Burden of Innocence
homeprofilesafter the camerasfaqsdiscussionwatch online
> john wilson

[What did you find when you examined Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz?]

What I found in assessing both Ron and Dennis is that they had been severely traumatized by being wrongfully convicted and wrongfully incarcerated. Both of them suffered enormous emotional injuries from the period of their incarceration and upon release, of course, have attempted ... to try to resume a normal life. But's been very difficult for both of them. ...

[How did prison affect them?]

Well, prison did a lot of things. I think the simplest way of putting it for Ron is that he withdrew. He went into a deep isolation and I also think a very deep depression by being incarcerated. The injury to Ron is one that's very profound. The scars are deep inside of his psyche. ... And I'm not sure that he's recovered yet from it. As I interviewed him and assessed him, it was clear that that depression had continued. ...

Most of them experience this sort of anxiety of floating: floating adrift in American society, wanting to find a niche, wanting to resume a normal life. But finding the keys to unlock the door seems almost as difficult as getting out of prison.

Both men suffer from post traumatic stress disorder as a result of the incarceration and as a result of going through the entire process of being accused of a murder for which they did not commit. Both have handled the situations they were in ... in different ways, but the psychological pathway and consequence, the emotional scarring to both of them, is similar. ... Dennis is a little more of a fighter. He's a little more energetic and active, perhaps because he was a teacher, in gathering information that was useful to try to prove his claim. And those are differences we still see in both of them. But yet their scars I think are quite similar. ...

photo of wilson

Wilson, a professor of psychology at Cleveland State University, testified about the psychological effects of wrongful imprisonment on behalf of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz at their civil trial. In this interview with FRONTLINE, Wilson discusses the two men's mental anguish and how the years in prison irrevocably and drastically changed them, and about how the exonerated are often unable to enjoy freedom once they're finally released. This interview was conducted on Dec. 10, 2002.

Both have masks. ... It's important to recognize that people like Ron and Dennis who have been wrongfully convicted and incarcerated and then are exonerated tend to show the world a mask that they use to cope with the stresses of imprisonment. It's adaptive. It's a survival mechanism to wear the mask, because you can't show someone your vulnerability when you're in a prison environment; it will result in further attacks and victimization if you're vulnerable and you show too much of your humanness and vulnerability. ... So afterwards the mask continues. ...

Dennis tends to not let you see underneath the mask as readily as Ron does. And I think that's because Ron's emotions and his underlying injuries and sense of helplessness and hopelessness and depression and feeling battered and defeated by what's happened to him is worn on his sleeve. It's hard not to feel it when you're with Ron. You feel his pain and you feel how crushed he is as a person. Dennis has a different mask. ... What you tend to see is a more active kind of intellectually driven person who wants to always find answers to his problem. But underneath the mask, too, is a person whose life was literally turned upside down. ...

[Has the compensation provided any sort of relief to these men?]

It will help Ron in the sense that it'll give him a safety net. The safety net is an economic safety net; it will make it so that he doesn't have to worry about having a place to live, and where to buy groceries and meeting the most basic needs that he has on a daily basis. It won't solve any of the psychological problems or emotional scars that Ron has from this wrongful incarceration.

My experience has been in working for about 20 years now with wrongfully incarcerated persons is that money is useful, it's important, but it isn't a solution to the problems. It's important because it validates that they were in fact wrongfully convicted. It validates their exoneration and it helps them to reestablish a new identity, not as a criminal, but as a person who was innocent and wrongfully convicted, who suffered the injustice of a system. That's important. The money helps to replace what was lost -- a career, a job, schooling, family relations. But it can't put it back in place; you can't put a material value, a dollar sign, on human loss. So while it's helpful to guarantee a safety net, it really doesn't solve any of the deeper psychological questions that they have to face every day of their lives.

... Money often makes things worse. Once someone has been awarded compensation through litigation, oftentimes and much to their surprise, people they thought that were friends and families want part of the money. All of a sudden they're a dollar sign and not a person who was wrongfully incarcerated. And I know of cases ... where people have given away the money that they got and two years after receiving it are broke and trying to live again. ...

[How is prison different for those who are actually guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted?]

