Canada’s Wrongfully Convicted: What are the psychological impacts?

Maria Shepherd speaks to the media outside a disciplinary hearing for disgraced pathologist Dr. Charles Smith in Toronto on Feb. 1., 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel

This is part three of a five-part series from the Jon McComb Show on 980 CKNW, examining wrongful convictions and why they happen.

You’ve been tried and convicted for a murder you didn’t commit.

Your reputation is ruined.

You feel helpless as you’re handcuffed and hauled off to prison.

The court of public opinion has already had its say on your case, and it’s determined you’re guilty.

And as if that’s not bad enough, you still have to face the realities of prison.

This has been the very real nightmare faced by some innocent Canadians who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes. According to research conducted by University of Ottawa criminologist Kathryn Campbell, who studies cases of wrongful conviction, at least 70 people have been exonerated in Canada.

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That’s an estimate, however, and there could be many more.

The wrongfully convicted people she has spoken to say being in prison is hard but the mental anguish is exacerbated when you know you’re not meant to be there. Many people who are locked away become obsessed with their case, she says, and with getting out.

“They were also preoccupied with injustice when they were finally released, and the idea of being intolerant of any kind of injustice because they had experienced [it].”

In 1992, Robert Baltovich was convicted by an Ontario court of murdering his girlfriend Elizabeth Bain and sentenced to life behind bars with no eligibility of parole for 17 years.

Baltovich was hauled off to pre-trial custody in Toronto, where he spent 24 hours a day locked up, for nine months.

The nightmare continued in Kingston, Ont., where he spent almost eight years in prison. 

“We walked off the bus. We walked into this huge metal cage and they locked us up and I was surrounded by other people who had also been convicted of crimes,” he said. “I remember thinking to myself this is the most surreal and nightmarish experience I’ve ever had.”  

Baltovich says the early days were the easiest, getting by with the support of his family and friends, who stood by him.

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“You just had to make certain psychological adjustments. I went into survival mode, and thought, I don’t know how long I’m going to be here but I’m not going to let myself be consumed by self-pity or anger or despair.”

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But Baltovich would spend eight years behind bars before he was granted bail pending the hearing of his appeal.

In 2004, the Ontario Court of Appeal set aside his murder conviction, deciding Baltovich’s initial trial had been unfair.

The next step for him was to clear his name. 

A study conducted in the UK by forensic psychologist Adrian Grounds found those that are wrongfully convicted often suffer post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological problems.

That’s what happened to Maria Shepherd. She was wrongfully convicted of manslaughter in the death of her step-daughter in 1992, due to flawed testimony from Charles Smith, a once distinguished pediatric forensic pathologist.

An inquiry into his conduct in Shepherd’s case led to Smith being stripped of his licence to practise.

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Campbell says there’s a common factor among those who suffer a miscarriage of justice: They all want someone to take responsibility.

“They wanted somebody to say they were sorry, that they had made a mistake,” Campbell says. But that doesn’t happen very often, he continues. “Sometimes a prosecutor will apologize to a wrongly convicted person or when they’re being exonerated, they’ll say they’re sorry, but it’s a very very difficult experience for them, absolutely.”

In Baltovich’s case, he managed to resume a relatively normal life; however, today, he feels there’s been no real sense of vindication. He says he finds the prosecutors’ behaviour in his case “absolutely baffling.”

“I haven’t had an apology yet,” Baltovich says. “I’m not so sure if anyone who participated in my prosecution is really that sorry.”

He says despite the enormous impact prison has on a person’s psyche, many people go on to do good things.

Shepherd is one of them.

She became a licensed paralegal in October 2018, and now works to raise awareness of the tragic circumstances of wrongful conviction through Innocence Canada, a non-profit dedicated to identifying cases of wrongful conviction.

David Milgaard spent 23 years behind bars for the 1969 rape and murder of a nurse in Saskatoon, in one of Canada’s most high profile cases of wrongful conviction. 

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He was exonerated in 1997 after new DNA evidence came to light.

Milgaard gave an emotional interview in 1995 about his many years behind bars and his adjustment to the outside world upon release.

“I’ll never forget being a prisoner. In my own way, I still consider myself a prisoner. My situation is such that I am never going to forget it. I would like to do more to help prisoners, because I remember what it was like sitting inside a penitentiary. You die a little bit each day you spend in a penitentiary.”

David Milgaard speaks briefly with reporters at the Calgary Courts Centre on Nov. 14, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Graveland
David Milgaard speaks briefly with reporters at the Calgary Courts Centre on Nov. 14, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Graveland.

That resilience shown by Milgaard, Baltovich and Shepherd is unfortunately not the case for all those who have been wrongfully convicted.

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Studies by American academic Leslie Scott, who specializes in prison reform law, show the mental impact of prisoner’s experiences often leaves them in psychological chains, even after the prison shackles have been removed.

Once released, they often struggle to find employment due to their criminal records.

Financially, they may be in ruin — both from the expensive cost of legal fees and their inability to find work.

Their personal relationships are rarely as they left them.

The never-ending suspicion of guilt, that often continues even after their release, can destroy social ties.

In fact, Leslie Scott’s study noted incredible similarities between the psychological states of those who have been wrongfully convicted — and veterans who have returned from war.

After decades fighting, Shepherd, Baltovich and Milgaard were finally able to prove their innocence, and clear their names.

In Part Four of ‘Canada’s Wrongfully Convicted,’ a special series from the Jon McComb show on 980 CKNW, find out how a person in prison for a crime they did not commit can, if they’re lucky, prove their innocence and try and rebuild their lives.

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