Another innocent person is exonerated after falsely confessing. Here’s how these coerced confessions happen

This week, James Blackmon was freed after 35 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He was convicted in Wake County, based on his own false confession — which police dragged out of him after hours of coercive interrogation. Here, CDPL attorney Elizabeth Hambourger explains how false confessions happen.

Most of us think, “I would never confess to a crime I didn’t commit.” But the sad reality is, people do it all the time

More than a quarter of DNA exonerations involve a false confession. North Carolina’s longest serving death row exonerees, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, were sentenced to death and spent a combined 60 years in prison because police interrogators manipulated them into taking responsibility for a terrible crime they had nothing to do with. And how many more Henrys and Leons are sitting in North Carolina’s prisons? 

Many American law enforcement officers are trained to conduct interrogations in ways that recklessly encourage false confessions. Using the popular Reid Technique, interrogators first examine a suspect’s body language for clues that supposedly indicate guilt. In truth, these non-verbal cues often indicate simple nervousness. But once interrogators decide a suspect is guilty, their only goal becomes to obtain an admissible confession. They might weaken a suspect’s defenses by depriving them of sleep and food. Or lie to a suspect, confusing them with invented but convincing evidence of their own guilt. Or they might minimize the seriousness of the suspect’s supposed actions, offering morally acceptable motives, such as accident or self-defense, which the suspect might endorse in hopes of ending the interrogation. 

You’ve probably seen all this on TV police dramas, but it’s ruining the lives of real-life innocent people. Today, a three-judge panel in Wake County exonerated James Blackmon, a man with severe mental illness who was manipulated into confessing to a 1979 murder at St. Augustine’s College. The flimsiest of evidence brought police to Blackmon’s bedside at Dorothea Dix, a mental hospital where Blackmon was confined. Four years after the murder of St. Aug’s student Helena Payton, long after the case had gone cold, police received a tip that an anonymous patient at Dix had confessed to a similar-sounding crime. Though there was no patient at Dix with the name the informant gave, police somehow ended up interrogating Blackmon.

Blackmon’s mental illness was immediately apparent. He compared himself to Dracula, claimed to have telepathic powers and the ability to cause natural disasters, and reported seeing UFOs. Officers noted that he wore a cape like Superman. In addition to suffering from schizoaffective disorder, a major psychotic illness, Blackmon’s IQ has tested as low as 69. Studies have found that those with mental and cognitive disabilities are more likely to give false confessions. 

Despite his vulnerabilities and the lack of any evidence linking him to the crime, police interrogated Blackmon over and over. In fact, according to false confession expert Allison Redlich, they used Blackmon’s mental illness to manipulate him. Eventually, Blackmon agreed with the officers that “the bad James Blackmon” must have killed Payton while the “good James Blackmon” was somewhere else. But, tellingly, Blackmon did not even know basic facts of the crime, including how Payton was killed. 

Blackmon’s “confession” was the only evidence against him. Detectives never found any physical evidence or eyewitnesses linking him to Helena Payton or the crime scene. In fact, there is physical evidence pointing to another suspect, and it now seems likely that Blackmon was in New York when Payton was killed. Yet, facing the possibility of a death sentence, Blackmon pled guilty and received a life sentence, even while still proclaiming his innocence. 

Despite compelling evidence that the confession was false, Wake District Attorney Lorrin Freeman fought Blackmon’s exoneration. She could have agreed to his release, as the prosecutor did in Henry and Leon’s case. Instead, she said the burden was on him to prove his innocence, an extremely high bar that stops many innocent people from ever being released from prison. Now that Blackmon has been ruled innocent by the three-judge panel, his case casts further doubt on the reliability of confessions, the techniques law enforcement officers use to obtain them, and prosecutors’ decisions to rely on them to secure convictions and induce pleas. Today will be a hollow victory for a man who has spent 35 unjustified years in prison — unless prosecutors and police use this as an occasion to reevaluate the widespread practices that lead to wrongful convictions.

Charles Finch is 10th innocent man freed after being sentenced to death in North Carolina

Charles Finch exoneration
Charles Ray Finch is wheeled out of prison after more than four decades of wrongful incarceration

Charles Ray Finch was released from prison last week, 43 years after he was sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. His family cheered and thanked God as he emerged from the prison gates, and at Finch’s request, they all went for barbecue.

