Finding Solace After Wrongful Conviction

It was only a patch of grass, but it was one of the most beautiful sights Scott Hornoff had seen in almost six and a half years. Walking outside of the Adult Correctional Institute in Warwick, R.I., he reached down to touch a blade of grass, one of the many things he hadn't been able to touch while he was incarcerated.

Hornoff, now 42, served six years and four months in prison for the 1995 murder of Vicky Cushman -- a crime to which Cushman's boyfriend confessed in 2002. Hornoff, a former police detective, spent his years of incarceration fighting to have his conviction overturned. Since he has been released, he has been fighting to have a normal life.

A study released in April shows that over the past 15 years, there were 328 people exonerated for crimes they didn't commit. Many served hard time, but for most, the hardest time is after they leave prison. They face a difficult adjustment, often suffering psychological problems and societal shunning, unable to be perceived as anything other than a criminal.

"In general, it's a very complicated and difficult adjustment," said John P. Wilson, a psychologist at Cleveland State University. He has worked with exonerees for more than 20 years. "It's contrary to what people think, that it will be joyous because they're out of prison."

Prison Replaced With Fear

On that cold day in November 2002, Hornoff remembers feeling disbelief that he was finally seeing the world beyond prison walls.

"It was more a feeling of being in shock, in the 'Twilight Zone,' " he said. He later went with 30 friends and family members for his first meal outside of prison, but wasn't able to eat. "I was too wound up." He also did not sleep for two days.

Over the next few days, he went to dinner with his mother and saw two of his three sons play basketball. To this day, cherishes every moment, not only to experience things he missed, but because of fear.

"I want to live every day, because I'm afraid I might lose it all again," he said.

Wilson said that the psychological injuries that exonerees suffer are permanent and difficult to treat. They all suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Many have difficulty adjusting to the simplest tasks.

"It takes a long time to adjust to basic things, like knowing you can open the bedroom door and go out," he said. "One man I know of couldn't leave his bedroom without someone coming to get him."

The presence of police officers or security guards also creates anxiety. Hornoff said he gets nervous when he hears doors slam.

"Every time a door slams, I'm afraid the police are going to come and get me," he said. "I'm also a lot more claustrophobic now -- even the shower curtain bothers me."

They also suffer from sleep disorders, paranoia and pervasive anxiety and depression, said Wilson. Hornoff has nightmares and suffers from night sweats.

Reputation Repair

One of the most damaging effects is the stigma of having been a convicted criminal.

"They can't seem to get out from under the cloud -- it follows them everywhere," said Sheila Berry of Truth In Justice, an organization that educates the public about wrongful convictions. "People look at them and say, 'oh, you're the one who killed somebody,' or 'you got out on a technicality.' "

Because of the "criminal" label, many exonerees have difficulty finding jobs. "It's hard to explain to an employer that for the past six or seven years, you were incarcerated, but you actually didn't commit the crime," said Berry.

Wilson added that, in addition to discrimination, some are simply not able to work because of psychological injury.

Hornoff said that every time he applies for a job, he feels humiliated because he must explain that gap in his résumé. After two years, he does not have a job. He often serves as a guest lecturer, but receives no pay. He is still fighting for back pay and reinstatement to the Warwick Police Department.

Currently, there are few programs that exist to help the wrongly convicted when they are released. Once they leave prison, they must fend for themselves.

"There's no re-entry service or outprocessing to facilitate and bridge the transition," said Wilson. "You're suddenly released and go back into society."

One of the only programs nationwide whose mission it is to help exonerees re-enter society is the California-based Life After Exoneration Program. It was founded in 2003 by attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld of The Innocence Project and Lola Vollen, a California physician.

Vollen said the program works with exonerees to help them find jobs, medical care, and vocational and educational training. LAEP also works to influence policy and legislation and helps exonerees network with others who share their experiences.

Currently, the program works with about 100 exonerees regularly, but Vollen said she expects that number to increase. "Statistically, the numbers of exonerees have been increasing over the years," she said.

Much of the blame for the difficulties exonerees face lies with the justice system, said Sara Bennett, a former New York defense attorney whose clients included several wrongfully convicted men.

"The whole system is set up to make verdicts final," she said. "The players involved -- the prosecutors, the police, etcetera -- don't want to deal with you. They will fight against you. There is not an openness toward looking at a conviction."

This lack of openness does not allow exonerees to shed the image of being a convicted criminal, said Truth In Justice's Berry. Prosecutors and police do not want to admit their errors. "Prosecutors say it doesn't mean that the person is innocent, it just means that there wasn't enough evidence," she said.

Some Massachusetts prosecutors, however disagree with this assessment. Middlesex County District Attorney Martha Coakley takes a proactive approach with wrongful convictions.

"We haven't put up a fight to open cases," said Melissa Sherman, a spokeswoman for Coakley. "We will look at cases again if there is a legitimate inquiry and if evidence is there to back it up."

In May, Coakley and other prosecutors began to study why wrongful convictions occur and ways to prevent them. Recommendations are expected to include improved police procedures and DNA testing as well as monetary compensation for exonerees.

Wilson, the psychologist, proposed an entirely different way to assist exonerees. He believes that more mental health professionals should be trained to deal specifically with their type of trauma and should be available through public agencies. He said unlike victims of other traumas, like domestic violence, the wrongfully convicted have no public assistance. "There isn't any such place to go; there is no mechanism to help them deal with the failures of the justice system," he said.

Though he is out of prison, Hornoff does not feel like a free man. He is still struggling to find the Scott Hornoff that was lost back in 1995. "I'm a police officer, a convict and an exoneree," he said. "I'm still trying to figure it out."