Michelle Gesse offers ten tips on how to cope if your spouse or loved one has been falsely accused of committing a crime.
Imagine this: You and your spouse are at home one evening when the doorbell rings unexpectedly. You open your front door to find several law enforcement officers standing on your porch. They have come to arrest your spouse—who has been accused of a crime he or she didn’t commit—and to search your home. You may not realize it now, but your spouse’s life, as well as your own, is about to change dramatically. That’s because you’re both about to enter a frightening criminal justice system that in practice, if not in theory, considers the accused to be guilty until proven innocent.
Michelle Gesse lived this nightmare after her husband, Steven, was falsely accused of threatening a neighbor’s adult son with a gun.
“After the initial shock of the accusation wore off, I understood that Steven would be facing numerous obstacles as he tried to clear his name, and that his life would be very different and incredibly difficult over the following months,” recalls Gesse, author of Bogus Allegations: The Injustice of Guilty Until Proven Innocent. “What I didn’t realize was the extent to which my own life would be impacted, too.”
Over the next seven months, the criminal justice system treated Steven as though his guilt were already assumed. He was in and out of court and had to meet multiple bail conditions, including obtaining special permission to leave the state, appearing for random breathalyzer tests, and meeting regularly with a drug counselor. He and Michelle were also forced to spend their retirement savings to fund his defense.
“While I wasn’t accused of a crime and was technically a ‘free’ citizen, I felt as though I, too, had been falsely accused,” Gesse shares. “As I tried to help and support Steven, I often had no idea how to handle the situations and emotions I was faced with. To make things even more difficult, I had few resources to draw on and often felt very isolated.”
Finally, Steven Gesse was found not guilty of Felony Menacing and Prohibited Use of a Weapon by a jury on October 28, 2009. Yet being exonerated did not make up for the fact that he had been treated like a convicted felon, or for the financial, emotional, and social hardship he and his wife endured. The unfairness of it all set Michelle Gesse on a mission to shine a spotlight on the injustices of the American justice system—and to make people aware of what to do in case they or a loved one are ever falsely accused.
Here, Gesse speaks directly to spouses and loved ones. She shares ten tips to help you make it through your own ordeal if someone you love is ever falsely accused of a crime:
Treat the accusation like the diagnosis of a serious illness. The mindset with which you approach your loved one’s arrest and trial can make a huge difference in your ability to support him and to cope with what is often an extended ordeal. Railing against how unfair the situation is or indulging in prolonged anger isn’t healthy for anyone involved. Instead, recommends Gesse, think of the accusation as the diagnosis of a potentially lethal disease.
“Treating the accusation like a disease diagnosis is applicable in several different ways,” she explains. “Like becoming ill, being falsely accused of a crime is not your loved one’s fault, and you need to support him. The emotional toll is the same. Life as you know it will cease to exist as legal proceedings and obligations take center stage—just as doctor’s visits and treatments would. Remember, your loved one will need unconditional support, and you will be his primary caregiver. And lastly, don’t expect the situation to be resolved quickly—we’re not talking about an ‘illness’ that can be cured with one vaccine. Be prepared for the battle to last a long time.”
Maintain normalcy as much as possible. One of the hardest parts of being falsely accused of a crime—and being treated as though you were guilty by the criminal justice system—is the feeling that everything in your life is out of your control. Depending on the specifics of your loved one’s case, she may be limited in where she can go and what she can do, and she might also have to meet frequently with lawyers, counselors, and others to meet the terms of her bail. Living under these strictures can make your loved one (and you!) feel helpless and desperate, and they can greatly contribute to the overall stress you’re both feeling.
“That’s why it’s so important to maintain as much normalcy in your life as possible,” Gesse asserts. “Stop dwelling on the fact that you have to cancel your anniversary trip, and definitely avoid sitting around moping and brooding. Instead, focus on sticking to your normal daily routine whenever possible: Attend your weekly aerobics class, keep up your Thursday night date nights, run errands, and do chores. Never underestimate the power of the mundane when it comes to helping you to feel in control of your life in the midst of otherwise out-of-control circumstances.”
Decide on how you will handle your friends from the beginning. You might wish that you could keep your loved one’s accusation completely under wraps, but unless you’re very lucky, that won’t be possible. News of the arrest and charges may be published in a local newspaper, and as we all know, gossip and morbid curiosity are powerful things. It’s best to assume that the people in your life—including your friends—will learn about the accusation. And according to Gesse, it’s in your family’s best interests to decide beforehand how you want to handle these relationships.
“The nature of your friendships may change in this situation, and most likely, you’ll be forced to question who your true friends are,” she shares. “In our situation, some people whom we had expected to support us backed away, others were shamelessly interested in the details of the case, and still others assumed that because Steven had been accused and arrested, he must be guilty.
“In retrospect, I would advise sitting down with your spouse and your lawyer as soon as possible to determine how you should handle your current friendships and relationships. Do you discuss the trial? Will you agree to keep the details secret? Gossip and hearsay can become explosive (and potentially very damaging) in a situation like this one, so you need to be on the same page from the beginning. For Steven and me, our lawyer told us what to say when asked about the charges: ‘Steven is not guilty. He did not have a gun. He did not commit any crime, but we have been advised not to discuss the details of the case right now. The situation is, however, very serious.’ I believe that sticking to this script helped both of us to avoid a lot of stressful conversations. That said, we each ‘selected’ one or two trusted friends or relatives with whom we could confide and vent to as necessary.”
All decisions need to be mutual. No matter what the details of your loved one’s case are, you can be sure of one thing: There are some tough decisions ahead. And while only one of you has been accused, it’s vital that you make those decisions together because they will impact your entire family. Do everything you can to come to a mutual agreement before moving forward. Now, more than ever, you and your loved one need to stand together and support one another.
