Author Archives: Lonnie Soury

Damien Echols has lot in common with other false confession victims

What do Marty Tankleff, Jeffrey Deskovic, the five men convicted in the infamous Central Park jogger case and Damien Echols have in common? A false confession that led to their convictions for murder.

An article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal by Beth Warren makes the connection between these cases. Unlike the other men though, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley have not been exonerated. “For Echols, in his 17th year on Arkansas” Death Row, it”s literally a fight for life. Misskelley and Baldwin are serving life sentences.”

In the West Memphis 3 case, not only did mentally challenged Jessie Misskelley”s false confession convict him, but it was unconstitutionally introduced into Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin”s trial, which had been separated precisely to prevent the “confession” from being considered as Jessie had recanted and refused to testify against his co-defendants. Nevertheless, according to briefs filed in court recently, the jury foreman in the Echols/Baldwin trial was angry that the “confession,” which had been all over the newspapers following their arrest, could not be considered. So juror Kent Arnold decided he would not let the constitution stop him from bringing the confession into the jury room and convincing his fellow jurors to convict the men of three murders they did not commit.

The Arkansas Supreme Court recently ordered an evidentiary hearing in the case to consider new evidence that might lead to a new trial. The Attorney General of Arkansas, who grew up in the county where the murders occurred, is against a new trial and believes the evidence, including new DNA and forensic evidence as well as the the shocking juror misconduct, is irrelevant.

The new trial hearing will take place in Jonesboro, Arkansas, before Craighead County Court Judge David Laser, beginning December 5, 2011.

For those interested, follow the case on twitter@WM3News as well as www.freewestmemphis3.org and www.wm3.org.

Jeffrey Deskovic Wins Compensation in NY False Confession Case

If ever there was a case that cried out for justice it was Jeffrey Deskovic’s. After spending 16 years in New York State prisons for the rape and murder of a high school classmate, Jeffrey finally received compensation from Westchester County in his wrongful conviction.

Jeffrey was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison for murder even though the real murderer”s DNA was found at the crime scene.The police, prosecutors, judge and jury knew that, but they still convicted this 16 year old boy. The police and prosecutors obtained a coerced , false confession and never looked back.

We first met Jeffrey when he joined Marty Tankleff”s family and supporters during the long struggle to free Marty in his false confession murder case. Jeffrey made himself available to Marty”s attorneys, public advocates and the press to tell his story hoping it would help free Marty. He was there during the two years of evidentiary hearings in Marty”s case which were lost, and he was there when Marty was finally freed by the New York State Appellate Court in 2007. In fact, Jeffrey was always there, selfless in his support for other wrongfully convicted men and women in New York and around the country.

It was a real pleasure to see the New York Times today and learn that he won his case. It has never been easy for Jeffrey. He struggled as a teenager, as a prisoner and even after his exoneration. But today, hopefully his struggle will get a little lighter and he can enjoy having some money to pay his rent, have a good meal and have some joy in his life.

Good luck Jeffrey Deskovic.

NY Top Court Does the Right Thing, Finally

So you spend 10 years in prison like Douglas Warney, a mentally challenged young man who confessed to a crime he did not commit. The courts finally overturn your conviction based upon new DNA evidence of your innocence. You emerge from prison ill, with little money and less opportunity, but you are free and, you would think, free to sue the State of New York, which wrongfully imprisoned you in the first place. Not so fast. New York State law up until this week prevented many who were wrongfully convicted from obtaining compensation. The Unjust Conviction and Imprisonment Act bars recovery for those whose own “misconduct” caused their conviction.

Now, in a precedent-setting decision, the New York State Court of Appeals has ruled for Douglas Warney.  The Court ruled that Warney could sue the state, unanimously overruling the lower courts which had refused to allow Warney compensation because under the existing law.  In  a letter  published in the New York Times, FalseConfgessions.org noted that close to 45% of all DNA exonerees were convicted based upon a false confession, technically precluding them from gaining compensation.

Prosecutors and state attorneys are reluctant to do the right thing. As Jim Dwyer, in a New York Times column reminds us,”The state attorney general’s office, first under Andrew M. Cuomo, and now under Eric T. Schneiderman, had argued that Mr. Warney, while innocent, had brought about his own conviction. Therefore, they argued, he was not eligible to get money under a state law intended to help people who were wrongly imprisoned.”

It is the courts and judicairy that must step up to do the right thing, finally.

New York Adopts Protocols for Video Recording of Interrogations

New York State Law Enforcement Community Announces Protocols for Videotaping Police Interrogations

The Associated Press reports that New York State District Attorneys Association, New York State Sheriffs’ Association, New York State Association of Chiefs of Police, New York City Police Department, New York State Police and the New York State Bar Association will announce the adoption of statewide protocols governing the video recording of custodial interrogations.

While the details of how these new regulations will be implemented across the board has not been revealed, the decision of the law enforcement community to adopt these major changes could have a significant impact on reducing the number of false confessions leading to wrongful convictions.

According to experts, New York State ranks only second to the state of Illinois in the number of wrongful convictions nationally.  Falseconfessions.org has begun compiling data on wrongful conviction exonerations in New York State over the past 25 years, estimating that there have been at least 120 exonerations since the 1980s.

Illinois One Governor Away From Abolishing Death Penalty

Wrongful convictions and false confessions have led to dozens of innocent men on death row in Illinois. In Chicago alone, one police commander, Lt. Jon Burge, was responsible for torturing false confessions from 100 men in the 1980s.

The abuse of suspects in Illinois was so notorious that former Illinois Governor George Ryan would suspend Illinois”s death penalty and release all prisoners from death row.

Now, the Illinois House and Senate have both passed a bill to abolish the death penalty. All it will take is the signature of the current Governor to make it real. Abolition in Illinois could have a ripple effect in other states.

Please spread the word. Call Gov. Quinn today! They”re just one signature away from making history as the 16th state without the death penalty!

Please contact Governor Quinn right away to tell him you hope he’ll sign the death penalty repeal bill.

Call one of his offices. Springfield Phone: 217-782-0244,

Chicago Phone: 312-814-2121

The Governor is getting many calls today, so if your call doesn’t go through or a voicemail box is full – please call back later.

It was eight years ago that Governor George Ryan commuted the death sentences of all those on death row.  It’s time for Governor Quinn to make a historic decision of his own.

Steve Drizin, one of the country”s leading experts on wrongful convictions and false confessions and his colleagues at the Center on Wrongful Convictions are asking all of us to support this effort.

New York High Court Hears Wrongful Conviction Compensation Case

New York’s Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, heard arguments Tuesday in the case of a man seeking compensation for the nine years he spent behind bars after being wrongfully convicted of murder. Douglas Warney, 49, asked the court to reinstate his damages case against the state, which was dismissed in 2008 by the New York Court of Claims.

Warney, who has a history of mental illness and suffers from AIDS, was convicted in 1996 of stabbing a man to death in Rochester after he signed a confession and plead guilty to the crime. His sentence was vacated in 2006 following DNA tests that implicated another man as the actual killer; this man has since confessed to the crime and is now in prison.

The Court of Claims dismissed Warney’s lawsuit after ruling that he would be unable to successfully prove that he did not cause or bring about his own conviction through his false confession. The judge made her decision, however, without even ordering a hearing. The Appellate Division subsequently confirmed the lower court’s decision.

Attorneys for Warney argue that the Rochester police were aware of his mental illness and provided him with the crime details he needed for the confession. In addition to being diagnosed with AIDS-related dementia, Warney had an IQ of 68.

Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, stated, “If his entire interrogation had been videotaped he never would have been convicted…The only way he could have gotten those details was if police fed them to him during the interrogation.”

Although the Court has not issued a ruling, Neufeld also said after the hearing that “it was clear from the comments of the judges that they find Mr. Warney’s version of what happened much more credible than the police.”

New York is one of only 27 states that has passed a statute to provide compensation to wrongfully convicted individuals. Unlike many states that offer a fixed amount for each year spent in prison, the New York Court of Claims Act (Article II, Section 8-b) allows judges to make the determination of the compensation award. This Act, however, makes it very difficult for exonerees to seek compensation if they falsely confessed or offered a guilty plea. The legislation states that the claimant must prove that “he did not by his own conduct cause or bring about his conviction.”

According to the Innocence Project, in 25 percent of DNA exoneration cases, defendants falsely confessed, pled guilty or made incriminating statements. Evidence that guilty pleas and false confessions often occur as the result of outside influences – such as police coercion or the threat of a long sentence – can only lead to the conclusion that statutes disqualifying those exonerees from receiving compensation need to be amended.

Marty Tankleff, a false confession exoneree and member of the advisory board, advised Douglas Varney on his wrongful conviction appeal while they both were in prison. Tankleff filed a federal lawsuit in 2009 for the 17 years he spent behind bars. Jeffrey Deskovic, who served nearly 16 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, also has a pending suit.

Why do false confessions happen?

Coming on the heels of the conviction of the Chicago police commander Jon Burge, responsible for torturing up to 100 defendants into making false confessions, the Chicago Tribune published an excellent articleWhat Causes People to Give False Confessions.The journalists, Lisa Black and Steve Mills quote some of the best minds in the field such as Steve Drizin and Rob Warden, from the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Notherwestern University, Saul Kassin of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Richard Leo at the University of San Francisco, who all have studied the issue for some time and universally agree that false confessions happen and undoubtedly lead to wrongful convictions.

The reason why someone might confess to a crime they did not commit are many, as outlined in the article, but the answer to the question of why false confessions happen can be reduced to the most common denominator: confessions are the most powerful tool a prosecutor has to convince a jury that a defendant is guilty of the crime and therefore, will go to great lengths, even torture, to obtain one.

According to estimates there might be tens of thousands of false confession victims our state and federal prisons, either wrongfully convicted or having plead guilty to crimes they did not commit. We know that police and prosecutors will go as far as torture to obtain false confessions, but most are the result of leading witnesses, lying to witnesses and creating an environment in the interrogation room where the only plausible explanation to a set a “facts” presented to a defendant is that they must have been involved in the crime. In case after false confession case you will find police interrogators lying to defendants to obtain their confessions, and many of the cases are eerily similar. Police interrogators will lie about a suspects DNA being found at at the crime scene, failing a polygraph test or getting a death bed call from the victim implicating the individual.  In the infamous West Memphis 3 case, 16 year-old Jessie Misskelley, Jr. with an IQ of 67, was told he failed a police administered polygraph when. in fact, he had passed. Seventeen year-old Martin Tankleff was told by detective James McCready that his dying father had awakened from his coma to implicate Marty in his brutal assault and the murder of his mother. Both young men confessed to crimes they did not commit; Marty served 17 years in prison before he was exonerated, and Jessie is serving life. His co defendant, Damien Echols is on death row based upon Jessie”s false confession.

While we may never be able to stop false confessions from happening, we certainly can create laws and policies that help limit their incidence. Some states and municipalities do have laws that mandate the recording of confessions, but requiring the recording the entire interrogation process is more effective. Preventing police from lying to suspects, especially those who are young or who have mental disabilities would certainly be an important change. But that is not likely. As Suffolk County detective McCready informed CBS News 48 Hours” correspondent  Erin Moriartiy when she asked why he lied to obtain young Martin Tankleff”s confession, he responded, “because the Supreme Court gave me the right to lie.”

Illinois One Governor Away From Abolishing Death Penalty

Wrongful convictions and false confessions have led to dozens of innocent men on death row in Illinois. In Chicago alone, one police commander, Lt. Jon Burge, was responsible for torturing false confessions from 100 men in the 1980s.

The abuse of suspects in Illinois was so notorious that former Illinois Governor George Ryan would suspend Illinois”s death penalty and release all prisoners from death row.

Now, the Illinois House and Senate have both passed a bill to abolish the death penalty. All it will take is the signature of the current Governor to make it real. Abolition in Illinois could have a ripple effect in other states.

Please spread the word. Call Gov. Quinn today! They”re just one signature away from making history as the 16th state without the death penalty!

Please contact Governor Quinn right away to tell him you hope he’ll sign the death\r\npenalty repeal bill.

Call one of his offices. Springfield Phone: 217-782-0244,

Chicago Phone: 312-814-2121

The Governor is getting many calls today, so if your call doesn’t go through or a\r\nvoicemail box is full – please call back later.

It was eight years ago that Governor George Ryan commuted the death sentences of all those on death row.  It’s time for Governor Quinn to make a historic decision of his own.

Steve Drizin, one of the country”s leading experts on wrongful convictions and false confessions and his colleagues at the Center on Wrongful Convictions are asking all of us to support this effort.

A Holiday Note

“He’s free. Marty”s free,” I screamed out to my wife as the plane landed in Mexico for our long awaited family vacation. My two teenage boys looked at me in shock and all of us hugged each other in the middle of the aisle, crying with joy and relief at the news jumping out of my blackberry: Marty Tankleff was being freed from prison in the wrongful conviction murder of his parents in their Long Island home in 1988.

It all came back to me when I received an email from Marty this week, “Just imagine how all our lives have changed, especially mine, three years ago today, with just a piece of paper.”

After 17 years in prison, Marty Tankleff, who had been sentenced to fifty years to life, was freed by four judges on the New York State Appellate Court.

Marty’s freedom came as a result of the work of dozens of lawyers, private detectives, retired judges, journalists, professors, public relations executives, the few politicians who really cared, friends and family. Most of all, it was by force of Marty’s personality and his story of injustice, which he told over the 17 years and 50, 000 letters he sent to people he hoped might listen to the tragedy of his life, the murder of his parents, his coerced, false confession and wrongful conviction.

In the years before Marty was released, especially during all the terribly disappointing legal setbacks he faced, I would often dream about what it would be like when it was finally over. How it would feel to end my obsession with Marty’s struggle. While Marty was upstate, I was in a prison of my own making, committing my life and the lives of my family to this quest to free an innocent man. It was all Marty, all the time. Within a few minutes of meeting someone, I would quickly assess whether they would be a welcome ear to my point of view on the case. And woe to the person, friend or journalist who showed little interest in my world. My wife even felt it necessary to warn me not to mention Marty’s plight in the eulogy I was preparing for her mother’s funeral. How could she have known I was actually trying to figure out a way to include it?

It is the third Christmas for Marty and his family, but there are thousands of others like him in prisons from Grady, Arkansas, where Damien Echols sits innocent on death row to Derrick Hamilton and Richard Diguglielmo in upstate New York, Richard Lapointe in Connecticut, Max Soffar awaiting execution in Texas, on and on and on. They need a ‘village” like Marty had to help raise awareness of their plight. They need law firms to take their cases pro bono and advocates to tell their story to the public, hoping to reach the ear of a journalist, civic leader, elected official, or even a judge or prosecutor who will decide to right a terrible wrong. And we need our legislators to establish innocence commissions and mandate the videotaping of police interrogations to prevent the high incidence of false confessions leading to wrongful prosecutions. In New York State alone, close to 50% of exonerated individuals were convicted based upon false statements made to police.

Marty’s lesson, and maybe mine as well, is never give up. Never stop sending letters from prison and, as obnoxious as it might appear, never stop talking to anyone who will listen about things as important as an innocent man.

Maybe, this holiday season some other men and women wrongfully imprisoned will get a piece of paper from a judge.

Justice at the Justice Department

Does it seem ridiculous that prosecutors would force defendants who entered into a plea agreement, often the only choice for those facing long prison sentences and little money to mount a credible defense, to waive their rights to future DNA testing that might result in their exoneration? Well, that is exactly the Faustian bargain that many faced in federal prosecutions since the Innocence Protection Act was passed by Congress during the Bush administration. So, someone facing the death penalty, even if innocent, to avoid the death chamber, could never pursue their innocence claims if they agreed to accept a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. OK, that sounds fair, doesn”t it?

In a move to bring a little justice to the Justice Department, Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered the U.S. Attorneys throughout the country not to enforce the Bush-era regulation that ordered prosecutors to force defendants pleading guilty to sign away their rights to DNA testing.

While President Obama recently chose not to pardon or commute the sentences of anyone who might have been wrongfully convicted, at least his Justice Department has made a move in the right direction. New York Times editorial

There are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people serving life sentences for crimes they did not commit. Thousands more innocent men and women in our prisons likely accepted plea deals to avoid longer sentences and even the death penalty. According to most experts, in over 25 percent of all wrongful convictions, the defendants falsely confessed to a crime they did not commit. Damien Echols, on death row in the infamous West Memphis 3 case, has recently had his case reopened in a unanimous decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court based upon new DNA testing results that point to his innocence. Under this regulation, had he accepted a plea deal to avoid the death penalty, which was not offered to him at the time of his conviction at any rate, it would matter little that someone else”s DNA was found at the crime scene of the murder of three little boys in 1993, he would not be able to prove his innocence and would likely be forced to spend the rest of his life in prison even though innocent.

We must recognize that we have a broken criminal justice system that will imprison the innocent or even force them to make deals they are in no position to refuse. Prosecutors, whether in Suffolk County, New York, Jonesboro, Arkansas, or Washington D.C., will too often do anything to obtain a conviction with little regard for the administration of justice. Judges, either because they were once prosecutors or with an eye to their next election, will often go along with the prosecution rather than hold them to a standard of justice that protects the innocent and rightfully convicts the guilty.

Every day it seems we read about another wrongfully prosecuted individual freed from prison based upon new DNA or other evidence that proves their innocence, often decades after they were convicted. Recognizing that wrongful convictions happen, is it not time that prosecutors join with others in providing a minimum of protections such as videotaping police interrogations, to ensure the guilty go to prison and the innocent go home?