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Psychological impact of being wrongfully accused of criminal offences: A systematic literature review

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Being wrongfully accused of criminal offences can lead to serious negative consequences to those wrongfully accused and their families. However, there is little research on the psychological and psychosocial impacts of wrongful accusations. We conducted a systematic literature review to collate the existing literature, searching four electronic literature databases and reference lists of relevant articles. Data were extracted from 20 relevant papers, and thematic analysis was conducted on the data. Eight main themes were identified: loss of identity; stigma; psychological and physical health; relationships with others; attitudes towards the justice system; impact on finances and employment; traumatic experiences in custody; and adjustment difficulties. The psychological consequences of wrongful accusations appear to affect the lives of those accused seriously, even after exoneration or overturning of convictions. Strategies for improving public perception of wrongful convictions should be explored, and specific mental-health systems should be established to support those who are wrongfully accused.
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Review article
Psychological impact of being wrongfully
accused of criminal offences:
A systematic literature review
Samantha K Brooks and Neil Greenberg
Abstract
Being wrongfully accused of criminal offences can lead to serious negative consequences to those wrongfully accused and
their families. However, there is little research on the psychological and psychosocial impacts of wrongful accusations.
We conducted a systematic literature review to collate the existing literature, searching four electronic literature
databases and reference lists of relevant articles. Data were extracted from 20 relevant papers, and thematic analysis
was conducted on the data. Eight main themes were identified: loss of identity; stigma; psychological and physical health;
relationships with others; attitudes towards the justice system; impact on finances and employment; traumatic expe-
riences in custody; and adjustment difficulties. The psychological consequences of wrongful accusations appear to affect
the lives of those accused seriously, even after exoneration or overturning of convictions. Strategies for improving public
perception of wrongful convictions should be explored, and specific mental-health systems should be established to
support those who are wrongfully accused.
Keywords
Wrongful accusation, wrongful conviction, false allegations, exoneration, criminal justice
Introduction
There is a wealth of literature on the psychological
impact on criminals post-conviction.
1
However, there
is far less research involving those who are wrongfully
accused of a crime and later shown to be innocent,
most probably because finding truly innocent individ-
uals post-conviction is difficult. Furthermore, it is not
unreasonable to assume there is an extra layer of
resentment, frustration, confusion, anger and disso-
nance involved when the individual knows they were
wrongfully accused.
Although there is disagreement about the frequency
of wrongful accusations and convictions,
2
a recent
study estimated that wrongful convictions occur in
6% of criminal convictions leading to imprisonment.
3
Other research estimates that up to 15.4% of all con-
victions are wrongful.
4
There has been a recent increase
in exonerations, related to technological developments
(e.g. more sophisticated forms of DNA technology)
and political developments.
5
A wealth of literature
has brought into question the accuracy of eyewitness
identification,
6–8
the potential suggestibility of children,
adolescents and vulnerable adults, which can lead to
false accusations and false confessions,
9,10
and the use
of coercive interrogation causing false confessions
under duress.
11
It has also been demonstrated that
there is racial and class bias involved in wrongfully
accusing people of crime and that these biases can
influence decisions of guilt.
12,13
A recent overview of
wrongful convictions in Germany found that false alle-
gations, eyewitness misidentification, false confessions
and incorrect expert testimony contributed to wrongful
conviction.
14
In the UK, concern over miscarriages of
justice led to the creation of an independent statutory
body to investigate claims of miscarriages of justice –
the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) was
established in 1997.
15
In the USA, a non-profit organi-
sation called the Innocence Project is committed to
exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through
Department of Psychological Medicine, King’s College London, UK
Corresponding author:
Neil Greenberg, The Health Protection Research Unit, King’s College
London, Weston Education Centre, Cutcombe Road, LondonSE5 9RJ,
UK.
Email: neil.greenberg@kcl.ac.uk
Medicine, Science and the Law
2021, Vol. 61(1) 44–54
!The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
sagepub.com/journals-permissions
DOI: 10.1177/0025802420949069
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DNA testing and, in 2019, reported that 362 people in
the USA previously convicted of serious crimes had
been exonerated since the founding of the project in
1992.
16
Anecdotal reports of high-profile cases are common-
place in the media, such as the recent cases of footballer
Ched Evans who was wrongfully accused of rape,
17
care worker Gareth Jones who was imprisoned but
later cleared of sexual assault
18
and teenager Jay
Cheshire who took his own life after being acquitted
of rape.
19
One high-profile case in the UK is that of
Christopher Jefferies who was arrested for murder and
released without charge, but not before being vilified by
the press. Jefferies describes his experience as painful
and his identity as ‘vandalised’, likening the experience
to psychological torture.
20
However, there are few
peer-reviewed studies on the consequences of wrongful
accusation. It is not unreasonable to assume that false
accusations could have severe psychological conse-
quences for those accused; false accusation has been
compared to trauma experienced by military veterans,
refugees, disaster survivors and prisoners of war.
21–23
It
has been suggested
24
that there is a unique form of
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced
only by those wrongfully imprisoned. It is also reported
that those wrongfully convicted and imprisoned can
experience difficulties finding employment due to lack-
ing job skills and the stigma surrounding their convic-
tion,
25,26
which can exacerbate mental-health
problems.
This is the first systematic review of the literature on
the psychological consequences of being wrongfully
accused of a crime, as well as indirect consequences
which may impact on psychological well-being (e.g.
financial impact). In carrying out this review, we have
not assumed that anyone who claims they were falsely
accused is telling the truth. The research studies
reviewed here involve participants who have been legal-
ly found not guilty or have had their convictions over-
turned. We also acknowledge it can be difficult for
researchers to explore this important topic sensitively,
and it remains highly important that true victims of
crime should never be made to feel that their experien-
ces have been demeaned.
27
Method
To be considered for inclusion in the review, studies
were required to be published in English and to
report on the psychological impact of wrongful allega-
tions or an indirect impact which may have psycholog-
ical consequences. Participants had to have been
wrongfully accused (not necessarily convicted or
charged) of a crime involving a victim (e.g. crimes
such as abuse, sexual assault and murder; studies on
crimes such as scientific misconduct were excluded, as
the crimes are not comparable, and thus the impact of
accusations may also not be comparable). Articles from
online reports in addition to peer-reviewed journals
were eligible for inclusion. However, grey literature,
book chapters, dissertations, conference abstracts,
commentaries and letters were excluded.
The search terms false allegation* OR false accusa-
tion* OR falsely accused OR false claim* OR wrongful
conviction* OR wrongfully convicted OR wrongful
accusation* OR wrongful allegation* OR exoneration
OR exonerate* were used to search the following
online databases: Embase, Medline, PsycInfo and
Social Policy and Practice. Databases were searched
from date of inception to April 2019, and then searched
again in May 2020.
All citations found as a result of the search were
exported to EndNote where duplicate papers were
removed. The titles were then evaluated for their rele-
vance to the topic of the review, and any which were
clearly not relevant were excluded. Using the inclusion
criteria, the abstracts were screened next, again remov-
ing any clearly not relevant to the review. The full-text
articles of remaining citations were retrieved and read
in their entirety, and again those not relevant for the
review were excluded. Finally, reference lists of all
remaining citations were hand searched.
A spreadsheet was designed to extract relevant data
systematically from each paper. Data extracted from
every paper included author names; year of publica-
tion; country of study; design; number and key charac-
teristics of participants; measures used; and main
findings related to the psychological impact of wrong-
ful accusations. Thematic analysis
28
was carried out on
the papers’ results to identify recurring themes in the
data and to develop a typology of results. Study results
were coded by hand into themes by one author, and
discussed between both authors.
Results
A total of 2921 citations were found through the initial
database search, and 54 duplicates were removed. Of
those remaining, 2546 were excluded based on their
title, 279 were excluded based on abstract and 24
were excluded based on full text. Two papers were
unavailable online. An additional three papers were
found via hand searching reference lists. This left 19
papers with findings relevant for this review. The
searches were repeated in May 2020 to check for new
publications. An additional 186 papers were screened,
and one was included in the review, making a total of
20 papers. A summary of the characteristics of the
papers can be seen in Table 1.
Brooks and Greenberg 45
Table 1. Summary of papers.
Authors, year Country Measures Participants
Alexander-Bloch
et al., 2020
USA PCL-5, PHQ-9, GAD-7, Pittsburgh Sleep
Quality Index to assess post-traumatic
stress disorder, depression, anxiety and
sleep problems respectively
13 (100% male) exonerated ex-prisoners; 6
were exonerated for murder charges, 5 for
sexual offences, 2 for armed robbery or
‘other’ offences
Burnett et al., 2017 UK Interviews, written accounts and focus groups 30 (83.3% male) who had been falsely accused
but with status of legal innocence
Campbell et al.,
2004
Canada Interviews 5 (100% male) who had been wrongfully con-
victed and imprisoned
Chinn and Ratliff Interviews 11 wrongfully convicted and later released
Denov and
Campbell, 2005
Canada Interviews 5 (100% male) who had been wrongfully con-
victed and spent time in prison
DeShay, 2016 USA Interviews (part of a wider study) 23 (88.9% male) who had been exonerated
and released from prison
Grounds, 2004 UK Descriptive study 18 (100% male) released from long-term
imprisonment after convictions quashed on
appeal
Hoyle et al., 2016 UK Interviews, focus groups and written accounts 30 people who had been accused of abuse, all
with the status of ‘legal innocence’ (i.e. not
been charged, acquitted, or had conviction
overturned); included 12 teachers,
8 approved school/community care work-
ers, 3 in a religious role, 2 specialist home
care workers and 5 ‘other’
Jarreta et al., 2004 Spain Case report 1
Jenkins, 2013 UK Longitudinal interview/observation study 132 (27 primary victims of wrongful convic-
tion; 105 secondary victims)
Jenkins, 2014 UK Longitudinal interview/observation study 132 (27 primary victims of wrongful convic-
tion; 105 secondary victims)
Konvisser, 2015 USA Interviews; pre-interview questionnaire
developed for the study
21 (100% female) wrongfully convicted, and
then exonerated
Page, 2013 USA Focus groups as part of an evaluation of a
financial training programme for exonerees
14 (100% male) exonerees
Pillai, 2002 UK Qualitative 22 families who became subject to criminal or
civil proceedings when a female adolescent/
young adult developed a mental-health
problem
Plumridge et al.,
2016
UK Qualitative interviews (phase 2 of a wider
study)
30 foster carers who had experienced allega-
tions of abuse/neglect
Rees, 2010 UK Interviews 10 care workers from mental health/learning
disability residential services who were
suspended following an adult protection
allegation but later exonerated
Schultz, 1989 USA Cross-sectional study involving a study-spe-
cific questionnaire
100 (92% male) falsely charged with child
sexual abuse
Westervelt and
Cook, 2008
USA Interviews 18 death row exonerees (4 experienced the
trauma of confronting a death in the family
while being wrongfully tried)
Wildeman et al.,
2011
USA Interviews; Before and After Exoneration
Questionnaire; HADS and PCL-C
55 (100% male) exonerated after wrongful
conviction and imprisonment
Zeman, 2005 USA Literature searches of legal testimonies and
online postings; qualitative interviews
63 parents whose children had been removed
due to false accusations of abuse and
neglect
46 Medicine, Science and the Law 61(1)
Overall, the psychological impact of being wrongful-
ly accused of a crime was described as extreme and
long-lasting. Many negative impacts were reported,
with various problems appearing to interact and com-
pound each other. Eight key themes were identified,
which are described below.
Change in self-identity
Two papers reporting data from the same group of
participants
27,29
found that of the 30 participants, 19
felt they had experienced permanent changes to their
personality, such as becoming paranoid and anxious
(60%), hypervigilant or antagonistic (50%) and less
confident (53.3%). Grounds
15
found that 14/18 partic-
ipants met the ICD-10
30
criteria for ‘enduring person-
ality change following catastrophic experience’, while
families of the accused in the same study described their
family member as being like a different person. Other
changes included rejection of altruism and no longer
wanting to help people
29
and becoming hostile and
mistrustful.
15
Along with changes in personality, participants also
experienced various other losses related to their sense
of self, for example loss of dignity and credibility,
31
loss
of image of the self as a doting parent
32
and loss of
hope and purpose for the future.
15
The consequence of
the various personality changes and losses appeared to
summate as a sense of loss of the pre-accusation self.
31
It was particularly difficult for participants to regain
their previous sense of self if they received no formal
apology or public statement of innocence effectively
‘delabelling’ them.
33
One paper
34
noted positive changes in personality.
Participants in this interview study noted that they had
reflected on and grown from their experiences and
reported changes such as a more positive attitude and
not taking things for granted.
Stigma
Damage to reputation. Two qualitative studies of the
same group of participants
27,29
reported that the vast
majority (29/30 participants) reported damaged repu-
tations or feeling stigmatised by others. Another
33
found that participants struggled with managing
stigma and suspicion from others, and Zeman
32
reported that many participants felt their standing in
the community had been affected negatively. Denov
and Campbell’s
31
and Chinn and Ratliff’s
21
partici-
pants reported feeling labelled and vilified by others,
while Rees
35
found that 6/10 accused participants felt
labelled as guilty by others both during and after the
investigation. Many of Konvisser’s
34
21 participants
reported that others assumed they were guilty; several
reported that friends avoided them and strangers har-
assed them.
Self-stigma. As well as stigma from others, studies sug-
gested that self-stigma (from within the individuals
themselves) was also a concern. Burnett et al.
27
con-
cluded this was due to a combination of abhorrence
at what they had been accused of and their inability
to clear their name fully. In this study, 10/30 partici-
pants reported blaming themselves for the accusation,
and struggled between wanting to fight the allegations
and wanting to isolate themselves due to shame.
Zeman
32
also found that participants reported feelings
of shame, blame and guilt. Similarly, Plumridge and
Sebba
36
reported that participants experienced feelings
of guilt due to feeling ‘guilty until proven innocent’.
Psychological and physical health
Data included in this theme revealed a perceived
extreme impact on health, particularly mental health,
often leaving participants unable to continue their
normal work and social activities.
37
Generally, such
symptoms occurred in people without previous psychi-
atric histories, inferring such health problems are likely
directly attributable to the wrongful arrest, conviction
or imprisonment.
15
Depression. Many studies reported that participants
experienced symptoms of depression and suicidal idea-
tion. Burnett et al.
27
and Hoyle et al.
29
found that 23/30
participants reported depression, with eight of these
also reporting suicidal thoughts. In Grounds’ study,
15
10/18 participants suffered depressive disorders post
imprisonment, and 14 suffered depressive episodes
while in prison. Alexander-Bloch et al.
38
found that
46% of their 13 participants reported moderate or
high levels of depression. Campbell and Denov
39
reported that all five of their participants had contem-
plated suicide at some point during their incarceration,
with one making a suicide attempt. Wildeman et al.
40
reported that 24/55 participants scored above the diag-
nostic cut-off score for depression. Symptoms of
depression were also noted in several other stud-
ies.
34,35,37,41–44
Anxiety. Anxiety and panic disorders also appeared to
be common: 18/30 participants in the study reported by
Burnett et al.
27
and Hoyle et al.
29
suffered anxiety or
panic attacks. Grounds
15
found that 27.8% of 18 par-
ticipants reported features of panic disorder post incar-
ceration, while 38.9% had features of panic disorder
during their time in prison. Of the 55 participants in
Wildeman et al.’s
40
study, 22 met the criteria for anx-
iety, as did 46% of Alexander-Bloch et al.’s
38
Brooks and Greenberg 47
participants. Symptoms of anxiety and panic disorders
were noted in four other studies.
34,35,41,42
PTSD. Several papers also noted probable PTSD in
those wrongfully accused: 17/30 participants in the
study reported by Burnett et al.
27
and Hoyle et al.
29
;
12/18 participants in the Grounds
15
report; 42% of
Alexander-Bloch et al.’s
38
participants; and 15/55 par-
ticipants in Wildeman et al.’s
40
study. Konvisser
34
also
noted that many of the participants in their qualitative
study reported experiencing PTSD.
Sleep problems. The study reported by Burnett et al.
27
and Hoyle et al.
29
found that 12/30 participants
reported disrupted sleep, insomnia or nightmares. All
participants in Schultz’s
43
study reported some degree
of sleeplessness or night terrors. Most participants
reported on by Grounds
15
had chronic difficulties
sleeping. Jenkins
42
found that many participants suf-
fered from insomnia, Alexander-Bloch et al.
38
found
that 80% of 10 participants reported sleep problems
occurring more than once a month, and Pillai
37
reported many participants had developed sleep
disorders.
Other psychological and somatic symptoms. Burnett et al.
27
and Hoyle et al.
29
reported a general sense among their
participants of being ‘worn down’ by wrongful accusa-
tions and worried about others believing them. Almost
half reported physical symptoms such as pain, high
blood pressure and dietary problems. Other problems
reported include unusual weight loss or gain,
43
nausea,
43
moodiness and irritability,
15,42
somatic (phys-
ical) complaints,
35
paranoia,
15,34
stress
37
and alcohol or
drug dependency/misuse.
15,35
Negative emotions
included feelings of bitterness and unresolved feelings
of loss,
15
hopelessness,
15,45
emptiness,
15
anger and
aggression,
31
helplessness,
33
chronic feelings of threat
and fear when out in public
15
and a sense of ‘survivor’s
guilt’ if survivors of situations in which others had
died.
33
Relationships with others
Isolation. In the study described by Burnett et al.
27
and
Hoyle et al.,
29
26/30 participants reported becoming
socially withdrawn and isolated since their wrongful
accusation, often due to a sense of alienation or delib-
erate withdrawal due to fear of being burdensome to
others. DeShay
46
also commented that participants
reported withdrawing from other people and struggling
to adjust to being around others. Grounds
15
noted a
difficulty adapting to life out of prison, reporting that
participants used strategies of withdrawal, isolation
and uncommunicativeness. Westervelt and Cook
33
reported on participants’ apathy about maintaining
close relationships.
Strain on relationships. Commonly, social networks,
friendships and relationships appeared to break down
after individuals were wrongfully accused. In the
Burnett et al.
27
and Hoyle et al.
29
study, 27/30 partic-
ipants reported a fractured social network, 17/30
reported a strain on intimate relationships and 8/30
reported a strain on relationships with children or
grandchildren. Additionally, many reported feeling
‘forced out’ of friendships. Konvisser
34
reported similar
findings, with all 21 participants reporting a negative
impact on their families, and changes in relationships
with partners, children, parents or friends. Zeman
32
also reported a strain on relationships with children,
with those wrongfully accused experiencing a loss of
the feeling they could protect their child and loss of
the sense of a normal parenting experience. Rees
35
and Schultz
43
both reported that several participants
had experienced family stress, relationship break-ups,
divorce or loss of custody of children. Participants also
reported the loss of family members who did not
believe in their innocence,
31
loss of friends,
42
fractions
and estrangement within families
41
and relationship
break-ups as well as conflicts with family which arose
upon release from prison because families had adapted
to living without them.
15
Only one study
43
reported a
positive impact on relationships with others in a minor-
ity of cases: 8/100 participants in this study reported
the family had been brought closer together after the
acquittal as they fought an ‘outside enemy’.
Families experiencing strain and stigma. Several studies
reported ‘secondary trauma’ in the close families of
those wrongfully accused. Burnett et al.
27
and Hoyle
et al.
29
reported cases of partners and families of the
accused experiencing anxiety and depression, and
Grounds
15
also reported depression in the wives of
those accused. Families also had to deal with the
stigma and shame involved,
27,29,41
which could lead
to them being socially rejected, blamed, labelled and
stereotyped by others in the community, and could
even lead to antisocial or criminal behaviour in the
children of the wrongfully accused.
41
Grounds
15
found that wives of the accused often felt unable to
meet the needs of their children, and 9/30 participants
in the study reported by Burnett et al.
27
and Hoyle
et al.
29
felt their children’s lives had been disrupted.
Attitudes towards the justice system
In the Burnett et al.
27
and Hoyle et al.
29
study, 28/30
participants reported loss of faith in the criminal justice
system, while 20/30 reported loss of trust in the police.
48 Medicine, Science and the Law 61(1)
Similar disillusionment was noted by Campbell and
Denov,
39
whose participants reported intolerance of
injustice, cynicism and mistrust in the fairness and
legitimacy of authority figures following release from
prison. Jenkins
41
found that both primary and second-
ary victims of wrongful accusation experienced feelings
of bitterness and resentment at the state not acknowl-
edging the injustice or offering an apology.
Konvisser’s
34
participants reported a lack of apology
or official acknowledgement of their innocence from
prosecutors left them feeling as though they were
under a cloud of guilt and could not obtain closure.
Participants also reported fear and tension surrounding
governmental entities,
21
frustration at feeling betrayed
by the system,
21
loss of faith in the justice system
32
and
anger towards the system.
36
Hoyle et al.’s
29
participants reported both a loss of
confidence in public opinion and fear of further allega-
tions. Other fears included being retargeted by the
criminal justice system,
31
repeat accusations
33
and fur-
ther police involvement, imprisonment or children
being removed.
36
Impact on finances and employment
Financial impact. In Burnett et al.’s
27
and Hoyle et al.’s
29
study, 28/30 participants reported a significant finan-
cial burden (despite having received legal aid and dam-
ages). Participants reported losses of up to £50,000 in
legal fees and larger amounts for loss of earnings.
Other financial issues reported in this study included
reduced pensions, loss of homes and added financial
pressure on partners. DeShay
46
and Chinn and
Ratliff
21
reported a substantial financial impact on par-
ticipants: all (N¼23 and N¼11, respectively) had to rely
on family, friends or attorneys for financial support
and housing. Jenkins
42
found that 10/27 ‘primary
victim’ participants were financially destitute. Pillai
37
reported that the costs incurred to participants
ranged from £10,000 to £100,000 in lost income and
legal costs. In Schultz’s
43
study, 12/100 felt bail was
set too high for the average family income, and those
who did not have property that could be posted as bail
were concerned for their safety in jail or said that the
money they should have used for defence costs was
used up for bail. Further, 24/100 had applied for
some sort of benefits, and 28/100 had to sell the
family home to meet legal costs. Grounds
15
reported
that post imprisonment, participants had little sense of
the value of money, which led to difficulty budgeting,
reckless spending and debt. Additionally, Page
45
found
that participants reported problems such as overspend-
ing, not having enough money for basic needs, not
having enough money to retire and frequent use of
loans.
Employment. In the study reported by Burnett et al.
27
and Hoyle et al.,
29
most of the participants who were
working at the time of their accusation (exact number
not reported) had lost their jobs, been stripped of reg-
ular duties or faced impassable barriers against work-
ing with children or vulnerable adults in the future.
Several reported struggling to get references from
former employers, distress at no longer having a
clean criminal record check and bitter feelings of loss
about not being able to continue in their careers.
DeShay
46
reported that only 4/23 participants were
employed, and all but one of those had started their
own business, as they had experienced such difficulty
finding other employment. In Pillai’s
37
study, criminal
prosecutions had resulted in suspension from work for
5/22 participants, with two unable to return to work at
all. Of 100 participants in Schultz’s
43
study, 82 had
suffered some type of job loss or penalty. Several of
Konvisser’s
34
participants reported that they were
unable to find a job, often because of the stigma asso-
ciated with their conviction, leading to financial strug-
gles. There were additional problems when the false
accusation was related to the participant’s employ-
ment. For example, Burnett et al.
27
found that 23/30
participants reported feeling anger at their employers.
Rees
35
interviewed 10 practitioners who had been
accused of wrongdoing at work and who were subse-
quently exonerated. Participants reported a long, diffi-
cult and confusing process in which they were not made
aware of the nature of the allegations until late in the
process, were refused access to the workplace and were
forbidden from contacting colleagues. All felt unsup-
ported and isolated during the process, with many
reporting anger and bitterness towards their employers.
Lack of information and delays caused great distress to
the accused and their families, with 8/10 stating that
waiting and stress caused self-doubt and rumination
about the reasons for their suspension. Participants
perceived that there were no routes for redress follow-
ing exoneration, and six reported ongoing anxiety after
returning to work.
Traumatic experiences in custody
Several studies involving people who had been wrong-
fully imprisoned found that traumatic experiences
during the imprisonment appeared to contribute to
post-release problems. For example, Grounds
15
found
that 14/18 participants experienced fear of being
assaulted or killed in prison; three had been subjected
to serious violence. Several reported having learned to
be aggressive and intimidating as a form of self-
protection. Participants also reported assaults, threats
and sleep deprivation in police custody. Chinn and
Ratliff’s
21
participants all reported experiencing some
Brooks and Greenberg 49
level of police misconduct, with several describing it as
a dehumanising experience. Jenkins
42
reported that
participants found their cross-examination hostile and
combative to the point of leaving them feeling trauma-
tised. Many of them continued to have nightmares
about their police questioning, and reported feeling
intimidated, bullied and, in 2/27 cases, physically
abused by police officers. Their experiences during
the criminal trial continued to affect them, with several
reporting panic attacks relating to their court experi-
ences. Violence in prison, or fear of violence from other
inmates, was also reported in three other studies.
21,42,45
Konvisser’s
34
participants reported intimidation and
harassment from the police and in prison; several felt
traumatised by the way police had treated them. They
described the prison experience as degrading, demean-
ing and traumatic, and reported feeling lonely and
powerless. Several participants had been treated as sui-
cide risks by prison staff, despite not feeling suicidal,
which was humiliating and confusing.
Campbell and Denov’s
39
participants reported a vio-
lent and hostile environment in prison, including
harassment and intimidation by other inmates. This
study identified problems during imprisonment which
may be unique to those wrongfully accused: preoccu-
pation with proving innocence tended to be seen by the
prison administration as evidence of a lack of remorse
and inability to adapt to the prison environment; main-
taining one’s innocence in prison seemed to lead to the
administration seeing them as a higher risk for reof-
fending, leading to them being ineligible to cascade to
lower security institutions and curtailment of privileges
such as seeing family and prison activities.
Adjustment difficulties
In many cases, participants’ legal battles had been
ongoing for years, and the experience of being wrong-
fully accused (and in some cases, convicted and impris-
oned) had dominated their lives for long periods of
time. Those who had been incarcerated tended to
become institutionalised and struggled to adapt to life
out of prison.
42,45
Denov and Campbell
31
reported par-
ticipants experienced panic and self-consciousness
around everyday tasks following their release from
prison, while Konvisser
34
also found that participants
reported difficulties adjusting to having freedom again
and often took on too much to cope with in their
efforts to move on. Grounds
15
found that participants
reported difficulty coping with ordinary tasks in the
initial weeks after their release but felt humiliated by
this and ashamed to ask for help. Many felt unsettled,
could not find a sense of direction, struggled to reinte-
grate back into their families and experienced difficul-
ties coping with cultural changes that had taken place
since their conviction. Grounds
15
refers to these adjust-
ment problems as being ‘dislocated in time’ (p. 172),
suggesting that participants were ‘developmentally
frozen’ as they still felt the age they had been when
they went to prison, whereas the world and their fam-
ilies had moved on without them. Similar findings were
reported by Chinn and Ratliff,
21
whose participants
described feeling frozen in time while their families
and friends had moved on with their lives. They
explained this as a ‘culture shock’ on release, whereby
they did not understand cultural changes that had
taken place during their incarceration and felt behind
in technology and knowledge.
Discussion
The impact of wrongful accusation is frequently com-
plex and long-lasting, with participants reporting neg-
ative impacts on their self-identity, reputation,
psychological and physical health, relationships with
others, attitudes towards the justice system, finances
and adjusting to life after their convictions were over-
turned. These problems appeared to compound each
other and exacerbate the psychological difficulties
experienced by the wrongfully accused. Negative
impacts on family members were also reported, with
those close to the wrongfully accused also experiencing
stigma and psychological difficulties. For those who
were wrongfully imprisoned, traumatic experiences
during their incarceration exacerbated the psychologi-
cal difficulties they faced.
It is important to note that the nature of wrongful
accusations differed between studies. We included stud-
ies of any participants who had experienced a wrongful
allegation. In some cases, these were accusations at
work, leading to suspension and investigation, while
others were investigated through the criminal justice
system and in many cases imprisoned. However, simi-
lar themes emerged from all papers.
This review shows that the consequences of wrong-
ful accusations can be severe. Consequently, it is crucial
to identify the best ways to support those who are
wrongfully accused and their families. There is some
evidence that activism can be helpful: many exonerees
feel compelled to seek out ways to understand their
experiences and help others going through the same
thing such as becoming involved in the policy reform
process and engaging in education, raising awareness
and advocacy. Such activities might help them find
meaning in their own experience, normalise the
trauma and rebuild their confidence and sense of pur-
pose.
15,34,47
However, while this may be helpful for
some people, it should always be their own choice,
and they should never be ‘forced’ into activism or
speaking engagements, as while some find this healing,
50 Medicine, Science and the Law 61(1)
others may just want to ‘move on’
47
or could find that
it triggers negative emotions.
34,48
It is likely that having a support network of people
who understand the unique experience of being wrong-
fully accused and who do not judge can help the
wrongfully accused feel able to recover from their expe-
rience. For example, Jenkins
42
found that attendance at
miscarriage of justice support groups provided support
and empathy, and Konvisser
34
found that participants
highly valued meeting others in the same position at
conferences and events aimed at discussing miscar-
riages of justice. We suggest that further work is
required to help to understand better what constitutes
an effective support networks in terms of allowing
wrongfully accused/exonerated people to find and sup-
port each other. It is also possible that such groups
could have a negative impact on some individuals.
So, more research is needed to explore this. Studies
have also shown that support from close others can
also be protective: Campbell and Denov
39
found that
the support of family and loved ones was cited as a
reason for not attempting suicide, and Konvisser
34
also noted that support from close others was protec-
tive of psychological well-being. However, this review
found that relationships with loved ones are often frac-
tured during the process, and so the support available
to the wrongfully accused was damaged. It is particu-
larly important, then, that those without family sup-
port have access to support in other ways, for
example miscarriage of justice support groups or
simply new social groups.
There is some evidence of post-traumatic growth
occurring after wrongful convictions are overturned
in a minority of those affected.
22
This supports the
findings of research on other traumatised populations
such as those affected by disasters,
49
who report posi-
tive consequences of trauma such as greater apprecia-
tion of life and relationships. Post-traumatic growth
tends to be associated with both social support and
effective coping strategies,
49
and it would therefore be
useful to explore the best coping strategies for the
wrongfully accused to use. For example, while support
groups and activism may be useful strategies, these are
not helpful for everyone, and so there may be other
coping mechanisms (such as forming new social net-
works, exercise, mindfulness or yoga) which work
better for people who do not wish to become involved
in these. Future research should explore different ways
of coping. Aslan
50
suggests that those falsely accused of
sex offences tend to adopt more emotion-focused than
task-focused coping strategies, which is less construc-
tive as it deals with the emotional affect rather than
trying to problem solve. Future research could explore
why this might be and take into consideration the effect
of such coping strategies on psychological well-being.
Also of importance is improving public perceptions
of those wrongfully accused. Research suggests public
perceptions of exonerees tend to be negative and not
dissimilar to perceptions of actual offenders, despite
knowing they had been exonerated.
51–53
This may be
because the public are concerned that the exoneration
process itself was flawed, and they prefer to believe the
veracity of the original conviction, despite the outcome
of the legal review process.
54
Future research should
consider ways of improving public perception.
Otherwise, the wrongfully accused will continue to be
stigmatised by others, which is likely to worsen the
psychological impact of their experience. Weigand
48
suggests that more public education (e.g. about the
causes and impact of wrongful conviction) for commu-
nities could provide exonerees the support they need,
and that limiting ‘sensationalism’ in stories of wrongful
conviction may help improve public perception.
There may also be a need for policy reforms in order
to minimise both the potential for wrongful conviction
and the impact experienced by those who are wrong-
fully accused. Weigand,
48
based on her own experience
in advocacy for exonerees, recommends increasing
interaction and cooperation between health professio-
nals and legal experts to ensure the exoneration process
is as smooth as possible, as well as providing more
funding for case management and mentoring services.
Provision of bespoke, fast-track mental-health services,
including vocational rehabilitation, would also be help-
ful. The literature also reveals important implications
for the way prisoners are treated while incarcerated.
For example, Campbell and Denov
39
noted problems
during incarceration unique to the wrongfully accused,
with their preoccupation with proving their innocence
actually leading the prison administration to see them
as unremorseful and to limit their privileges. It may be
the case that the prison administration should not use
‘remorse’ as a helpful indicator of anything, as this
construct is problematic,
55
and research is needed to
explore whether remorse is actually associated with
improved outcomes post release. Prison staff should
be trained to deal with current risks in relation to priv-
ileges, rather than on the potentially unhelpful con-
struct of remorse.
Limitations
The data screening, extraction and analysis for this
review were carried out by one researcher. Although
both authors discussed the findings at each stage, it
may have been useful for a second researcher to have
repeated these stages in order to ensure that no relevant
data were excluded. The literature search was limited to
four databases, and although hand searches of refer-
ence lists were carried out to reduce the risk of missing
Brooks and Greenberg 51
relevant papers, it is possible that some were still
missed, and a search of more databases may have
yielded more papers.
In terms of the literature itself, almost all studies had
small sample sizes. This is likely due to the very nature
of the subject matter – the wrongfully accused are a
hard-to-reach population, and it is difficult for
researchers to locate cases, to be sure that those includ-
ed in the study were indeed wrongfully accused and to
access case materials.
5
The highly sensitive nature of
the research means that many wrongfully accused indi-
viduals may be unwilling to take part, and so the liter-
ature tends to be limited to those self-selecting to
participate. There can be no random samples or con-
trol groups with research on this type of population,
5
and results may not be generalisable to the larger
wrongfully accused population.
Conclusion
Research on the wrongfully accused is challenging,
with academics facing not only a difficult-to-reach pop-
ulation but also the challenge of dealing with data of
such a sensitive nature, needing to accept that justice is
not always 100% right and highlighting the struggles
faced by the wrongfully accused without allowing a
guilty person’s distress to distract from justice or
cause distress to the original victims of crime.
However, we suggest that it is important to keep an
open mind about innocence and guilt until the facts
are clear, and to acknowledge that miscarriages of jus-
tice do happen for a multitude of reasons. The psycho-
logical impact on those wrongfully accused appears to
be vast, severe and long-lasting. Our results suggest
that appropriate systems need to be in place to support
these individuals and their families. It is positive that
there are avenues allowing for re-examination of cases
(e.g. the CCRC), but overturning of original verdicts
may need an allocation of specialist support services to
help people readjust and to treat any mental-health
disorders that have developed because of the injustice.
Policy reforms, strategies for improving public percep-
tion of wrongful convictions, a change in the media’s
portrayal of such cases and funding for specialist
mental-health services and support groups specifically
for wrongfully accused people may be helpful.
Declaration of conflicting interests
The authors declared the following potential conflicts of
interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or pub-
lication of this article: N.G. carries out periodic medico-legal
assessments some of which are related to wrongful
accusations.
Funding
The authors received no financial support for the research,
authorship and/or publication of this article.
ORCID iD
Samantha K Brooks https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3884-
3583
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54 Medicine, Science and the Law 61(1)
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Through a lens of resilience and growth alongside continuing distress, this exploratory research study examines a convenience sample of exonerees and innocence movement personnel who are engaged in the policy reform process to understand how exoneree involvement may change exonerees themselves, the innocence movement, and possibly the criminal justice system. Data were collected through pre-questionnaires and semi-structured interviews, supplemented with archival material, and analyzed using a narrative approach. Findings emphasize both the personal and broader societal value of exoneree engagement in educating, generating awareness, and advocating about wrongful conviction and the power of having the human voice and face in front of legislators, the public, and the media—vividly portraying that “if they can do it to me, they can do it to anybody.” Findings also caution to be sensitive to where individuals may be in their lives and to honor their choices to engage or not.
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Only a few studies have investigated the psychological consequences of wrongful conviction; several others have examined the psychological consequences of incarceration and its impact on reentry and reintegration, primarily for men. For women who have been wrongfully convicted and subsequently released from prison into the free world, there are further indignities and unique issues: having to deal with the deep personal loss of murdered loved ones along with criminal charges; the absence of DNA evidence, making convictions harder to fight; stigmatization by prosecutors and the media; and unique emotional and medical needs. This Article presents findings from in-depth interviews with twenty-one exonerated women and describes the unique qualities and needs faced by wrongfully convicted women during their arrest, trial, conviction, imprisonment, release, and post-release, and the creative and resourceful strategies that have helped them cope with an untenable reality. By giving voice to their lived experiences, this Article seeks to personalize and contextualize the events surrounding the cases, to humanize the people whose lives have been destroyed, and to establish identities amidst an overwhelming sea of facts and statistics. In addition, this Article provides valuable insights and information for clinicians, counselors, families, friends, employers, and communities working to help wrongfully convicted women, and for lawyers, policy-makers, and advocates working to promote social justice and criminal justice reform.
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Although in the United States wrongful convictions and imprisonments are a major public and scientific concern, this topic has been largely ignored in Germany for decades. The present article offers for the first time an overview of all accessible German cases of successful retrials involving convicted persons who served a prison sentence since 1990. The data refer to 31 wrongfully convicted persons in 29 independent cases. Although the largest group consists of cases of false allegations, some of the wrongly convicted were considered not guilty by reason of insanity, and a few wrongful convictions occurred because of eyewitness misidentification and false confessions. In addition, incorrect expert testimony contributed considerably to the wrongful conviction in some cases.
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As disasters become increasingly prevalent, and reported on, a wealth of literature on post-disaster mental health has been published. Most published evidence focuses on symptoms of mental health problems (such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety) and psychosocial factors increasing the risk of such symptoms. However, a recent shift in the literature has moved to exploring resilience and the absence of adverse lasting mental health effects following a disaster. This paper undertakes a qualitative review of the literature to explore factors affecting psychological resilience, as well as the potential positive impact of experiencing a disaster (post-traumatic growth) by examining the literature on employees in disaster-exposed organisations. We identify several protective factors: training, experience, and perceived (personal) competence; social support; and effective coping strategies. Post-traumatic growth frequently appeared to occur at both personal and professional levels for those rescue staff after a disaster, giving employees a greater appreciation of life and their relationships, enhancing their self-esteem and providing a sense of accomplishment and better understanding of their work. Implications, in terms of how to build a resilient workforce, are discussed.
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Objectives People are hesitant to fully support reintegration efforts (e.g., opportunities to receive psychological counseling, career counseling, job training, housing assistance, educational opportunities, financial compensation) to help exonerees wrongfully convicted of a crime. However, underlying reasons motivating people’s hesitancy remain unaddressed. This research examined the influence of being wrongfully convicted of a race stereotypic-consistent crime on people’s judgments of exonerees’ culpability and willingness to support reintegration programs. Method Using an experimental design, participants were randomly assigned to read a news story that depicted an African-American or White male who was exonerated after being wrongfully convicted of assault or embezzlement. Participants then offered their culpability judgments (i.e., their belief in the exoneree’s guilt and confidence in that belief) and willingness to support reintegration services. Results Participants were less confident of the exoneree’s innocence and less supportive of psychological counseling services when the exoneree was a White, compared to African-American, male wrongfully convicted of the race stereotypic-consistent crime of embezzlement. An exploratory conditional mediation analysis indicated that less confidence in the exoneree’s innocence after being wrongfully convicted of a race stereotypic-consistent crime was, in turn, associated with people’s hesitancy to support psychological counseling for the exoneree. Conclusions Basic and applied implications to overcome people’s hesitancy to support reintegration efforts for exonerees are discussed.
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In recent years, there has been rising concern that allegations of sexual abuse, particularly non-recent abuse, have not received an appropriate response. From this has emerged a new determination to correct past and prevent further injustices, with police operations focusing considerable resources on the identification and prosecution of child abusers. Police and other services have reached out to encourage reporting, and developments in the trial process related to the rules of evidence have eroded due process protections for suspects. This article considers this changed legal and social context, and the processes entailed in responding to allegations of abuse, before presenting original empirical data, gathered from the accounts of 30 men and women who were wrongly accused of abuse related to their employment in occupations of trust. It demonstrates the considerable and lasting harms done to those who face allegations of such heinous crimes.
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Research has demonstrated that individuals may use different means to cope with traumatic life experiences. Using data collected during in-depth interviews with exonerees, this qualitative study explores the ways in which individuals that have been wrongfully convicted cope with that traumatic experience. The findings demonstrate that exonerees use both positive and negative coping techniques. Prayer and faith appear to be the most important coping mechanism used by this sample of exonerees. Additional coping mechanisms include meeting with other exonerees to discuss their experience, helping other exonerees, reflecting on their personal experience, and withdrawing from others. Policy implications are also discussed.
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Research shows that one in five witnesses mistakenly identifies a volunteer at identity parades, despite warnings that the culprit may not be present. Mistaken eyewitness testimony from victims and bystanders has to date been held responsible for two-thirds of the cases of wrongful convictions in the USA following new DNA evidence. Further cases are pending examination. This chapter examines whether research on the factors that influence the quality of visual evidence from eyewitnesses can inform police investigators and the courts about the reliability of witness evidence under different conditions. It also considers the extent to which there is a consensus in the research findings and in expert opinion. Finally, it briefly examines what laypersons or potential jurors know about the factors influencing eyewitness evidence.