“The odds are already stacked against you, so you don’t need to be at odds with one another. Most likely, one of the biggest decisions you’ll face is whether to go to trial or accept a plea bargain. Going to trial was the right decision for me and my husband, but it may not be the right decision for you. If, for instance, your family has neither the emotional nor financial resources to go through the lengthy and expensive process, there’s no shame in taking another route as long as you both agree on it. Neither should the acceptance of a plea bargain be taken as a sign of guilt. It is what it is—a chance to draw the process to a conclusion.”
Don’t allow yourself to wallow in the “what ifs.” When an incident occurs that ends up turning your entire life upside down, it’s easy to let yourself be taken captive by “what ifs.” As you watch a spouse, child, or other loved one suffer, it’s normal to think through the events that led up to the ordeal and consider what could have been done to prevent it from happening. But the truth of the matter is, agonizing over the past won’t change anything about the current situation. You are where you are, and your only productive option is to look forward.
Understand that whatever you are feeling is perfectly normal. During the process of an accusation and trial, you can expect your emotions to run the gamut. At times, you may feel anger or resentment toward your spouse. You may feel like giving up and walking away. You may feel guilty yourself. And during your darkest moments, you may even question your loved one’s innocence (even though you know better). All of these feelings are perfectly normal, Gesse assures. And when they become overwhelming, it’s important to talk to a trusted friend or therapist about them.
“One thing I wasn’t prepared for was feeling that I was being judged along with Steven,” Gesse shares. “At times, I also felt paranoid and believed that everyone thought Steven was guilty, which made it difficult to interact with anyone normally. Worst of all were the moments when I caught myself feeling like the charges were somehow Steven’s fault. The same might be true for you. If he had not made that comment, you might think. Or, If she had not gone out with that guy—I knew he was trouble! On a rational level you know that the situation isn’t your loved one’s fault, but on an emotional level, you’re looking for somewhere to place the blame and channel your anger.
“Once again, these feelings are normal, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up for having them,” Gesse reiterates. “However, do keep in mind the reality that false accusations are not your loved one’s fault. Remind yourself that the fault lies with the party who made those accusations, not with either one of you.”
Keep the lines of communication open. At times throughout your ordeal, you may feel that it’s you and your loved one against the world. And in a manner of speaking, you’d be right. No outsider can fully understand what your family is going through, and that means that it’s crucial for you and your loved one to maintain a strong and trusting relationship. From the very beginning, set up an open-door honesty policy with each other. Commit to being open and honest every step of the way, and talk about everything—including aspects of your life that aren’t impacted by the false accusations.
Take steps to care for yourself physically and emotionally. As previously mentioned, dealing with the false accusation of a loved one is much like dealing with the diagnosis of a chronic disease. The battle ahead will take a very tough emotional and physical toll on both of you. One of the best things you can do for yourself and your loved one is making sure that you maintain the best possible health during this ordeal so that you can offer meaningful support.
“Often, medical caregivers experience fatigue and burnout, or become ill themselves,” Gesse points out. “The same thing can happen to you as you help your loved one deal with the frightening and confusing criminal justice system. Eat well, exercise, and do the best you can to get enough sleep. On an emotional level, be aware of your feelings and those of your spouse. If you suspect you may be suffering from signs of depression or anxiety, be proactive about seeking professional help. Do not underestimate the toll that this can and will take on you.”
It’s okay to accept and ask for help. Once false accusations have been made, your life is about to become a hurricane of court dates, meetings with lawyers, appointments that are part of bail conditions, paperwork, and errands. In short, all of those “normal life” chores like buying groceries, taking the dog to the vet, and picking up dry cleaning will likely fall to the wayside in lieu of more pressing things. If you have friends or family members who offer to help you by bringing in meals or running errands, say yes.
Manage your expectations for the future. As your ordeal moves forward, you’ll be driven and motivated by thoughts of the future. “When this is finally over” is a phrase you’ll probably utter multiple times a day as you dream of living a “normal” life once again. That’s a good thing! However, Gesse says, it’s also a good idea to manage your expectations of what the post-trial future will actually look like so that you aren’t disappointed or upset by the reality when it arrives.
“Even if the outcome of your trial is good, as it was for Steven and me, you cannot expect your life to go back to the way it was before,” she shares. “You will be a different person as a result of what you’ve been through, and so will your spouse. Your marriage may need time to adjust and grow, and that’s okay. You may also have lost some friends or even family members as a result of the accusations. After devoting your life to the trial and the outcome, you may feel lost for a time as you figure out how to move forward. My most important piece of advice is for you to take each day as it comes and focus on making the present moment as well as the future as positive as possible. If you mourn your ‘old’ life and continually compare it to the new normal, you’ll never be happy.”
“Ultimately, every case is different, and if your spouse or loved one has been falsely accused of committing a crime, you’ll be facing a set of unique circumstances,” Gesse concludes. “However, if you do find yourself in this unthinkable situation (which I sincerely hope you don’t!), these general guidelines will help you to navigate what’s ahead without totally succumbing to the stress and strain. Remember, you’re a caregiver—so do what’s best for yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally.”
Michelle Gesse, author of Bogus Allegations: The Injustice of Guilty Until Proven Innocent, is a native of Chicago, IL. She earned a BS in mathematics from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and completed her MBA at the University of Chicago. She spent 15 years in banking, working for Northern Trust in Chicago and Chase Manhattan in New York. From 1992 to 2011, Michelle successfully owned and ran a manufacturing company in Boulder, CO.