We rarely, if ever, think it will or can happen to us. It is a worst-case scenario we can’t reasonably prepare ourselves for. But it happens more than we want to believe. Since 1989, 317 wrongfully convicted people in the United States have been proven innocent through DNA testing—more than half through the aid of the Innocence Project, cofounded by Barry Scheck—including 18 people on death row. Their sentences ranged from five months to 35 years, with the average person serving 13 years before exoneration. There are innocents still serving sentences, others who served full sentences, and still others who have been put to death. I served four years in prison before an Italian court declared me innocent and released me, only to have another Italian court convict me again on the very same evidence (a conviction that is now on appeal).
Here in Seattle, the Northwest chapter of the Innocence Project, based at the University of Washington, has helped exonerate 12 people wrongly accused of everything from robbery to sexual assault. And there are more of us. The Innocence Project estimates that between 2.3 and 5 percent of prisoners in the U.S. are not guilty of the crimes they were convicted for. (That’s as many as 120,000 jailed for crimes they didn’t commit.)
Yet there are few laws in place to adequately facilitate a wrongly accused person’s reintegration into society and to provide compensation for the financial, physical, and emotional trauma suffered. Society has hesitated to define being wrongly accused as victimization. I suspect that’s because doing so would admit a failing on the part of the authorities we trust to protect against victimization. Some may acknowledge the wrongly accused person’s status as a victim, but lack empathetic awareness.
So what does it feel like?
When you’re accused of a horrific act you didn’t do, you inevitably experience shock, disorientation, confusion. There’s tension above your right eyebrow and below your right nostril that sometimes triggers both to twitch uncontrollably, making you self-conscious about looking people in the face. There’s a pinpoint knot that spasms between your shoulder blades, behind your heart, making it hard to sit still. There’s pressure that squeezes your temples and tingles on the edges of your eyeballs, making it hard to concentrate.
You sometimes feel dizzy, dazed, disoriented, forgetful, disconnected from your own body. You wake up drained, your whole body weighed down by a lethargy you can’t shake off. You feel a sometimes dragging, sometimes crushing weight. You’ll be tense from your ears to your lower abdomen, struggling to swallow, struggling to breathe.
All of it, even years later, can transform into a full-blown panic attack—triggered by a ghost of a memory, or by a casual and unrelated event. Walking the streets of Seattle, my heart races whenever I pass a person who even remotely resembles an ex-cellmate or guard. TV commercials, sounding all alike on either side of the Atlantic, remind me so much of the incessant din of the prison that I want to cry. The stress of keeping pace with normal life, of something as simple as responding to emails on time, becomes associated with the stress of defending myself and can make me withdraw into the numb, stony silence of survival.
That anxiety arrives even in the most casual and safe of circumstances, like at family barbecues. You’re hypersensitive to what people say, don’t say, and how they say it. Your family’s and friends’ words dissolve into white noise over the course of an evening because you’ve become accustomed to interacting for only an hour at a time during visiting hours. There’s an accumulation of primal anger and grief that can find no satisfactory expression. And there is always this thought: How can you reconcile with significant parts of society that abused your trust, your rights, your innocence—then tried to justify that abuse?
The trauma felt by the victim of wrongful accusation and conviction is foreign and unimaginable to the majority of people. But its effect on a person should never be minimized. It is wrong, horrifying, devastating—emotionally, intellectually, viscerally. It is very lonely, and yet, there are so many more of us out there than you know, holding our breath.
Amanda Knox is a recent graduate of the University of Washington and the author of Waiting to Be Heard: A Memoir.