2017: A Roller Coaster Ride of a Year in False Confessions

In many ways, 2017 has been a banner year for false confessions and police interrogations. There have been numerous exonerations based on false confessions, media coverage of the subject has been intense and in-depth, legal reforms have passed which have provided greater protections for suspects during interrogations, and there has been a sea change in some law enforcement practices with regard to interrogations.

Let’s get to the highlights and low lights but first, let’s look inside the numbers. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been 127 exonerations so far in 2017. Twenty-five of these wrongful convictions rested, in part, on false confessions. Out of those 25, twelve came from Chicago, allowing Chicago to retain its title as the false confession capital of the United States.

January

James L. Trainum, a former DC homicide detective who took a high-profile false confession, spread his insider’s message of reform in his book How the Police Generate False Confessions and in this interview:

February

Officers in the UK and New Zealand are moving away from classic “confrontational style” interrogation tactics and to a model PEACE (Preparation and Planning, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure and Evaluate) that relies more on rapport building and less on deception.

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit dismisses charges against four men who falsely confessed to a 1995 double murder in Chicago. Known as “The Marquette Park Four”, these men, only teens at the time of the murders, are Charles Johnson, Larod Styles, LaShawn Ezell, and Troshawn McCoy.

A three judge panel of The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit hears oral argument in the state’s appeal of Judge William E. Duffin’s decision to grant Dassey a writ of habeas corpus. Dassey’s case, which was the subject of NETFLIX’s Making a Murderer, has stirred a much-needed national debate around the subject of juvenile confessions.

March

Wicklander and Zulawski, a leading interrogation training firm in the United States, announces it will no longer teach the “Reid Technique” because of concerns that this “confrontational” method of interrogation may increase the risk of false confessions.

On the 50th anniversary of In re Gault, the Supreme Court decision that gave juveniles the right to counsel in delinquency cases, it’s important to remember the lessons Gault teaches us about coerced and false confessions of juvenile suspects.

Christopher Tapp, an Idaho man who was coerced into making a series of false confessions to the murder of Angie Dodge, is freed after a prosecutors and Tapp reach a plea deal.

The long saga of the Norfolk Four -- four Navy men who falsely confessed to the rape and murder of another Navy man’s wife -- ends with Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s pardon.

April

The Reid Technique takes a hit in this stunning expose about a Canadian police officer who fell victim to what one expert said were investigators “creating truth as they see it, not the truth as it actually exists.”

King County Council (Seattle) orders that cops must give kids access to lawyers before interrogating them.

An Aussie mother of murder victim Josh Warneke case rejoices over decision to quash wrongful conviction of Gene Gibson, the man who falsely confessed to killing Josh. https://www.whyallanewsonline.com.au/story/4595561/murdered-boys-mum-celebrates-as-conviction-quashed/

New York legislature enacts law requiring police to electronically record interrogations.

May

You’ve heard of a “Philly-style” cheesteak (that’s what they call them everywhere outside of Philly). Marc Bookman reminds us that a Philly-style wrongful conviction invariably involves Philadelphia cops who coerce both suspects and witnesses into making false statements.

Kansas enacts new law requiring police to electronically record interrogations of suspects.

June

Seventh Circuit panel affirms decision to grant Brendan Dassey a writ of habeas corpus in 2 to 1 decision.

John Floyd, who falsely confessed to two murders in the French Quarter in New Orleans, is freed after serving 36 years in prison.

Rachel Aviv tells this haunting story of the Beatrice Six, several of whom actually came to believe they committed a murder they did not commit.

July

Did an innocent woman falsely confess and then plead guilty to killing her husband in connection with his death while kayaking on the Hudson River?

Kudos to Krista Johnson for this excellent story on police interrogation tactics that led a woman from Moline, IL. to confess to injuring a child in her care.

Richard Leo, in this interview, gives a master class on false confessions.

In Kafka in Vegas, a tour de force by Megan Rose, Rose targets the false confession of Fred Steese and the way prosecutors used an “Alford Plea” to sweep his wrongful conviction under the rug.

August

The Seventh Circuit grants en banc review in the case of Brendan Dassey.

Lamarr Monson, a Detroit false confessor, is exonerated after serving 24 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

A cloud of suspicion is lifted off false confessor Ted Bradford’s shoulders as new DNA testing –done by his lawyers not by prosecutors – identifies the true perpetrator of the rape for which he served time.

