More Wrongful Convictions

I cannot understand why there is no movement in the United States to do a massive overhaul of the criminal justice system in the face of widespread, pervasive evidence of incompetence, dishonesty, and deception. In Canada, there would be a Royal Commission of Inquiry, ending with steps to be taken to remedy the serious defects in the system. The U.S. just blithely ambles along locking people up for ridiculous lengths of time after trials that engage in ritualistic presentations of “expert” testimony by people with titles of imaginary professions, witnesses who swear that the wrong picture of someone they never clearly saw is exactly like the face of the suspect they now see, and jailhouse snitches who miraculously extracted confessions from people they never met before.

And then there are confessions– the last hope in criminal cases with no evidence, no real suspect, no weapon, no matching blood samples. Ah, but we have a confession…

Here’s the latest: in 1992, on August 17, an eleven-year-old girl named Holly Staker was found raped and stabbed to death in a home in Lake County, Illinois. She had been babysitting two young children. The police were frantic to find the killer. The real killer. The person who actually murdered Holly Staker.

At least, that’s what they want the public to believe. And probably, at first, they were sincere about finding the actual killer. But as the pressure on the police increased, it appears they were willing to settle for a stand-in. They found him in Juan Rivera, a 19-year-old high school drop out, who had suggested to the police that he noticed someone at a party on August 17 “acting funny”, and later admitted he had made that up– a girl at the party had told him the story, but she didn’t want to go to the police. I would guess that he thought this would make him important.

That made him the suspect, and they questioned him incessantly and relentlessly for 24 hours straight, until he confessed. He confessed in great detail. He provided details that “only the killer” could have known, and which the police would never, ever surreptitiously provide to him during the course of the interrogation. Never. Honest. In the study quoted in the left sidebar, it was also shown that in 38 out of 40 cases of wrongful conviction, the suspect provided details that, the police claimed, only the actual murderer could have known.

But why would a man confess to a horrible crime unless he had actually done it? It’s hard to imagine. It’s hard for juries to imagine. So Rivera was convicted, once, twice, three times. I don’t know why but each time he was retried, and three times he was convicted. His lawyers are currently appealing the results. Most people would be quite glad to see him executed– perhaps nobody more so than the police, who finally have that monkey off their backs.

There is only one problem– there is no physical evidence linking Juan Rivera to the crime scene or the crime. No blood stains, no weapon, no finger-prints. I guess that ever since the “science” of fibre evidence has been discredited, they decided not to the try that route — why not– it used to be a sure winner.

And there was another problem: Rivera was wearing a electronic leg bracelet on account of having stolen a car stereo, and the leg bracelet showed he was home at the time of the murder.

And, there is an even bigger problem: Holly was raped. DNA analysis was conducted in 2005 and the defense used it at his fourth trial: the semen found inside her body could not have come from Juan Rivera.

That is a problem. The police and prosecution had a lot invested in Juan Rivera. It’s hard to give up investments like that. They decided that the confession must be true and the DNA evidence must be wrong.

And here’s where we get to why I believe the U.S. should conduct a large inquiry into how police collect evidence and conduct investigations: the police continue to insist that Juan Rivera committed the murder! They actually claim that 11-year-old Holly must have had sex with someone else before Rivera attacked her.

But wait– Rivera, in his confession, acknowledged that he had raped Holly. He confessed to that because at the time the police needed that as part of the confession. How to explain the wrong DNA in the semen? Rivera must have raped her without ever ejaculating.

But wait– there’s more! Mike Mermel, the prosecutor– a fan of Anne Coulter and Rush Limbaugh and Charlton Heston– defends the idea that 11-year-old Holly was sexually active by arguing that if you were having sex with an 11-year-old, you wouldn’t be bragging about it, would you? So the fact that there is no evidence that she was sexually active becomes proof that she was.

Shades of Stockwell Day’s “unreported crimes”.

But let’s go back to that confession. Did you even have to ask?– the initial confession contained numerous other “errors” that would have made it look ridiculous in court. No problem– we just call in ex-marine Lou Tessemann and have him take the confession all over again and straighten out those problems. And– of course, of course, of course– these sessions were not recorded.

And– of course, of course, of course– Tessemann denied knowing anything about the crime before he took the confession while some police officers admitted giving him details of the crime scene before he met with Rivera. According to Tessemann, Rivera was relaxed, comfortable, and rational during this interrogation. According to other witnesses, including a nurse who treated him, he was banging his head against the wall, shackled and bruised, and mumbling incoherently.

Why has a the judge not thrown this case out in disgust. Not merely with sadness or regret or reluctance– he should have tossed the case out with demonstrated disgust at the prosecution. You are a bunch of clowns.

And there’s more: take the case of Jerry Hobbs, for whom the death penalty was being pursued. Hobbs’ daughter Laura and a friend, Krystal, disappeared one night. The bodies were found the next day by Jerry Hobbs, stabbed to death. Hobbs was arrested and interrogated until he confessed.

There was nothing in his confession or in the police reports that suggested that either of the girls had been raped. The story, according to the confession, was that his daughter Laura and her friend Krystal had defied him and refused to come home and Krystal had pulled a knife on him, which he took away from her during a fight, and which he then used to stab them both to death in a blind rage.

Come on — doesn’t that just sound like a coerced confession, twisted and turned and designed to explain all the circumstances that Dobbs could only have known about if he had been the killer? With all that stabbing, there would of course be some physical evidence, right?

Two years later, analysis paid for by the defense team showed that Laura had been sexually assaulted, and, yes, there was sperm, and the sperm did not belong to Jerry Hobbs. Will the prosecution now finally admit that their theory about the crime is wrong? Hell no! According to Mermel, that area of the woods was often used by couples for having sex, and the girls probably came into contact with sperm from rolling around in the dirt!

Enough is enough! The fact that the police are willing to go this far to attempt to cover up their own incompetence and poor judgment tells us that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way they go about their business.

There was a time when I could not imagine how a rational person could confess to a horrible crime he had not committed. It made no sense on any level whatsoever. And Holly’s twin sister, Heather, believes devoutly in the confession. Why, oh why, oh why would an innocent man make a confession like that?

Over the years, thanks to close analysis and excellent documentaries by programs like PBS’s Frontline, it is not longer hard to imagine. We now know with a good deal of certainty that some confessions are absolutely false. We now know it’s possible. We even know how it’s done, how hour after hour of continuous, relentless psychological assault by clever and determined police detectives can eventually drive even a rational person to agree to almost anything. When the suspect is all primed and primped, that is when they start the recording.

There have been instances where the police are recorded questioning a suspect who continues to deny his guilt, and then the recording equipment is turned off, and then it starts again, and we have a rather diminished-looking suspect now in confession mode.

Do Miranda rights even mean anything anymore? Why would the police be allowed to suggest to a suspect that having his attorney present for questioning would imply guilt? Instead of insisting on a suspect’s right to have an attorney present while being questioned, perhaps it’s time we required a suspect to have an attorney present, to protect the administration of justice.

There are definitely a few things that could easily be done to prevent false confessions and false convictions:

  • relentless continuous questioning of a suspect for longer than three or four hours at a time should be absolutely banned. It is simply not possible to elicit more, accurate information from someone after three hours. But it is possible to begin to psychologically break a person.
  • evidence obtained from jailhouse snitches or informants or undercover cops posing as inmates should be automatically disqualified
  • no confession should be taken seriously unless it can be clearly demonstrated to provide new information which leads to the discovery of real physical evidence
  • no confession should be accepted unless the police have recorded every interrogation of the suspect from beginning to end and provided the defense legal team with accurate, complete copies
  • eyewitness identification should always be only conducted by police officers who do not know who the suspect is
  • police and prosecutors who ever violate any of these rules are suspended without pay for six months or more for a first offense, and fired for a second offense; if their actions result in a false conviction, there should be jail time.
  • Wait — why am I being so soft on crime here? Any police officers caught trying to manufacture a case through any of the techniques described should go to prison.  Because we want to be tough on crime.

In his 2011 book, “Convicting the Innocent,” Brandon Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia, examined most of the case files for the first 250 DNA exonerations. Garrett found that 76 percent of wrongly convicted prisoners were misidentified by a witness and half the cases involved flawed forensic evidence. NY Times, November 26, 2011


This story, about a professional jailhouse informant named Paul Skalnik, and the stunning fact that any judge might accept the testimony from this miscreant.


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