostility, the lack of trust toward the world, feelings of hopelessness and emptiness, social withdrawal and chronic estrangement (Grounds, 2004). It is no wonder that family members see their wrongfully committed relatives and significant others as unable to relate properly and withdrawn (Grounds, 2004). These ex-prisoners will no longer be the people they used to be before the trial.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is very common among individuals who have experience wrongful convictions. Grounds (2004) suggests that PTSD stems from the feeling of threat experienced by these individuals during arrest and imprisonment. The most prevalent symptoms of PTSD in wrongfully convicted men after exoneration include heightened physiological arousal, avoidance, and constant re-experiencing of the traumatic event (Grounds, 2004). Some of these men report being fearful of police sirens, while others experience insomnia and panic attacks in response to the violent memories of imprisonment (Grounds, 2004). In addition, wrongful convictions are often associated with and result in the development of sustained anxiety disorders, panic disorders, paranoid symptoms, alcohol and drug dependence (Grounds, 2004). Exoneration and social isolation go hand in hand, throwing former prisoners into the hands of drug and alcohol abuse. Moodiness, irritability, and chronic sleep disturbances are just some of the many effects of wrongful convictions experienced by people (Grounds, 2004). The emotional and psychological losses experienced by the wrongly convicted are profound: many of them report losing their identity and the sense of freedom (Grossman & Roberts, 2011). Eventually, the prevailing majority of ex-prisoners following exoneration experience serious difficulties trying to adjust themselves to the new realities of life.
In the situations involving wrongful convictions, individuals are released from prisons without any preparation or supervisory support (Grounds, 2004). More often than not, “after being maximum-security prisoners for years, they are taken to the Appeal Court, the decision is given, and they are released with a small amount of money and a bag of possessions to their waiting families and the media” (Grounds, 2004, p.171). However, the wrongfully convicted cannot cope with the psychological consequences of long-term confinement (Iyer, 2009). For these reasons, ex-prisoners fail to develop the sense of purpose, adjust to the new conditions of free life, and eliminate the feelings of notoriety and lost time that are extremely common among them.
All these findings suggest that the effects of long-term imprisonment differ greatly from the psychological impacts of wrongful conviction and exoneration. The current clinical literature does not indicate any enduring personality changes in long-term prisoners (Grounds, 2004). Given the lack of empirical findings in the field, the future research should focus on the analysis of the psychological consequences of wrongful convictions and their relation to the psychological processes involved in wrongful detention, interrogation, and arrest. In the meantime, criminal justice professionals should develop complex supportive measures for wrongfully convicted individuals, to facilitate their transition and reintegration into the community.
Despite the rapid advancement of forensic and judicial process, the problem of wrongful convictions continues to persist. The far-reaching psychological consequences of wrongful convictions cannot be easily dismissed. Individuals released from prisons after serving the term for a wrongful conviction experience a wide array of psychological difficulties and disorders. Personality change after catastrophic events, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and panic disorder, drug and alcohol dependencies are just some of the many psychological impacts of wrongful convictions on individuals. Upon their release from imprisonment, these individuals need constant monitoring and supervision to facilitate their reintegration into the community.