September

The fifth time is the charm for Selwyn Days after a jury in his fifth trial acquits him of the 1996 Long Island murder despite his confession.

New DNA test results lead a N.J. trial court to grant new trials to Eric Kelley and Ralph W. Lee, two men who had confessed to and were convicted of a 1993 robbery and murder.

The Confession Tapes, Kelly Loudenberg’s new docuseries for NETFLIX, is released to rave reviews.

An animated en banc panel of seven Seventh Circuit judges hears oral argument in Brendan Dassey’s appeal. Chief Judge Diane Wood, in a much-quoted phrase, described how the conduct of the detectives in Dassey’s interrogation made her “skin crawl.”

“Confess or they’ll fucking give you the needle”, a Chicago cop tells a 17-year old murder suspect on videotape. Remarkably, a trial court allows the confession into evidence and an appellate court agrees.

October

Tyra Patterson, still protesting her innocence and claiming her confession to a Dayton, OH robbery/murder is false, is granted parole. She’ll be home for Christmas.

Ken Klonsky’s Freeing David McCallum: The Last Miracle of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter is released. McCallum, who was only 16 when he falsely confessed to a Brooklyn murder, spent 29 years in prison before being released in 2014, also tells his story on Wrongful Conviction with Jason Flom podcast:

What’s the best way to get terrorists to talk? Scientists say that “non-confrontational” tactics work the best.

Governor Jerry Brown of California signs landmark juvenile interrogation reform bill into law. The new law requires that children under 16 have a non-waivable right to consult with attorneys before being questioned by the police.

Murder charges are dropped against John Horton who had served more than 23 years in prison for a murder he falsely confessed to in 1993 when he was only seventeen-years-old.

Sometimes, the system works. John Hawkins’s confession to sexually assaulting a five-year-old girl he was babysitting led Iron County, Utah prosecutors to charge him with sodomy. But as Bree Burkitt’s investigation revealed, Hawkins was never convicted. After reviewing the recorded interrogation, Iron County Deputy Attorney Troy Little dismissed the charges because of the “coercive nature” of the interrogation and the fact that Hawkins appeared to be trying to tell the officer what he thought he wanted to hear.

November

66 year-old Arthur Brown is released from prison after nearly 30 years when Cook County prosecutors agree not to re-prosecute Brown for an arson conviction based on his false confession.

Jose Maysonet, who claimed he was beaten into a false confession by Chicago Police Detective Reynaldo Guevara and four former CPD Officers, is released from prison after 30 years when the detectives announce they plan on taking the Fifth Amendment at his re-trial.

Fred Steese wins a rare pardon based on actual innocence from the Nevada Board of Pardons and Paroles.

December

Calling former Chicago detective Reynaldo Guevara a serial “liar”, a Cook County judge tosses out the confessions of Gabriel Solache and Arturo Reyes, two men who had confessed to a 1995 double murder.

Cook County prosecutors drop murder charges against Nevest Coleman and Darryl Furlong, two men who had falsely confessed to the murder of a young woman 23 years earlier.

In a 4-3 decision, with two dissents, the Seventh Circuit, sitting en banc, reinstates Brendan Dassey’s murder conviction. As the year ends, Dassey, whose case outraged many of the millions worldwide who watched clips of his interrogation in Making a Murderer, has one more card to play. In 2018, he will seek review of his case in the United States Supreme Court.

2017 was a roller coaster ride of highs and lows. But as this year comes to a close, I can’t help thinking about two men who died this year whom I had the good fortune of meeting. These two men, neither of whom falsely confessed, became drum majors for justice after they had gained their freedom -- John Thompson and Darryl Hunt. Both will be sorely missed. Their memories should be honored.

And I can’t help thinking about my own client, Billy Wayne Cope, who did falsely confess in 2001 to the murder and rape of his daughter Amanda. Cope died in prison in February before he could be exonerated. Cope’s case still haunts me and still stands as the single greatest miscarriage of justice I have witnessed in over 30 years as a lawyer. To the York County prosecutors and South Carolina judges whom I hold primarily responsible for this travesty, I sentence you to read Mark Godsey’s Blind Justice: A Former Prosecutor Exposes the Psychology and Politics of Wrongful Convictions – over and over and over again.

Goodbye 2017. Here’s hoping that those of us working to prevent coerced and false confessions can continue to bend the arc of the moral universe even further toward justice in 2018.

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