... The person who's incarcerated for an act that they did, they know they did it. There's no doubt in their mind that they committed a crime for which they're serving a sentence. ... People who are wrongfully convicted and innocent know they're not criminals. They know they're different when they enter the prison system. They are not criminal personalities. They're not sociopathic or psychopathic individuals. Usually they're normal people who by circumstance ended up in a very horrific system of injustice by the criminal justice system itself. So they know they're different, and in my experience that makes it even more difficult for them to endure the traumas and the stresses of imprisonment. ... They're not a criminal mentality, they're not antisocial, they're not against society, they don't calculate to hurt people. ...

Looking at the spectrum of traumatization to their psyche -- the many ways in which these injuries permeate their being -- I believe that the injuries from a wrongful conviction and incarceration are permanent. I think they're permanent scars. And even though counseling and psychotherapy and treatments are helpful, I don't think you can undo the permanent damage to the soul of the person, to their sense of self, to their sense of dignity. There is no way that money or even being exonerated gives a person back what they lost. ... And one of the real existential dilemmas every day for a person is, they know that when they go to their grave, this experience is going to be right here, in the forefront of their mind, even though they try to push it away and get on with their normal life afterwards. ...

[Some give up on trying to have a normal life.]

Yes, some do give up on the normal life because they don't know what it is anymore. When you've been locked down 23 hours a day as many have for a period of a decade or more, when you've been subjected to this contained prison environment -- in which you are stamped, you're given a number, you're treated as a criminal -- you assume a criminal identity. You act as a criminal; you become institutionalized in behavior, how you come and go, what you can do and what you can't do. That routinization becomes a part of your life and that identity starts to become part of who you are to survive.

So the problem afterwards is that stuff just doesn't disappear automatically. Those institutional behaviors don't go away. The person often feels like they're still locked up. They're fearful of society. They're paranoid. They're mistrustful. They believe at any time they could be rearrested and sent back to prison. So making that transition is not an easy thing. Even though many people think, "Well, you're free. Just get on with having a normal life," it just doesn't work that way.

... Once they're exonerated, the battle for freedom is the battle of the rest of their life, because one part of their mind is still assuming that criminal identity that was imprinted on them, and the other part of them saying, "But I was never that way. I wasn't a criminal. I am a good person. I do have dignity." ... In the midst of society who can understand this? I mean, how do you say to someone, "I was in jail for 20 years, but I really didn't do it. I'm an innocent person." How does the average person on the street understand that or even believe it?

... Even among family members there's a tendency to assume maybe they did do it, maybe they didn't do it, they don't know. And so in a very real way I think many wrongfully convicted exonerated persons live in a never-never land, you know. They live in this surreal world where they're not sure whether they're really free or not sometimes. And it's a confusing state for many of them. Even though they know they're now free, it's not freedom in their mind, it's not freedom in their behavior in the sense that you and I understand what freedom means. ...

[People often tell them to just get on with life.]

... Victims of trauma -- whether they're war veterans, or Vietnam veterans, or rape victims, or Holocaust survivors, or victims of a terrorist attack in New York -- often are [told], "Well, just get on with life. Just get back to normal. Come on, pull yourself up." It doesn't work that way. ...

The reality is, it's not so simple. The people who have been incarcerated can't pull themselves up by the bootstraps because there's no straps to pull yourself up with. You don't have the straps, you don't have the tools. You go to apply for a job, for example, [and the employer asks], "Where have you been for the last 15 to 20 years?" [You say], "Well, I was incarcerated, but I was innocent."

Who's going to hire you? No one wants to hire someone [like that], even if they've been exonerated. In the mind's eye of most people, they're still a criminal. What skill do they have to bring to the marketplace if they've been in prison for 10, 15, or 20 years? ... How do they relate normally with people? How can they be intimate with someone? How can they be close to someone? ... All of the things that we assume people can do in a normal way, day to day, are very difficult for these people because all of that's been gone.

... Most of them experience this sort of anxiety of floating: floating adrift in the American society, wanting to find a niche, wanting to get back in and to resume a normal life like they had before they were locked up, but finding the avenue and finding the keys to unlock the door seems almost as difficult as getting out of prison. It is not easy. It's only through the concerted efforts of compassionate attorneys, compassionate clergy and others who truly care about what's happened to these people and their lives that they even have a chance of resuming some normalcy of life. And by "some normalcy," I mean maybe going back to school, to university, or obtaining a job or beginning to reestablish relationships with family and loved ones or their children, if they had them, in a way that would bring some satisfaction. It is a horrendously difficult task.

[And the families suffer, too.]