Exonerations always have a celebratory feel of justice finally being served. But don’t mistake Finch’s release for justice, or for anything other than a tragedy.

Finch spent his life in prison being degraded and brutalized, because that’s what the American prison system is designed to do. His daughter, who was 2 when he went to prison, grew up without him. Finch struggled with anger and depression, and is now 81 years old and in poor health. He was pushed out of prison in a wheelchair.

He was convicted in 1976 for the robbery and killing of a convenience store clerk. Investigators conducted an improper suspect lineup and then lied about it. They pressured witnesses to implicate Finch. Yet, no one has been or likely will be punished for their role in this miscarriage of justice.

The Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic spent nearly 19 years working for Finch’s release. Something is wrong when it takes that long to free a single innocent person.

Ten people have now been exonerated after receiving death sentences in North Carolina. All of them were poor, and most of them were black. More innocent people remain in prison, waiting year after year for the system to “work.”

This is the system that North Carolina lawmakers say you should trust to decide life and death, and to carry out executions. It’s a system that’s profoundly broken and still threatens the lives of 142 people on death row.

Let’s not ever mistake an exoneration for something to celebrate.

 

Posted: May 28, 2019

Henry McCollum death row exoneration
Henry McCollum was freed in 2014 after serving 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. His face at the moment a judge granted his freedom says it all.

New day in North Carolina: Poll shows majority of voters no longer support the death penalty

Feb. 11, 2019

For generations, North Carolina politicians of both parties have had one thing in common: Almost all of them staunchly supported the death penalty. That’s largely because they believed their voters supported it.

They’ve continued to operate on that belief, even without much data to back it up. But late last month, Public Policy Polling conducted a statewide poll to answer the question: What do North Carolinians think about the death penalty today?

The results should make state politicians question their death penalty orthodoxy. After more than a decade without executions and a wave of exonerations of innocent people on death row, voters no longer trust the system to decide who should live and die.

Some of the striking results of the survey of 501 voters across the state, 47 percent of whom voted for Trump and 45 percent of whom voted for Clinton:

70 percent say it’s likely that an innocent person has been executed in North Carolina. This belief alone is enough reason to end the death penalty!

57 percent say it’s likely that racial bias influences who is sentenced to death. Pervasive racism is another good reason to end it!

When given a choice between the death penalty and a maximum sentence of life without parole, more than 50 percent of voters favor life without parole, while only 44 percent lean toward keeping the death penalty.

When offered a larger range of alternatives, including requirements that offenders work and pay restitution to victims’ families, only 25 percent favored the death penalty.

58 percent prefer to eliminate the death penalty if the millions of dollars spent on it each year were redirected to investigating and prosecuting unsolved rapes and murders.

A clear majority would support actions by the governor or by their local district attorneys to stop executions and death penalty trials.

No wonder N.C. juries have sentenced only a single person to death since 2014. Our citizens clearly see how unjust and wasteful the death penalty is. It’s time for our leaders to listen to their constituents.

For a more detailed summary of the poll results, go to CDPL’s website

43 years after death sentence, Charles Ray Finch proves his innocence

posted in: Innocence, Latest News | 0
Charles Ray Finch in 2015.
Charles Ray Finch in 2015. Photo by Brad Coville, Wilson Daily Times.

Jan. 31, 2019

A man who was sentenced to death in North Carolina may soon be exonerated after spending more than 40 years in prison.

Last week, a federal court said Charles Ray Finch — who was sentenced to death in 1976, but later resentenced to life because of changes to state death penalty laws — is entitled to a new hearing to determine whether he is innocent. The court also discounted nearly every piece of evidence used to convict Finch of murder.

The verdict was the result of work by Duke University’s Innocence Clinic, which has been investigating Finch’s case since 2001. Finch has claimed innocence since the day of his arrest, but other courts had refused to consider the evidence he offered. He is now 80 years old. Finch’s lawyers are  asking Attorney General Josh Stein to agree to his release, since the court ruling said no rational jury would convict him based on the evidence available today.

