Author Archives: Emily Lurie

Colorado Governor Pardons Man Executed Seven Decades Ago

The recent pardon of Joe Arridy, a Colorado man who was executed more than 70 years ago, raises serious questions about how it could take so long to clear an innocent person’s name.

Last Friday, January 7, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter granted a posthumous pardon to a man who was executed in 1939 for killing a teenage girl. Joe Arridy, who had an I.Q. of 46, was convicted in 1937 and executed by lethal gas at the age of 23. Today, he would be constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty due to his mental disability.

A press release from the Governor’s office stated, “An overwhelming body of evidence indicates the 23-year-old Arridy was innocent, including false and coerced confessions, the likelihood that Arridy was not in Pueblo at the time of the killing, and an admission of guilt by someone else.”

Arridy confessed to the 1936 sexual assault and murder of 15-year-old Dorothy Drain that occurred in Pueblo, Colorado. Both Drain and her sister were attacked in their home with a hatchet on August 15 or August 16, 1936.

His confession is believed to have been false due to the significant inconsistencies with the actual facts of the case. For example, Arridy made statements that he acted alone and killed Drain with a blunt instrument, not a hatchet. Additionally, another man, Frank Aguilar, was arrested at Drain’s funeral and charged with murder. As a result of the inconsistencies, Arridy was forced to give a second confession, in which he changed his story and said he actually committed the crime with Aguilar.

Aguilar, however, always maintained that he had never met Arridy, and he confessed to his attorney that he was guilty. Even the murder weapon was found in Aguilar’s house. Aguilar was found guilty and executed in August 1937.

In a sworn statement, a doctor from the Colorado State Home and Training School for Mental Defectives, where Arridy lived since he was committed at 10-years-old, described him as having the mind of a six and a half year old, incapable of giving a reliable confession or defending himself in court. According to the Governor’s statement, Arridy spent his days in prison playing with a toy train, and he asked for nothing but ice cream for his three final meals.

Today, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) protects mentally disabled individuals like Arridy from being sentenced to death, holding that such executions are cruel and unusual punishments prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

Although this marks the first time any executed person has been pardoned in Colorado, we must ask why it took more than seven decades to clear Arridy’s name. His guilt has been doubted since the time of conviction, and his story has been featured in many books and articles. Even though it has been proven that wrongful convictions do happen, and 265 individuals to date have been exonerated with the help of the Innocence Project, Colorado is not represented in any of those cases. While it may be appropriate to praise Governor Ritter for issuing this pardon, Arridy’s case must also serve as a call to action for our elected officials, public defenders and prosecutors, among others. His pardon should not be viewed as an act of justice, but rather a symbol of the injustice that pervades our system.

Study on the Wrongful Conviction of Youth Reveals High False Confession Rate

An article written by staff attorneys from Northwestern Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth and a former Northwestern Law student was recently published in the Rutgers Law Review journal. In Arresting Development: Convictions of Innocent Youth, Joshua Tepfer, Laura Nirider, and Lynda Tricarico analyze a select group of exonerations in an effort to determine what factors might make children and adolescents more susceptible to wrongful convictions and what possible reforms could be enacted to reduce the occurrence of these convictions.

A key finding of the study showed that in more than 55% of the 103 youth exonerations examined, a false confession or false statement by another youth contributed to the wrongful conviction. Younger children were more likely to falsely confess than older children. Whereas sixteen-year-olds and eighteen-year-olds falsely confessed in 18.8% and 16.7% of the cases, respectively, false confessions occurred in more than half of the cases of eleven-to fourteen-year-olds. In an interview with Nirider and Tepfer, Nirider said that these findings were the most interesting to her. Although she suspected that younger exonerees would be more likely to falsely confess—both in comparison to adult exonerees and among youths themselves—the rate at which they did was higher than originally thought.

Tepfer was most surprised by the findings surrounding guilty pleas. Prior to the study, the authors hypothesized that like false confessions, younger exonerees would be more likely to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit. The study revealed, however, that while 7.9% of adult exonerees pled guilty, the rate was only 6.8% for the 103 youth exonerees. In order to derive the statistic for adult exonerees, 214 cases from the Innocence Project database were examined. The authors consulted a youth psychologist who explained that since juveniles tend to be greater risk-takers, they may be more willing to accept the risks of going to trial. Additionally, juveniles are more likely than adults to use moral reasoning in making decisions as opposed to practical reasoning. As such, they may be more inclined to follow the “only the guilty should plead guilty” guideline.

Given the high number of false confessions and false statements among youth exonerees, the authors note that “the threat of wrongful conviction can spread like a virus from one child to his friends and acquaintances.” Thirty-two percent of the 103 cases studied involved a multi-defendant exoneration. In other words, those individuals were exonerated alongside at least one of their co-defendants. Of the 214 adult cases examined, only 9.8% involved multiple defendants. The Central Park Jogger Case is the most well-known example of a multi-defendant wrongful conviction, a case that eventually led to the exoneration of five innocent men convicted during their teenage years. Their convictions were largely the result of false confessions and false statements made during police interrogations.

