Today’s post comes from Brandon L. Garrett, Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law, and author of Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong.
This past Friday at a hearing in Jonesboro, Arkansas, the West Memphis Three, who had been convicted in 1994 of murdering three young boys, but had long claimed their innocence, finally became free men by entering a rare deal in which they officially pleaded guilty while maintaining their innocence. Over the years, the cases against the Three had come into doubt. One of the Three, Jessie Misskelley Jr., had implicated the other two after a long police interrogation. His confession was the basis for the arrests. The alleged ringleader, Damien Echols, had been sentenced to death and had been on death row for 18 years. However, new DNA tests excluded all of the Three and instead matched one of the victim’s step-fathers. With that evidence in hand the Three seemed headed towards a new trial, one in which the prosecution acknowledges the men would likely have been acquitted. This deal securing their release preempts the staging of a new trial, though the prosecutor maintains that Misskelley’s confession was true and all three are guilty.
The case has received national attention over the years, particularly after a remarkable movie about the case, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, was released in 1996. The case of the West Memphis Three is the latest high-profile case of a contested police interrogation that was not carefully recorded, making it far more difficult to unravel who said what. The lawyers for the Three maintained that Misskelley’s confession was false, unreliable and included all sorts of statements totally inconsistent with how the crime happened. Misskelley was borderline mentally retarded, with an IQ of 72, yet police persisted with his lengthy interrogation. The few recorded pieces of the interrogations showed police using leading questions to try to tell him what had happened, something that interrogators are trained not to do because it contaminates a confession. We do not know what threats or other techniques were used to secure that confession. Misskelley had promptly recanted his confession, but it was used to arrest and convict him.
In my book, Convicting the Innocent, I discuss what went wrong in the first 250 cases in which DNA cleared innocent people in the U.S. Chapter Two of the book focuses on the forty cases where DNA brought false confessions to light. Many of the forty were young or mentally disabled, partially explaining why they may have been susceptible to police pressure. In addition, all but two of their confession statements were reported to have “inside information” that only the true culprit could have known. Those details may have been fed by police. However, none of the forty false confessions that I studied was recorded in its entirely. We do not know everything that happened in those interrogation rooms. As a result, until DNA technology was developed and provided decisive evidence of innocence, those false confessions appeared to powerfully support the convictions.
A new multimedia resource, called “Getting it Right,” co-produced with the Innocence Project, with support from the Open-Society Foundations, shows how wrongful convictions display patterns that can tell us how to improve our criminal justice system. The resource includes video from the false confession of Frank Sterling, who endured a grueling twelve hour interrogation. His case illustrates the importance of requiring the videotaping of entire
interrogations. “Getting it Right” offers a series of links to research and resources for those interested in reading more about false confessions. “Getting it Right” also features an incredibly moving video featuring Jennifer Thompson (pictured at right), describing how she misidentified Ronald Cotton as the man who raped her and how poor lineup procedures played a role. There are also interactive resources on informants and forensic evidence, and on the roles played by law enforcement and lawyers.
The vast majority of criminal cases lack usable DNA evidence. Like the West Memphis Three case, the 250 cases that I studied are all unusual cases in which the “truth machine” of DNA can call into question seemingly rock-solid evidence. That is why it is so important to learn from the wrongful convictions that do come to light – so that we can get it right.