According to the opinion, one witness who testified against Finch has since recanted, saying that police and prosecutors pressured him into identifying Finch as the killer. All of the physical evidence that police said connected Finch to the crime has been discredited.

Most importantly, the testimony of the state’s main eyewitness was proven unreliable. Lester Jones was working in a convenience store alongside Richard Holloman when three men robbed the store and shot Holloman to death. Jones was unable to describe the shooter’s face, but told police the man was wearing a three-quarter length jacket. That night, during three separate lineups, Finch was the only suspect wearing a three-quarter length jacket. Such highly suggestive lineups have been proven to lead to false identifications and are now illegal.

Other people who were convicted based on questionable eyewitness identifications remain on death row in North Carolina. For example, Elrico Fowler was sentenced to death in 1997 based largely on the testimony of an eyewitness. Despite having seen only one suspect, the witness picked several other men in photographic lineups — and when he was first shown Fowler in a photo lineup, he failed to identify him. He only picked Fowler in a second photo lineup administered several days after the crime, after the same photo of Fowler had appeared in the newspaper listing him as a suspect. And the witness became certain of his identification only after investigators told him that he picked the right person.

Virtually every aspect of Fowler’s identification is now illegal, thanks to reforms meant to prevent mistaken IDs. Yet, Fowler remains on death row because of a tainted police lineup from 20 years ago. [Learn more about how most of North Carolina’s death row prisoners were tried under obsolete laws.]

As long as we have the death penalty, innocent people will be in danger of execution. How many more people must be exonerated before North Carolina ends the death penalty?

Why most of N.C.’s death row inmates never should have gotten the death penalty

October 9, 2018

After 12 years without an execution, many people believe the North Carolina death penalty is dead. That might be true — if it weren’t for the more than 140 people still on death row.

Our state continues to spend millions every year fighting to execute those men and women, even though the vast majority of them were sentenced decades ago under outdated laws and standards of justice. If they had been tried in modern times, most would never have received the death penalty.

Watch the story of one of N.C.’s longest serving death row inmates:

This week, a new report from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation exposes just how unfair many of those sentences are by today’s standards. About three-quarters of N.C.’s death row inmates were tried in the 1990s, before a slate of reforms were enacted to protect defendants’ basic rights and prevent wrongful convictions.

CDPL’s report, Unequal Justice: How Obsolete Laws and Unfair Trials Created North Carolina’s Outsized Death Row, finds that out of 142 death row prisoners in North Carolina:

92% (131) were tried before a 2008 package of reforms intended to prevent false confessions and mistaken eyewitness identifications, which have been leading causes of wrongful convictions across the country. The new laws require interrogations and confessions to be recorded in homicide cases and set strict guidelines for eyewitness line-up procedures.

84% (119) were tried before a law granting defendants the right to see all the evidence in the prosecutor’s file — including information that might help reduce their sentence or prove their innocence.

73% (104) were sentenced before laws barring the execution of people with intellectual disabilities. Despite a promise of relief for these less culpable defendants, disabled prisoners remain on death row.

 73% (103) were sentenced before the creation of a statewide indigent defense agency that drastically improved the quality of representation for poor people facing the death penalty, and a law ending an unprecedented requirement that prosecutors pursue the death penalty in every aggravated first-degree murder. Before these changes, prosecutors did not have the ability to seek life sentences in these cases and poor people often received a sub-standard defense.

CDPL’s engaging and easy-to-read report is full of facts and true stories from death row that will change how you think about the death penalty. Read it here.

Jurors sent an innocent man to death row. Now they ask: “Where did we go wrong?”

Originally published in the News & Observer

Henry McCollum, moments after his exoneration. ©Jenny Warburg

By Kristin Collins

September 6, 2018

One elderly woman sat with us in her living room, wearing a pink nightgown. “I should have followed my conscience,” she said, her hands shaking. “I hope he can forgive me.” It’s unclear if she’s seeking forgiveness from the innocent man she sent to death row, or God himself.

She believed the Bible’s instruction: “Thou shalt not kill.” Yet, as a juror decades earlier, she voted for a death sentence for Henry McCollum, an intellectually disabled teenager who was accused of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl in Robeson County.