On average, the 103 youth exonerees included in the study were 16.6 years old when the crimes occurred, 16.8 years old when they were accused, 18 years old when convicted and 31.7 years old at the time of exoneration. African-Americans represented 57.3% of the youth exoneree pool, with whites and Latinos representing 24.3% and 14.6%, respectively; the remaining 3.9% were of an unknown race.

The findings presented in this article help to validate the authors’ beliefs that children and adolescents are uniquely susceptible to wrongful convictions, especially given their tendency to falsely confess and make false statements. In Roper v. Simmons (2005) and Graham v. Florida (2009), the Supreme Court recognized that juveniles do not possess the same risk-weighing capabilities as adults, and they are more vulnerable to comply with outside pressures. As noted in the article, the enactment of reforms such as recording police interrogations, developing more appropriate interrogation procedures and requiring the presence of an attorney during police questioning can help reduce the number of youth wrongful convictions that occur.

For more information on youth wrongful convictions, please visit the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth website. Click here to read the complete article, Arresting Development: Convictions of Innocent Youth.

Murder Case Raises Questions about Memphis Police Practices

The practices of the Memphis (TN) Police Department surrounding the recording of confessions have come into the spotlight recently with the case of Jessie Dotson. Dotson was convicted and sentenced to death in October for the 2008 murder of six people, including his brother and two nephews. His confession was featured on the A&E program The First 48, a documentary series that chronicles homicide investigations in several cities across the country.

The trial judge, however, did not allow Dotson”s confession to be admitted in court because the recording was edited by A&E for the television program, and the original version was erased. As a result, the testimony of Deputy Chief Toney Armstrong, the police officer who took the confession, was solely based on his memory. The only documentation of the confession that existed was a single paragraph from an interrogation that lasted more than five hours.

Dotson took the stand at his trial and testified that his confession was coerced by the Memphis Police, who held him for hours in the interrogation room. Although 18 states have passed laws requiring the recording of interrogations, Tennessee is not among them. In Memphis, according to a FOX13 report, the interrogation policy encourages the investigator always to obtain a written statement and to “paraphrase the defendant”s version of the crime if they agree to talk but refuse to sign a statement.”

For more information on his case, see the video below.

Interview with a Confession-Taker: Former NYPD Detective Jay Salpeter

Former NYPD detective Jay Salpeter got many suspects to confess to crimes during his nearly 20 years on the police force. Now working as a private investigator and assisting in the fight to free several wrongfully convicted individuals, Salpeter is certain that he never took a false confession while working as a detective. Last weekend, I spoke with Salpeter, who retired from the police force in 1991 and was recently featured on PBS FRONTLINE’s “The Confessions.” He is best known for his role in overturning Marty Tankleff’s conviction and has been active in the case of the West Memphis Three.

You can read the full transcript of my interview here, but I will highlight some of the major points that Salpeter raised in our discussion.

First, we talked about the reaction that many individuals have when they hear about false confessions (my family and friends included) — namely, that they would never falsely confess to a crime. After all, why would you confess to something you didn’t do? Salpeter stresses that until one is put into that situation, he or she does not know what the outcome would be. When individuals are brought in for interrogation, they are removed from their familiar surroundings, have no access to family or friends, and are sometimes forced to endure hours and hours of questioning.

Salpeter does note, however, that individuals who are not familiar with their rights, specifically the right to have an attorney present, are easy targets for false confessions. The responsibility to ask for an attorney belongs to the individual brought in for questioning, not the police department. When asked what piece of advice he would give to an individual walking into an interrogation situation, Salpeter says to politely give your name and date of birth and ask for an attorney. He stresses, “Never, ever be put into a situation where you walk into that [interrogation] room.” He urges the public to become better educated about their rights.

Salpeter is very supportive of the reforms passed in many states and municipalities requiring the recording of full interrogations. He points out that these reforms not only protect the potential targets of a false confession, but also the detectives. If a defendant takes the stand, for example, and falsely testifies that a detective was violent in the interrogation room, the recording can be used to contradict that testimony. Salpeter also believes that another area of reform should focus on holding detectives and prosecutors legally accountable for their actions.

On his work to free the West Memphis Three, Salpeter believes that this could be a landmark death penalty case if Damien Echols, the only defendant to be sentenced to death, is exonerated. In 2007, new forensic evidence indicated that none of the DNA found at the original crime scene matched the DNA of the defendants. On November 4, 2010, the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling and granted new hearings for the West Memphis Three defendants.

More information about Salpeter can be found on PBS’s webpage.

Kentucky Supreme Court Overturns Conviction in Possible False Confession Case

On Thursday, October 21, the Kentucky Supreme Court overturned the 2007 conviction of John Terry, who was found guilty of manslaughter and tampering with evidence in the 2004 killing of Linda Elmore. Elmore’s body was discovered in March 2004 under an overpass in Louisville, Kentucky. She had been stabbed multiple times.

