After Prison, the Exonerated Face a Different Kind of Hell
Date:  10-31-2016

Life can be "too big, too fast, too loud, too bright, too overwhelming," causing a myriad of problems
From Mother Jones

It was an unseasonably warm November morning, just a few days before Thanksgiving in 2010, when a warden's assistant at a small prison in Ohio broke the news to inmate Virginia "Ginny" LeFever: A judge had ordered her immediate release. Other inmates crowded around to say goodbye, clapping and crying and hugging her as she prepared to leave. "It was like going through a gauntlet to get from my door to the front of the prison," she says.

Twenty-two years earlier, LeFever had been living east of Columbus and working as a nurse when she was arrested for allegedly murdering her estranged husband—a crime she says she did not commit. A judge found her guilty two years later and sentenced her to life in prison. But recently, her lawyers had proved that the prosecutor's key witness had lied about his credentials during her trial. Now, her conviction was overturned and she could walk free. "It was one of the most surreal moments of my life," she says. "I didn't sleep for three days because the bed was too soft—everything was too comfortable."

Then reality hit. The 59-year-old didn't have a job, and everything she owned—legal documents, a few books, and her cross-stitching projects—could fit into the trunk of a car. Her parents had died while she was in prison, and some of her kids wouldn't talk to her. (One of her daughters told reporters she was guilty). LeFever had post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that can develop after experiencing trauma, with symptoms ranging from flashbacks and bad dreams to mood swings and trouble sleeping. She also needed medicine for hypertension, but she didn't have health insurance, and the doctor's offices in her area were booked for another three months. "For a while I was drinking more than I had any business doing," she says. Everything was "too big, too fast, too loud, too bright, too overwhelming."

A national registry tracks the number of exonerees in America—1,900 since 1989—but nobody knows how many of them struggle with chronic health issues like PTSD. And that's a problem, according to experts on wrongful conviction, because the United States currently has few safeguards in place to help them get back on their feet after prison, leaving many struggling to adjust. After his exoneration, Gary Gauger, who was sentenced to death in 1994 for the murder of his parents, said he didn't leave his home unless forced to do so. In March this year, Darryl Hunt, who spent 19 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, killed himself in a parking lot. "People work really, really hard to get us out, and then we're out and nobody knows what the heck to do with us," LeFever says. "Because we're not the same people who went in." Read more>