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.' "

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