The juror put the trial out of her mind until, four years ago this week, McCollum was exonerated. New DNA testing proved another man guilty, and McCollum blameless.  After 30 years on death row, McCollum was free.

Kristin Collins

At the time, I was relatively new to my job at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, whose lawyers represented McCollum. His story showed me just how high the stakes are in this world. North Carolina came close to executing an innocent man.

I am still learning from his case. This spring and summer, a co-worker and I criss-crossed Robeson and Cumberland counties, finding jurors who unwittingly sentenced an innocent man to death. The jurors served at McCollum’s original trial in 1983, and his retrial in 1991, held in Fayetteville. Both juries voted unanimously for death.

We hoped they could shed light on how our system got it so terribly wrong. But as I knocked on strangers’ doors, I worried they would be defensive or angry. Instead, they welcomed us into their homes.

Some seemed relieved to finally talk through the trauma of the trial, though none would let us use their names. Many were ashamed of their role, afraid of what their neighbors would think. Some feared God’s wrath, and wondered if they would go to hell for McCollum’s wrongful conviction. Some shed tears at the mention of his name and said the experience was too painful to revisit. They remembered McCollum at the defense table, silent and unresponsive, like a confused and broken child.

All were denied the information they needed to reach a fair verdict. They were shown gruesome crime photos and McCollum’s confession, written by the police. Even McCollum’s defense attorneys admitted his guilt, believing the jury would spare him if he accepted responsibility.

No one told the jury that another, almost identical crime was committed just a month after the girl’s murder — and that the culprit was not McCollum, but a man who lived by the field where her body was found. The jury didn’t know fingerprints were found at the scene, and that none of them were McCollum’s. They didn’t know the case against McCollum started with a rumor from a teenage girl, who later admitted she made it up.

One juror said his biggest regret is that he trusted prosecutors to tell the truth. If McCollum was on trial, he believed, he’d probably done it.

Like everyone we talked to, his most vivid memories were the photos. At the time, he had a daughter the same age as the victim. When the verdict was announced in the courtroom, he looked at her father. The juror had done what the prosecutor said was right, and he hoped it would ease another father’s pain.

“I’ve been trying to figure out, where did we go wrong?” he said. “I feel like we got duped by the system.”

I was in the courtroom for McCollum’s exoneration four years ago. I will never forget the sight of him standing in a cage – the court probably calls it a holding cell – during a break. He stared silently at the floor, powerless against a system that had chained and caged him for his entire adult life.

Now, there is another image that stays with me. A woman sitting in the dim light of her living room, hardly strong enough to rise from her chair, wondering what those 30 years were like for Henry McCollum. Wondering whether God has heard her pleas for forgiveness.

Time to move on: Calls for death penalty fall flat in N.C.

December 17, 2017

Maybe you heard that N.C. legislative leaders called last week for executions to return to North Carolina. It’s one of the oldest political tricks in the book, whipping up fervor for the death penalty to score points with conservative voters.

But in 2017, more than 11 years after North Carolina’s last execution, it’s starting to feel a bit retro.

Let’s take a look back at this year:

There were just four capital trials in North Carolina and juries rejected the death penalty at every one of them. This means N.C. juries have sent just one person to death row in the past three and a half years.

Most N.C. district attorneys didn’t seek the death penalty at all, and some said they see no point in continuing to pursue death sentences. Life without parole is a harsh punishment suitable for the worst crimes.

Four more U.S. death row inmates were exonerated, and a Gallup poll found death penalty support was at its lowest point in 45 years.

A N.C. death row inmate won a new trial after the vast majority of the evidence against him was discredited. Michael Patrick Ryan, who has always claimed his innocence, is awaiting his new day in court to prove he was wrongly convicted in 2010.

Other states that tried to carry out executions continued to botch them terribly and scramble for lethal drugs.

[Read the Center for Death Penalty Litigation’s year-end report on the state of the N.C. death penalty.]

In light of those facts, North Carolina looks pretty smart to have stayed out of the execution business for another year.

The truth is, resuming executions would do nothing to solve today’s problems. Instead, we would be executing people who were tried 15, 20, or even 30 years ago — before a slew of reforms intended to protect innocent people and ensure fair trials. More than three-quarters of North Carolina’s 143 death row inmates were tried at least 15 years ago.

As we look to 2018, let’s skip the outdated death penalty rhetoric and start looking for solutions that actually make people safer — like properly staffing prisons and supplying guards with working radios.

Why North Carolina’s death penalty is not for the “worst of the worst”

By Gretchen M. Engel
Reposted from the blog of N.C. Policy Watch

Henry McCollum innocent man on death row
The justice system said Henry McCollum was the “worst of the worst.” He turned out to be innocent.

Since Arkansas shocked the world by trying to execute eight people in 10 days just to beat the expiration date on its lethal drugs, there has been more talk about the death penalty in North Carolina.

Most recently, WUNC’s Rusty Jacobs did a piece on where the death penalty stands, almost 11 years after North Carolina’s last execution. It revealed serious concerns about executing innocent people, and explained why it’s far more expensive to execute than to sentence people to life in prison.

However, one concept goes unchallenged in many stories about the death penalty: The naïve idea that the death penalty is used only in those rare, “worst of the worst” cases. Having spent my entire career up-close with North Carolina’s capital punishment system, I can tell you that’s not how it truly works.

First, let’s look at the 147 people on death row in North Carolina. More than three-quarters of them were sentenced more than 15 years ago, during an era in which North Carolina had one of the highest death-sentencing rates in the nation — even higher than Texas and Florida. Far from using the death penalty only in a handful of the most shocking crimes, execution was pursued Wild West-style in nearly every first-degree murder case.

During those years, we had a law unlike any other in the nation, which required prosecutors to seek the death penalty in every first-degree murder case with an aggravating factor. And, of course, the law is written so broadly that an aggravating factor can be found in almost any intentional killing.

Prosecutors were required to push for execution without regard to mitigating factors, or evidence that pointed to possible innocence. Even they thought this was a terrible idea, and they recommended the law be changed.

The General Assembly ended this requirement in 2001, but by then, death row had swollen to more than 200 people, more than 100 of whom remain there today. All of them were tried without the benefit of reforms intended to ensure fairness and prevent the conviction of innocent people.

There was, for example, no requirement that confessions be recorded. In many cases, the state presented unreliable forensic testing and “junk” science, and defendants were sentenced to death by juries selected in a racially-discriminatory fashion. Some of them, like Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, were innocent. Most would never have received death sentences under today’s laws. These are the people who would be first in line if our execution chamber were to crank up.

Next, consider how the death penalty is used today. Do prosecutors use their discretion to carefully cherry-pick death penalty cases? Absolutely not.

In reality, our justice system runs on pleas. Prosecutors use the death penalty as leverage, to persuade reluctant defendants to plead guilty and accept life sentences.

It works like this: The vast majority of murders are initially charged capitally, and pleas are negotiated from there. The theory is that a defendant facing the threat of execution is more likely to accept whatever deal the state offers. Pursuing the death penalty even when the prosecutor thinks the case is not execution-worthy makes a mockery of justice.

Defendants who refuse a deal are often our most vulnerable clients: those who are mentally impaired, those who least trust their lawyers, or those who are innocent and refuse to plead guilty. People who refuse plea deals represent the vast majority of people who are tried capitally in North Carolina today.

This means a defendant’s chance of facing the death penalty depends less on the crime than on a willingness to accept a life sentence without a trial. Often, several defendants are involved in a crime. Some accept a deal and get a life sentence, while another — maybe not even the most culpable — ends up on trial for his life.

Juries can see that the people who go to trial are not the “worst of the worst.” Look at the two capital trials in North Carolina this year. Both defendants were offered pleas but insisted on going to trial.

The first trial, in Wake County, ended with a verdict of life imprisonment. This marked eight times in a row that a Wake jury has chosen life over death. In the second, just this month, a Robeson County jury not only rejected a death sentence but refused even to convict the defendant of first-degree murder. He was found guilty of second-degree murder.

Prosecutors might tell you they need the death penalty to punish the “worst of the worst.” But in practice, our state spends millions to pursue death sentences that are arbitrary and unnecessary, and uses the threat of death as a negotiation tactic — sometimes putting innocent lives on the line.

Gretchen Engel is the Executive Director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.