... The person they knew who went to prison no longer exists. In a very real sense, that person has died psychologically. The identity of that person, what made them who they were at that time, has been wiped out by wrongful conviction and imprisonment. And what's been stamped in its place is a new identity, which is the identity of someone who was a prisoner and an inmate, a criminal with an I.D. and a number. ...

One of the problems for the exonerated is that they have two identities: the old identity, the innocent self on the one hand; and then this criminal identity that gets formed inside the prison. And these two are in conflict. So when they get out, what the family sees, what the world sees, is not the person that went in, but the new identity that's been shaped by this experience and it doesn't look like the original person, it doesn't look like the same personality. And they behave differently, too. Many of the ways they used to be don't exist anymore. Many of their emotional styles have changed. Many of their capacities for feelings don't exist anymore.

And so it's like we used to say about many returning war veterans: "Something happened. This is not the same person I knew before they went to war." ... But it's even more pronounced I think in the situation of the wrongfully convicted, because they aren't serving their country in war. They aren't a victim of a disaster. They're not a victim of a terrorist attack. They're a victim of a system of justice that has created an injustice which took away most of their life.

[And nobody wants to hear about their trauma.]

People don't want to hear it because it's difficult to know what to do. ... Once they're returned to society, we don't have any programs to help them. We don't have any organizations. We do not have systems of rehabilitation or counseling or psychotherapy. We don't even have any mechanisms to help them transition from having been a prisoner, wrongfully convicted, to resuming a normal life. ...

If you're a refugee and you come to this country, there's all kinds of agencies that will help you move from refugee status to being an American. If you're a victim of war, if you're a victim of a disaster, there are all kinds of organizations that will help you. But if you're a victim of our system of justice and you lose your freedom and you're traumatized in a similar manner, ... we don't have any mechanisms to help you get back into a normal life and a normal place in society.

... These people have often a sense of ultimate aloneness that no one understands, no one cares. And they often feel, by the way, abandoned by God, abandoned by justice, abandoned by their attorneys, abandoned by the system, and many often contemplate suicide because the horrible thing of feeling so abandoned by humanity and by God, by this wrongful loss of freedom and wrongful suffering, and the sense that there may not be anything left to live for.

[And that feeling continues even when they're free?]

Yes. While the person's in prison, they fight, they have to survive. And it's a day-to-day battle. ... Every day's consumed with survival. ... Once the person's free, then they face this dilemma of, how do you find any meaning to go on now that you're finally out? And this is so powerfully difficult.

Many want to give up, many want to throw in the towel, kill themselves, or kill their pain. And in my experience many kill their pain by the overuse of alcohol and drugs. They self-medicate by drinking, they self-medicate by overusing prescribed or other medications to numb themselves from this reality that there is no normal life even though they're free.

And so the mask they present to the world is, "I'm so happy to be free," but underneath the mask is a terrible pain that's often numbed by isolation, avoidance, excessive drinking, use of self-medication with drugs, or in some cases acting in a manner that would lead them to be incarcerated again.

As odd as that sounds, for some there's an unconscious wish to go back to an environment that you knew, that was predictable, that was controlled and structured, because if it doesn't work out here, at least you knew where you came from. And as odd as that sounds, some harbor that kind of dilemma. Maybe it was even better, you know, and that's part of the confusion: What does it now mean to be free? ...

We think of freedom as choice. Freedom means that you and I can decide to get up and leave this interview or go have a cup of coffee. We can do anything we want; it's a choice. When you're incarcerated, you have no choices; they're all made for you. When you've lost your freedom, you've lost those choices. ...

So once they're free, exonerated, they still don't have those choices. They don't have those choices in the same way we do because they're bringing that emotional baggage of incarceration and imprisonment. In a sense, like a torture victim or a politically oppressed victim, they have to sort through that experience. And the reality is they don't have free choice. ...

How do they become loving again when they've had 20 years of not having human contact? How do they become a father again? ... All those things that we think are so simple are not because of the psychological damage. ... Many wish they could automatically or surgically get rid of that wrongful incarceration and have a clean slate, ... but that just isn't the reality. What's omnipresent right here is what happened in prison and what happened to their freedom. That's the permanent injury. ...


home » introduction » closer look » after the cameras » faqs » the innocents
interviews » discussion » interview with ofra bikel » producer's chat
tapes & transcripts » press reaction » credits » privacy policy
FRONTLINE » wgbh » pbsi

published may 1, 2003

photograph copyright © ed kashi/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation