Author Archives: Lonnie Soury

Court orders new hearing in West Memphis 3 case

The Arkansas Supreme Court reversed and remanded a lower court ruling and has granted Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley a new hearing. “…we reverse and remand for an evidentiary hearing , at which the circuit court shall hear Echols”s motion for a new trial and consider the DNA-test ”with all other evidence in the case regardless of whether the evidence was introduced at trial” to determine if Echols has established by compelling evidence that a new trail would result in acquittal”

Echols”s wife Lorri Davis said, “Damien is thrilled with the court’s decision. It is the best news he has heard in his case in the 17 years he has been on death row.”

Capi Peck, of the advocacy group Arkansas Take Action, added,“We look forward to a full evidentiary hearing that presents all evidence of the innocence of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. These young men were convicted of a brutal crime someone else committed, and we hope the State moves quickly to overturn their convictions and seek to prosecute those responsible.”

DNA testing and other powerful forensic evidence — combined with a sworn affidavit that the original jury foreman engaged in blatant misconduct that contributed to the jury’s decision — prove that these men were wrongfully convicted of the murders of the three children in 1993.

There was no physical evidence, eyewitness testimony or motive tying the three local teens to the murders. They were arrested based on nothing more than a coerced, false confession from Misskelley which he immediately disavowed. Damien Echols was sentenced to death; Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Echols’s appeal before the court sought to overturn the decision of circuit court Judge David Burnett who interpreted Arkansas’s DNA testing statute so narrowly that it drastically limited the possibility of any wrongfully convicted person of obtaining justice using DNA results. In 2001, the Arkansas Legislature passed a law granting post-conviction access to DNA testing. The law passed largely as a result of widespread doubts about the convictions of Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin.

DNA testing of dozens of pieces of evidence found at the crime scene conclusively showed that no DNA from the murders matches Echols or the other two men. DNA testing does, however, link Terry Hobbs, stepfather of murder victim Steven Branch, to the crime scene. A hair found in the knot used to bind Michael Moore matches Terry Hobbs. DNA also links a hair at the murder scene to another man, David Jacoby, who was with Hobbs on the day of the crimes and who provided Hobbs with an alibi. Of the scores of people the three victims were seen with on the day of their murders, the only DNA matches are Terry Hobbs and the man Hobbs was with on the day of the murders.

Additionally, three eyewitnesses have come forward and provided sworn statements that they saw Steven Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore, with Terry Hobbs, at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 5, 1993, before the boys disappeared and were murdered. According to sworn affidavits by the three witnesses, Hobbs was hollering at the children and ordering them to return to his house. The new evidence establishes that Terry Hobbs was the last person to have physical custody of the three boys before they disappeared and were murdered.

According to the nation’s leading forensics experts, scientific evidence also demonstrates that most of the wounds on the victims were caused by animals at the crime scene, after their deaths – not by knives used by the perpetrators, as the prosecution claimed and was the centerpiece of the prosecution’s case. Moreover, these experts also completely discredited the prosecution’s insinuation that a knife recovered from a lake near Jason Baldwin’s home caused the wounds on the victims. As well, these forensic experts deemed the testimony of a jailhouse informant and a faux “expert” in “occult studies”—a man who admitted on the witness stand that he had received his “Ph.D.” from a mail-order diploma mill without attending a single class—to be completely unreliable.

Lloyd Warford, a prominent Arkansas attorney who is a former prosecutor and state official, has presented a sworn affidavit to the Arkansas Supreme Court detailing the contents of improper conversations that the jury foreman, Kent Arnold, had with him while the trial was in progress. In those conversations, the jury foreman told Warford that he had prejudged Echols’s and Baldwin’s guilt and that to ensure that the other jurors would convict the defendants, he exposed the jurors to news reports of Jessie Misskelley’s confession. During one conversation, the jury foreman told, “…the prosecution had presented a weak case, and that the prosecution had better present something powerful the next day (the end of the prosecution’s case) or it would be up to him to secure a conviction.”

The case will return to the lower court and a judge will soon be assigned to hear the new evidence.


Associated Press

Politics Daily

The Norfolk Four: Four False Confessions

The case of the Norfolk Four will be featured on PBS”s “Frontline” on November 9th. In the piece, one can watch the confession of Derek Tice, one of the men convicted of rape and murder of a Norfolk, Virginia, woman in 1997. Mr. Tice, along with three fellow sailors, served up to 11 years in prison before Tim Kaine, Virginia”s governor, granted them conditional pardons. They were freed last summer. It is shocking to listen to the young man clearly admit to the brutal crime and go on to provide details of the murder, even implicatng his friends. Even more troubling is why three other young men would confess as well to a brutal crime none of them committed. The answer can be found in part in the techniques used by police interrogators to gain convictions, techniques that are effective on the innocent as well as the guilty. In this case, law enforcement relied on the sailors’ confessions to secure their convictions, and disregarded DNA evidence that pointed to another man, Omar Ballard, who confessed to the crime himself while serving prison time for another rape.

A troubling aspect of many false confession cases is that, like Tice, defendants appear to actually possess detailed knowledge of the crime. A recent study of over forty false confessions by Professor Brandon L. Garrett of the University of Virginia School of Law found that contamination was present in every single one of the confessions he studied. Police interrogators apparently simply fed confidential information about the crime to the suspect being questioned.

The show will include an interview with decorated former New York City police detective Jay Salpeter, whose investigative work led to the exoneration of Martin Tankleff in Long Island in 2007, and who has uncovered new evidence in the case of Damien Echols, who is on death row in Arkansas. If anyone doubts the ability of police interrogators to obtain a confession from an innocent person, Salpeter demonstrates to producer Ofra Bikel just how easy it can be.

For more on the Norfolk Four case, read Jeffrey Toobin”s article in the New Yorker.

False Confessions Happen, Too Often

New York State may just have the most wrongful convictions of any state in the nation, and false confessions comprise almost 50% of all exonerations in the state. Robert Kolker of New York Magazine , with the assistance of, explores one case, that of Frank Sterling, and the larger question: Why do innocent people confess to crimes they did not commit?

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, confessions are the most compelling piece of evidence that can be brought into a trial, and statistics support the fact that when a confession, whether true or false, is introduced in a trial for consideration by a jury, they almost always convict.

Recently back from Arkansas, where I spent the afternoon with Damien Echols on death row in the infamous West Memphis 3 case, one is reminded that he was convicted based upon a false, coerced confession from a local teen that implicated Echols and his co-defendant, Jason Baldwin, even though the “confession” was barred from Echols”s trial. Nevertheless, jurors heard about it on news reports, and the jury foreman in the case felt it was his duty to inform his fellow jurors about the confession even though the constitution forbade them from considering it as evidence.

Is there a way to stop jurors from considering a false confession and convicting an innocent person? Not likely. In 800 jurisdictions nationwide, some form of recording of interrogations is required. But law enforcement must be mandated to videotape interrogations from the beginning to the end, so jurors can see the truth about false confessions, be exposed to the tricks that are routinely played on defendants in the interrogation room, and decide for themselves whether someone is telling the truth when they confess.

Innocents Confessing

False confessions happen and, in most cases, the result is a conviction and long prison sentence. According to experts, in 25 percent of all wrongful conviction exonerations a false confession was a deciding factor. In one study, over 80 percent of false confession exonerations occurred in murder convictions. We recently learned that during the 1980s in Chicago more than 100 men were tortured into confessing to crimes they did not commit, with four ending up on death row and 22 remaining imprisoned today.

False confessions often contain descriptions of the crimes that do not match the crime scene. For example, in the West Memphis 3 case, Jessie Miskelley, Jr. confessed to his involvement in the murder of three eight-year-olds, stating that he was with them at 9:00 a.m., although it was later established that the children were in school at the time, rendering his comments obviously false.

Now, according to The Substance of False Confessions, a law review article based upon a study of 40 false confessions by Professor Brandon L. Garrett of the University of Virginia, we learn that the confessions contained detailed descriptions of the crimes based upon the defendants being fed confidential information from the investigations, in many cases purposely, by police interrogators.

A New York Times article on Professor Garrett”s study pointed out that the majority of the confessions analyzed were elicited from those who were mentally disabled and/or were juveniles. “Of the exonerated defendants in the Garrett study, 26 — more than half — were ”mentally disabled,” under 18 at the time, or both. Most were subjected to lengthy, high-pressure interrogations, and none had a lawyer present.”

One of the false confession exonerees profiled in the study, Jeffrey Descovic, 16 at the time of his arrest, served 15 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison even though DNA testing prior to his trial revealed that another person”s DNA was found on the body of the murder victim. That crucial piece of evidence that eventually led to his exoneration years later had not trumped his false confession in the eyes of the prosecutor, the judge or the jury. The man whose DNA was found on the victim went on to commit other crimes, including the murder of another young girl.


Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines and Johnny Depp Know a False Confession When They See One…

…Let”s Hope the Arkansas Supreme Court Does Too

On Saturday evening in Little Rock, 2,500 Arkansans gathered to hear Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines, Johnny Depp, Patti Smith, Ben Harper and some of their friends play music and talk about the case of the West Memphis 3. The artists, and many who came to seem them, are convinced that a terrible crime has been committed, not only in the tragic deaths of the three children found in a drainage ditch in West Memphis, Arkansas, in May 1993, but also in the wrongful convictions of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley.

Vedder and his colleagues have been involved in efforts to free Damien Echols and the others for years. They have dedicated their time and money after having thoroughly reviewed the evidence that led to the convictions. Like many—including the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law and the 13,000-member National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, whose amicus brief is part of the court record under review—they are convinced that, based upon new evidence uncovered in the case, any reasonable person today would vote to acquit, which is the legal standard for granting a new trial.

The West Memphis 3 have been imprisoned for 17 years, with Echols on death row, for a crime in which there was no credible physical evidence, no weapon found, no motive, and no connection between the suspects and the victims. Instead, a terrified, inflamed, and shell-shocked community was sold the false confession of Jessie Misskelley, a mentally disabled 16-year old with an IQ of 67. A panicked community, desperate police, and a rush to judgment resulted in the wrong men being convicted.

The Arkansas Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on September 30th in Damien Echols’s appeal for a new trial. The court will consider new DNA and forensic evidence, as well as allegations of shocking juror misconduct. Court-authorized DNA tests have excluded Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley as the source of any and all DNA recovered from the crime scene. DNA testing, however, links Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the murdered children, to the crime, as his DNA was found in the knot in shoelaces used to tie up one of the murdered children.

The court will also consider evidence that the original jury foreman engaged in blatant misconduct that led to the conviction of Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin for murder, by introducing Jessie Misskelley’s coerced confession into jury deliberations when it was explicitly barred from consideration because Jessie had recanted and refused to testify against the other two. In fact, Misskelly’s statements to police that linked him and his friends to the crime, in which he says he was with the children at 9:00 a.m. the morning of their murder, were clearly false, as the children were safe at school that day until late afternoon. After being lied to by police that he failed a polygraph test that he actually had passed, Miskelley finally told them what they wanted to hear.

As last weekend’s concert demonstrated, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley may have been convicted, but they have not been forgotten. And the world will be watching when the Arkansas Supreme Court hears arguments in the West Memphis 3 case on September 30th.

Supreme Court Makes it Easier to Obtain False Confession

U.S. Supreme Court Makes it Easier To Obtain False Confessions

Paul House was freed last year after serving 22 years on death row in Tennessee, as a result of the United States Supreme Court’s precedent-setting House v. Bell decision, which overturned his conviction and established a crucial precedent in the rights of the convicted to present new evidence of their innocence.

What the Court giveth, the Court taketh away.

In the most recent Supreme Court session, according to the AP, the court placed limits on the Miranda protections in three separate decisions. These decisions more than chip away at the Miranda rights of suspects; they also increase the ability of the police to obtain a false confession. Jeffrey Fisher, co-chair of the amicus committee for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), thinks the Court’s Miranda decisions will make it easier for police to get confessions out of people who don’t want to confess. “Those decisions open up ways for cops to work around Miranda,” says Fisher.

In one decision affecting how long Miranda rights are valid, the court made it clear that these rights last just two weeks. After 14 days, it is up to the individual to remain silent, request a lawyer or refuse to answer questions without the police having to repeat Miranda warnings. And, based on another decision, suspects must acknowledge that they invoke their Miranda protections to remain silent…by not remaining silent. Essentially, unless they tell the interrogators that they intend to remain silent to cut off questioning, any utterance waives the Miranda protections.

According to the Washington Post, “In the case before the court, suspect Van Chester Thompkins was read his rights and, at police request, repeated some of them out loud. But he did not sign an offered waiver of the right, and he did not acknowledge that he was willing to talk. Nor did he say that he wanted the questioning to stop.

Detectives persisted in what one called mostly a “monologue” for about two hours and 45 minutes, until one asked Thompkins whether he believed in God. At a follow-up question — “Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?” — Thompkins answered “Yes” and looked away.

The statement was used against him, along with other testimony, and Thompkins was convicted of killing Samuel Morris outside a strip mall in Southfield, Michigan.

While the court’s decisions might seem reasonable to some, they do not reflect real life situations where the power of the police during the interrogation process can result in false confessions. Police can lie while questioning suspects, according to the Supreme Court, and routinely do so to obtain confessions. These recent decisions place the onus on suspects to know the law and protect themselves from police tactics that can coerce incriminating statements from uneducated, youthful and mentally challenged suspects, whether they are guilty or not.

The only way to prevent a false confession, a wrongful conviction, an innocent person incarcerated often for life, and the guilty from remaining free, is to have stronger, not weaker, protections during the interrogation process. Some jurisdictions have even come around to supporting the video recording of interrogations in order to prevent the wrong person from being prosecuted, which is an important step in the right direction. Unfortunately, in this session, the Supreme Court has taken a step backward.

Chicago is Second to None in False Confessions

Chicago Police commander Lt. Jon Burge finally had his day in court, albeit 25 years too late to protect the 100 mostly African American and Hispanic men who have long claimed they had confessions beaten out of them by an infamous South side Chicago detective squad led by Burge. From the 1970s through to his forced retirement in 1993, Burge led a group of detectives whose actions in obtaining false confessions from defendants in murder and serious crime cases led to long prison terms for most and even death sentences for some of them. A federal jury has now found Burge guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the torgure allegations.

The abuse of suspects was so notorious that former Illinois Governor George Ryan released four men from death row who he believed had their confessions tortured out of them at the hands of Burge and his fellow police officers. Ryan would go on to suspend Illinois”s death penalty and release all prisoners from death row.

According to the testimony of victims at Burge”s trial, police obtained confessions from defendants by applying electric shocks to their genitals, suffocating them, threatening them with loaded guns and burning them on radiators. Burge now faces a long prison term himself after being prosecuted by the Department of Justice for perjury and obstruction of justice for lying in a civil suit against the City brought by Madison Hobley, one of the men sentenced to death as a result of being tortured into confessing to the murder of his wife and son. Hobley was innocent.

But this case is not over for the scores of victims of Burge and the Chicago criminal justice system. And especially not for the 22 people still imprisoned in Illinois who have already served long prison sentences based upon tortured confessions. They include: Tony Anderson, Franklin Burchette, Eric Caine, Javan Deloney, Terry Harris, Leonard Hinton, Edward James, Eric Johnson, Grayland Johnson, Leonard Kidd, James Lewis, Jerry Mahaffey, Reginald Mahaffey, Johnny Plummer, Virgil Robinson, Ivan Smith, Robert Smith, Vincent Wade, Keith Walker, Demond Weston, Jackie Wilson, and Stanley Wrice.

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