Most wrongful convictions result from police and prosecutors extorting a plea bargain from an innocent person. A large number of these wrongful convictions are mundane by wrongful conviction standards. They involve drugs and theft. The more spectacular wrongful convictions more frequently require the assistance of an unwitting, insufficiently skeptical jury. They deal with murder and rape.
In this post, we take a look at the front end of the wrongful conviction process. We focus on one narrow segment of the wrongful conviction world: false confessions to charges of murder and/or rape.
Before we begin, allow me to disappoint any of you out there who still cling to belief that people never have and never will falsely confess to a crime, much less one that could lead to death or life imprisonment. In The Substance of False Confessions, Brandon Garrett focuses on 40 cases of false confession proven false by DNA evidence. Perhaps the die-hard among you will hope that these 40 cases magically represent all the cases rather than simply the tip of the iceberg. For the remainder of you, read on.
In The Decision to Confess Falsely: Rational Choice and Irrational Action, Richards Ofshe and Leo discuss a common-sense method of detecting at least some false confessions. They suggest the police (and I suggest the jury also) should consider the the fit between the confession and the known facts of the case. (The police are in the best position to do this, and the jury is in the worst position.) Ofshe and Leo describe a number of cases where the prosecution of a clearly innocent person proceeded apace despite glaring inconsistencies between the confession and the facts. I repeat some of the them here, beginning with:
Johnny Lee Wilson was pardoned by the governor of Missouri in 1995 although he had confessed to arson, robbery, and murder in 1986.57 During interrogation, Mr. Wilson told police many facts that could be proven to be wrong and did not contribute any accurate information that would certainly have been known to the perpetrator. For example, he told the interrogators where to find the loot from the robbery -- but it was not there. Also, he was unable to tell them that a stun-gun was involved in the crime, that it had been lost in the house, and that the killers had set a fIre to destroy it. Years later, the real killer came forward, confessed, and proved his guilt. Although the stun-gun's existence had been kept secret, the true killer was able to tell the police all about it.
It seems as if we can add Johnny Lee Wilson's confession to the confirmed false confession list, given that the real killer (aka the OJ) confessed and provided critical information known to the police but unknown to Wilson. Next, consider the case of Edgar Garrett, presumably no relation to Brandon Garrett.
Police in Goshen, Indiana. persuaded Edgar Garrett that he killed his daughter, Michelle, who had mysteriously disappeared. During fourteen hours of interrogation, Edgar Garrett gave an increasingly detailed confession describing how he murdered his daughter, whose body had not yet been found. No independent evidence linked him to the crime or corroborated his confession. At the same time, his post-admission narrative contradicted all the major facts in the case. Edgar Garrett confessed to walking into a park with his daughter through new-fallen snow, bludgeoning her with an axe handle at a river's edge, and dumping her body in the river. However, the police officer who arrived first at the crime scene did not see footprints in the snow-covered field at the entry to the park but, instead, saw tire tracks entering the park, bloody drag marks leading from the tire tracks to the river's edge, and a single set of footprints going to and returning from the river. Obviously, someone had unloaded Michelle Garrett's body from a vehicle and dragged it to the river, but Edgar Garrett did not own a car and no evidence was ever developed that he had access to one that day. Michelle Garrett's coat was recovered from the river separately from her body and had no punctures, suggesting that she had been killed indoors and transported to the river bank.
Edgar Garrett's confession regurgitated the theory the police held at the time of the interrogation: that his daughter had been clubbed to death. Weeks later, when Michelle Garrett's body was recovered, police learned that she had been stabbed thirty-four times; that her body showed no evidence of significant head trauma; and that the axe handle Edgar Garrett confessed to club her with showed no traces of her hair or blood. At trial, the jury acquitted Edgar Garrett.
Good for the jury. They stepped in and performed their constitutional duty of protecting the innocent against the excesses of the state.
A Flagstaff, Arizona, interrogator persuaded George Abney that he had murdered a woman he had never met. He promised Abney that if he cooperated he would not go to prison but rather would receive hospital treatment for the mental illness that allegedly caused him to kill. During the post-admission questioning, Abney was invariably wrong in his guesses about the crime facts, including the most basic essentials of the victim's description. Among many other things, Abney's interrogator insisted on knowing where the victim's missing clothing could be found. On the night Abney confessed, he was taken to the murder scene to help him remember the location of the clothing. He failed. Because he had been told that only by demonstrating remorse through cooperation would he receive hospital care rather than prison, more than a day later he called the interrogator to his cell and literally begged to be allowed to try again. He failed a second time. It was later discovered that Abney had an airtight alibi, which was corroborated by several witnesses who came forward as soon as his arrest was reported in the press. For these and many other reasons, including the identification of the likely killer, a jury acquitted Abney at trial.
Good for the jury once again. Unfortunately, most of those who confess falsely are not spared by the jury. None of the forty demonstrably innocent defendants discussed by Brandon Garrett were spared by the jury.
Richard Bingham confessed to murdering a young woman by himself in a forest in Sitka, Alaska, and was immediately arrested. At the time of Bingham's arrest, police had not tested the semen found in the victim's body, the foreign hairs found on her body or the fingerprint evidence found at the crime scene. When the DNA testing, the hair testing and the fingerprint comparisons were completed, the results all excluded Bingham. In addition, the perpetrator had silenced the victim by carefully packing a great quantity of mud into her mouth. The interrogators raised the subject of how the victim was silenced several times during the post-admission portion of the interrogation. Each time Bingham offered a commonplace guess that was wrong. At trial, the jury acquitted Bingham.
Here the police and prosecution pressed the case forward even though the DNA evidence excluded Bingham. Their logic is usually along the lines of: "The DNA doesn't prove he wasn't there and didn't participate. It only proves he had the assistance of someone else." This lame-o alternative theory has been used so frequently it has been given a name: The Unindicted Co-Ejaculator Theory.
On Saturday, August 10, 1991, during the scorching summer, six Buddhist monks, a nun, and two acolytes were found shot to death at the Wat Promkunaram Buddhist temple in the far west area of Phoenix. Maricopa County Sheriff's detectives subjected five mistakenly chosen individuals to psychological interrogation and succeeded in eliciting three false confessions to mass murder.
None of the three individuals from whom Maricopa County, Arizona, detectives coerced false confessions during the Phoenix Temple mass murder investigation could tell police where to find the missing loot or independently describe the physical facts of the crime. The real killers were eventually identified because they were in possession of the murder weapon on the night of the killings. When police searched their homes, loot from the robbery was found. The perpetrator who confessed was able to describe how the crime was planned, its execution, and a significant fact withheld from the public -- that certain graffiti had been left at the crime scene to mislead the police.
I'm currently helping, or attempting to help, with a case involving a false confession. The jury whiffed in this instance, and the defendant was sentenced to 50 year sentence without possibility of parole. All appeals have failed or been procedurally barred. I'll be writing more frequently of false confessions because of this case. I'll write too of the case itself. Stay tuned.