Detective Gary Huffman of the Louisville Metro Police Department developed a relationship with Terry in the months following Elmore’s killing, as Terry provided him with a number of details related to the crime. At the time, Terry was a 43-year-old homeless man who only had an eighth grade education. Among other things, he told Huffman that on the night of the murder, he saw a drug dealer named Tonk fleeing the area. Huffman brought Terry along with him to search for Tonk, and provided Terry with food and money for his assistance.

The King of Evidence in Japan: Confessions, True and False

In the 80s, I lived in Tokyo for a few years, and on my very first night there I learned first-hand about the Japanese criminal justice system, albeit it on a small and harmless scale. A friend and I had a dispute with a taxi driver, who, after assuring us that he knew the way to our inn, drove around and around in circles, clearly lost, finally ending up right back where we started. All along, he had refused to turn off his meter. Being young, and maybe not too smart, we refused to pay for his mistake; hence the dispute. We took our suitcases and walked a couple of blocks and stumbled onto our inn, where we settled onto the sofa in the lounge with a cup of green tea and watched “The Odd Couple” dubbed in Japanese on TV.

Soon the front door slid open with a bang and four Japanese policemen rushed in, pausing only to exchange their shoes for slippers, our grumpy old taxi driver bringing up the rear. In a country with a very low crime rate, we were Public Enemy Ichiban. They took us down to the station in separate patrol cars and put us in separate interrogation rooms. Their manner was cold to hostile. Great, I thought, I’m about to set some kind of record for quick deportation.

The one smart thing I had done was to read a book on Japanese history and culture on the way over. One phrase in particular had stuck with me: “sincere repentance.” If you wanted leniency from the authorities in Japan, you had to be sincerely repentant. So we apologized and offered to pay the fare, and it was like a switch flipped and night turned to day. The cops were suddenly our best friends, joking with us, asking us if it was true that everyone in New York carried a gun (of course, we said), and they went out of their way to drop us off at a restaurant they recommended.

It was a good thing it was all over a taxi fare and not a murder. Sincere repentance is all well and good if you’re guilty, but what if you’re innocent and the stakes are high? Presumption of innocence appears not to be a mainstay of the Japanese criminal justice system. If you’re in the police’s grasp, it’s because they think you did it, and what they want to hear is sincere repentance, not your denials. From that, the interrogation tactics flow.

In 1991, Toshikazu Sugaya was accused of murdering a child after a witness said he had been at the pachinko parlor where the child was last seen. After a 13-hour confession, during which he said the police kicked him, Sugaya confessed, and he spent the next 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He was exonerated and released last year after prosecutors admitted that his confession was coerced and that a DNA test used in support of the conviction was faulty. “Before, I was famous for being a criminal. Now I’m famous for being innocent,” Sugaya said.

Awareness of false confessions appears to be reaching a critical mass in Japan, where the highest court recently ordered a retrial for two men who had been serving life sentences in a 1967 murder-robbery case. A recent editorial by the Asahi newspaper cites a number of cases that “have raised serious questions.” One of the cases wasbig news in 2007, involving an alleged vote-buying scheme by 13 middle-aged to elderly men and women. Six confessed, but all were eventually acquitted when a local court found that their confessions had been coerced, making “confessions in despair while going through marathon questioning,” according to the presiding judge.

Japan has an astounding conviction rate of over 99%, and an estimated 90% of convictions are achieved through confessions. Hence, confessions are known in Japan as the “King of evidence.” With police able to hold suspects for up to 23 days before they are charged, and with prosecutors only proceeding with a case if they are sure they can win, you can see how psychological and cultural dynamics like “sincere repentance” are exploited.

“The detective grabbed my ankles so I gripped the chair thinking he was about to pull me off it,” said Sachio Kawabata, one of the suspects in the vote-buying case. “He said to the other detective, ‘Kawabata has no blood or tears,’ meaning I was cruel, I had no feelings.” “Look, he can tread on his fathers and grandchildren,” the detective reportedly said as he made Kawabata stomp on a paper with the names of his family on it, a shameful act in Japanese culture. In Japan , as in every other culture, a suspect has his limits. As the book “Torture and Democracy” puts it, “In a society where sincere repentance matters, a confession generates ninjo, warmth and understanding, in officials, thereby lessening the severity of punishment.”

There are signs of reform happening. The jury system, which was suspended during World War II, has been reinstated, which is expected to counterbalance some of the power of prosecutors. And many are calling for the recording of interrogations: “They should squarely deal with growing calls to make the interrogation process ‘visible’ to outsiders,” as the Asahi editorial put it. Without a doubt, awareness of false confessions is increasing, which can only help. Masayuki Suo, the director of the hit film “Shall We Dance,” wrote and directed “Sore Demo Boku Wa Yatte Nai” (“I Just Didn’t Do It”), based on the true story of a young man who falsely confessed to a sexual assault.

For now, though, interrogation remains an unfortunate universal language, and confessions, too often false, remain the King of Evidence in Japan .