False Confessions: A Review of 2013

Here's wishing a Happy New Year to all innocent men and women who remain in prison as a result of false confessions or who have yet to be exonerated. May 2014 bring you the justice you so richly deserve.
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It's the time of year when our inboxes are filled with "year in review" messages and the news is filled with top 10 lists. It inspired me to compile my "greatest hits" package from 2013 in the area of false confessions. With apologies in advance for any omissions, here are my highlights of 2013.


It took eight years, but Syracuse teenager Joseph Masterpol, who was coerced into falsely confessing to making a bomb threat in 2005, recovered $75,000 for the pain and trauma he experienced.


William Hurt, an 18-year-old from Evansville, Indiana, who had confessed to killing a family friend along with his brothers and sisters, was acquitted by a jury.


Debra Milke, a woman on Arizona's death row for more than two decades, has her conviction for soliciting her own child's murder vacated by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Milke was convicted on the say-so of Phoenix detective Armando Saldate, a man with a lengthy history of police misconduct, who claimed she had confessed during an unrecorded interrogation.

The Italian High Court overturned the acquittals of Amanda Knox and Raffaelle Sollecito and orders that they be retried for Meredith Kercher's murder.

Illinois appellate court granted a new hearing for Charles Johnson, one of four Chicago teenagers who falsely confessed to a double murder in 1995, after fingerprints recovered from the crime scene exclude Johnson and his co-defendants and match to other potential perpetrators.


David Bryant, wrongfully convicted of the rape of an eight-year-old girl in the Bronx in 1975, is released after serving 38 years in prison.


The Montana Supreme Court, in a 4 to 3 decision, reversed a lower court's decision to grant Barry Beach a new trial. Beach, who spent 27 years in prison for the 1979 murder of Kimberly Nees, is ordered to return to prison after tasting freedom for a mere 18 months.


Nicole Harris, a Chicago mother who falsely confessed to strangling her four-year-old child in 2005, is exonerated after the Seventh Circuit vacated her conviction and orders a new trial in which her surviving son may testify that he witnessed his brother accidentally strangle himself.


Daniel Taylor, who as a teenager falsely confessed to participating in a double murder in Chicago in 1992, is finally released from prison after serving more than two decades for a crime he could not have committed because he was in a police lockup at the time of the murders.


Johnnie Lee Savory, who at age 14 falsely confessed to a double murder in Peoria in 1977 and who served thirty years in prison before being paroled, is finally granted his request for DNA testing.

Anthony McKinney, who at age 18 was coerced into falsely confessing to shooting to death a security guard during a 1978 robbery attempt in Harvey, IL., died in prison before he could prove his claim of actual innocence.

A divided South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed Billy Wayne Cope's conviction for the murder and rape of his daughter in 2001. Cope had been convicted even though DNA testing not only excluded him as the source of semen and saliva found on his daughter, but matched to a serial sexual predator whom Cope did not know.


Carl Chatman, a homeless Chicago man who falsely confessed to an after-hours rape at the Daley Center in 2002, was exonerated after serving 11 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit.

A lengthy investigation conducted by Northwestern law students led to new evidence of actual innocence and a petition seeking a new trial for John Horton, a Rockford teenager, who was coerced into confessing to a 1993 murder.

After FBI agents obtain a confession from Patrick Dubois to the murder of his two children in his home at a North Dakota Indian reservation, they continued to investigate and ultimately cleared Dubois, linking Valentino Bagola to the crime through DNA evidence and then later obtaining Bagola's confession.

A Michigan appellate court granted an evidentiary hearing for Davontae Sanford, who at age 14 confessed to a quadruple murder during a robbery at a Detroit drug house on Runyon St. Sanford remains in prison despite the fact that the murders have been linked to notorious hitman Vincent Smothers who not only confessed to murders, but claimed not to know Sanford.


Michigan State Police officers arrested Jason Anthony Ryan and charged him with the 1996 murder of Geraldine Montgomery in Kalkaska, MI after DNA testing linked Ryan to the crime. Jamie Lee Peterson, who did not know Ryan, had maintained his innocence for over 17 years and had repeatedly sought to retest the DNA and have it submitted into state and national databases. Prosecutors had refused further testing, in part, because Peterson had confessed, a confession which is now almost certainly false.

Stanley Wrice's conviction was reversed and he was released after serving 31 years for a rape which Wrice confessed to while being tortured by two detectives working under disgraced former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge.

Carroll County, Indiana prosecutors dropped charges against Daniel Fassnacht after newly discovered evidence proved that his confession to killing his girlfriend was false and that she had, in fact, committed suicide.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the decision of El Paso Judge Sam Medrano to vacate the murder conviction of Daniel Villegas, who at age 17 in 1995, falsely confessed to a double murder.

Terrell Johnson, a 16-year-old who was coerced by Memphis police into falsely confessing to a murder, is released before trial after police find evidence leading to the arrest of the true perpetrator.

2013 was also a banner year in the Innocence Movement's effort to require police agencies to electronically record interrogations of suspects -- one of the key reforms aimed at curbing police tactics that lead to false confessions.

In March, Michigan's state law requiring recording in cases of serious felonies took effect and in August, Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois signed into law an expansion of Illinois's recording statute to include most serious felonies. In October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation requiring that all homicide interrogations involving juvenile suspects be recorded. In New York, the legislature doled out $700,000 in grant money to police agencies to increase their capacity to record. And as the year ended, Philly's top cop Charles Ramsey announced that the City of Brotherly Love will start to record interrogations in 2014.

Finally, some of the best pieces of investigative journalism in film, print, radio and television about false confessions came out in 2013. In addition to the "Central Park Five" by Ken Burns and crew and "West of Memphis" by Amy Berg, two documentaries which reached much larger audiences in 2013, the journalistic highlights included the following wonderful articles:

1. Maurice Possley's Atlantic Monthly piece, "How Two Newspaper Reporters Helped Free An Innocent Man."

2. Mark Wilson's three-part series on the anatomy of William Hurt's false confession in the Evansville Courier Press.

3. Douglass Starr's New Yorker piece, "The Interview: Do Police Interrogation Techniques Produce False Confessions?"

4. Duaa Eldeib's reporting on the Nicole Harris exoneration in the Chicago Tribune, particularly her piece on the role that Chicago polygraphers have played in false confessions.

5. Francis Robles's reporting in the New York Times on the role that former N.Y.P.D. detective Louis Scarcella has played in numerous questionable convictions in Brooklyn.

6. Marc Bookman's "The Confessions of Innocent Men" in the Atlantic Monthly.

7. Saul Elbein's story on NPR's This American Life, "Kim Possible," about former D.C. Homicide Detective Jim Trainum's search for redemption and reconciliation with the woman who he obtained a false confession from in a homicide case.

Here's wishing a Happy New Year to all innocent men and women who remain in prison as a result of false confessions or who have yet to be exonerated. May 2014 bring you the justice you so richly deserve.

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