'I've been exonerated in the eyes of the court but not everybody,' says Dennis Oland, acquitted for murder
Many formerly accused suffer from lingering stigma and lasting trauma in their lives even after acquittal
An acquittal is supposed to feel like a victory. For the accused, a verdict of "not guilty" promises freedom restored and a return to normal life.
The actual experience for many? Trauma and stigma linger long after they've left the courtroom.
In July 2019, Dennis Oland was acquitted in a judge-only retrial in the murder of his father, Richard Oland, the millionaire businessman who was bludgeoned to death eight years prior. The four-part documentary series The Oland Murder illuminates the final stages of the high-profile case in Saint John, N.B. — and the realities of a public trial in a modern world.
Negative publicity and social media
The case of a murdered millionaire in a relatively small city captured the attention of the entire Atlantic region, resulting in intense media coverage and social media commentary.
Christine Ruva, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, sat down with the series' producers before the start of Oland's second trial and his ultimate acquittal.
Ruva's research examines the effects of pre-trial publicity on jurors' decision-making processes. She says most publicly available information is "predominantly negative or anti-defendant," including what's available on social media.
"Social media now is something the courts didn't have to worry about, you know, 10 years ago, but it's definitely something that the courts have to worry about today," Ruva says. "[An article is] put online, and people can go out there and comment on it, and those comments are available to others.… and it can continue throughout the whole time that the case is making its way to trial. And even after."
In Oland's case, Ruva says many commenters seemed to focus on the family's net worth, and the accused's perceived legal advantage as a result.
"The wealth of the social media discussions seems to be on this two-tiered [justice] system, and the fact that they really believe that Dennis did it," she says. "But now, he's [been] given this second chance because he can afford to have these very fancy lawyers that know how to get an appeal."
Lives broken, even after exoneration
Keith Findley, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School and co-founder of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, says lingering stigma after an acquittal or exoneration is a "ubiquitous experience."
He offers the examples of Evan Zimmerman and Audrey Edmunds — two people who were convicted of serious crimes and later exonerated due to insufficient evidence presented at retrial and updated medical science, respectively. Zimmerman was imprisoned for the murder of an ex-girlfriend and Edmunds for the death of an infant in her care.
Zimmerman had suffered a stroke during his incarceration. He was never able to secure employment after his release, including when he sought a janitorial position and moved away from his community. Findley says Zimmerman never felt he could return home. He died of cancer two years after the murder charges against him were dropped. The stress of the entire experience was damaging to his health, Findley adds.
Edmunds was pregnant with her third child when she was charged and remained in prison for more than a decade before her exoneration. By that point, her three children were all teenagers and her husband had divorced her.
Regaining her freedom was bittersweet, Findley says.
"Of course, by then, the damage was done. You can never make up for the loss of those years from preschool to high school, so the relationship with her daughters was never the same — although I think it's a fine relationship now. But she lost her motherhood."
Despite the exoneration and reconnecting with her children, Edmunds moved away from her community and never returned.
"Audrey is another example of someone who just can't escape that cloud of suspicion in everything she does afterwards," Findley says.
'Sheer agony' of being accused
The presumption of innocence is a fundamental tenet of justice systems the world over, but Findley believes this right is not enforced strongly enough.
"[Most people] simply can't have an appreciation for the sheer agony that being accused of a serious crime — or any crime — puts a person through," he says. "Everything in your life is up for grabs: your employment, your career, your friendships, your family connections, your freedom, your good name, your retirement account."
"Everything is about to be taken from you, and it's absolutely humiliating and terrifying — even if you're ultimately acquitted or exonerated. No exoneration can give that back."
Some of the final scenes of The Oland Murder show Oland, recently acquitted, describing dreams of being back in prison and waking up in cold sweats. He says he felt a sense of elation after the "not guilty" verdict was read, but it was an emotion that dissipated as reality set in. And his father's murderer has not been found.
"I crashed," Oland says. "I developed anxiety like I have not felt in the past."
"I've been exonerated in the eyes of the court but not everybody. You know, I'm aware of what people have said online … They don't care."
Watch The Oland Murder.