Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Case of Preston Hughes III: A Blogger's Cruelty

At the conclusion of my last post, Confession #1, I asked you to decide whether Preston Hughes' first confession was true or false.

Then I turned cruel.

I asked you to actually defend your position, to explain why you believe the first confession to be true or to be false.

The natural inclination is to assume that no one would ever confess to a crime they did not commit, much less a murder. The natural inclination is, therefore, to believe the confession must be true at its core. There is, however, a discomforting aspect of that comforting inclination: defending it.

I was therefore cruel when I insisted on a defense.

Due to the relatively recent availability of DNA testing as an occasional post-conviction arbitrator of guilt or innocence, we now know that innocent people frequently confess to crimes they did not commit. A review of DNA exonerations reveals that innocent defendants make incriminating statements, deliver outright confessions, or plead guilty 25% of the time. If Preston Hughes confessed to a crime he did not commit, we can no longer take comfort that he would be a rare exception to a nearly inviolable rule. He would be but one in four.

Perhaps as a fallback position, one could take comfort that Preston's first confession must be true at its core since he demonstrated guilty knowledge of the crime. Only the police and the murderer could know that Shandra had been stabbed, and Preston knew that. He must therefore be guilty. All is still right with the world, at least with our system of justice.

But there too I was cruel. I used Sgt. Gafford's own words to impeach him. I explained that later, in the same police report, Sgt. Gafford had convinced Preston to confess by telling Preston that Shandra had identified Preston as the person who stabbed her.

My use of Gafford's own words was cruel and unusual blogging, at least for those readers who wish to believe innocent people are never framed, never convicted, never executed. I willfully, and with emotional discomfort aforethought, deprived such readers of their comforting fallback position. I attempted to leave them with no option other than to treat the confession as one should treat any piece of testimonial evidence. I attempted to compel them to compare Preston's testimony against everything else we know (or think we know) about the case.

I do not flatter myself, however, by anticipating my words will sway those who believe no one will ever confess falsely. Nor do I delude myself that my words will necessarily transform the thinking of those few people who can stop the execution of Preston Hughes III, soon to be late of Texas.

I do believe, however that I can rise to my own challenge. I can state clearly whether I believe Preston's first confession to be true or false, and I can defend that position.

In his first confession, Preston described himself stabbing Shandra wildly and repeatedly, up to 10 times, using a specific knife to be recovered from a specific location.
I was fucked up and I just got scared and kept sticking. I swung the knife 6 .. 8 .. probably 10 times ...
I went back into the apartment and that's when I took the knife off of my belt and put it in my closet. I put it in a box in the bedroom closet on the floor. The box is a brown cardboard box with clothes in it and the knife is stuck down on the side. The closet is in a bedroom to the right as you go toward the back of the apartment, the bedroom with the twin bed in it.
Shandra, however, was stabbed only twice, and with great precision. (See Stabbings Well Done) Furthermore, Shandra was not killed with the knife found in Preston's apartment. (See On Being Blunt and Marcell's Neck)

I therefore believe Preston's first confession to be materially false, false at its core, false in its essence.

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Anonymous said...

I know that innocents confess and have worked on false confession cases. Confusing 10 stabs for 2 is significant. I did want to point out that we have no definitive stat for how often false confessions occur. The 25% you cite is the proportion of the exonerated who confessed-- not the same thing. However, when you consider that roughly the same percentage of accused witches confessed in Salem, it might be a reasonable guess.

tsj said...

Yes, we have no definitive stat for how often false confessions occur. I do, however, have an estimate. I estimate that roughly 10% of all convictions, either by trial or plea bargain, are of innocent people who effectively confessed, if only by accepting a plea bargain for a crime they did not commit.

I suppose I should prepare a separate post, when I get time, to defend that estimate.

Anonymous said...

10% sounds about right to me. A lot of scholars put it between 3 and 5%, but that is too low I think.

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