Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Latest exoneration highlights problem of false confessions

The latest exoneration out of Dallas involved a deaf man who spent 17 years behind bars on a rape charge thanks to a false confession in which he also confessed to a crime police had made up. According to the Dallas News, Stephen Matthew Brodie:
originally pleaded guilty in 1993 to the abduction and assault of a 5-year-old girl in exchange for a five-year sentence. He had come to investigators' attention when he was arrested and confessed to breaking into a soft drink machine not far from the girl's home.

During Monday's three-hour hearing, Levario heard from prosecution and defense witnesses about problems with the investigation.

Evidence showed that shortly after Brodie's plea, police matched a fingerprint found on a window screen at the girl's house to a suspected serial rapist, Robert Warterfield, who was convicted of a similar crime. Also, Brodie's attorney was not told that a hair found on the girl's blanket did not match Brodie or anyone in the girl's family.

It is unclear whether Dallas County prosecutors knew about the hair and did not tell Brodie's attorney as required by law. Richardson police said they turned over all evidence to prosecutors. Meg Brooks, the original prosecutor in the case who is now a prosecutor in Travis County, could not be reached for comment.
Retired Richardson police Officer Kevin Hughes, who reviewed the case after the fingerprint match was found, said he had "reservations" in the 1990s about Brodie's guilt. Hughes said questions he raised with his superiors about the fingerprint and whether Brodie's confession was real were dismissed. His bosses also refused to allow him to send the window screen to the FBI.

Brodie also confessed to a crime that Dallas police made up when they were questioning him about other cases, a point that would raise doubts about whether his confession to an actual crime was legitimate. Testimony at Monday's hearing showed that an American Sign Language interpreter was not always present during Brodie's 18 hours of interrogation by police over eight days.

There were other problems with the investigation as well, including evidence that police told Brodie the time of day the crime happened, details of how the attacker got into the girl's home and what the attacker did. But even so, Brodie incorrectly described the crime to police. Only two of the 45 details Brodie provided were correct, according to testimony.

For Monday's hearing, Dallas County prosecutors Mike Ware and Terri Moore and Brodie's attorney, Michelle Moore, subpoenaed Warterfield, the man whose print was found on the window. He invoked his constitutional right not to testify.

Jim Hammond, an investigator with the district attorney's office, said that when he met with Warterfield at his Stephenville home, Warterfield said "he had been expecting us." Hammond testified that he told Warterfield that he was trying to figure out the truth of what had happened.

"He said it wouldn't be in his best interest," Hammond said.

Warterfield has not been charged, but authorities say they plan to continue their investigation.
One wonders what was going on during the 18 hours of interrogation when a sign language interpreter wasn't present? This is a situation crying out for a rule that custodial interrogations be recorded, without which we'll never know for sure what happened in that room or how Brodie came to confess to crimes he didn't commit.

Also, I recently learned that under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, any confession must be corroborated, which is similar to Texas' law for jailhouse snitches and informants in undercover drug stings. That shouldn't be too great a burden for prosecutors, since an accurate confession would supply information that in most instances should easily lead to corroboration. Perhaps such a requirement would have prevented this travesty. About a quarter of DNA exonerees plead guilty or at some point falsely confessed to the crime. Certainly a requirement to record interrogations would have given evidence that might have helped exonerate Brodie long before now. This is an area where the Legislature could/should step in next spring to make it more difficult to secure convictions for serious crimes based solely only on confessions absent any other evidence.

See related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

I applaud those whose efforts brought this to light instead of the old "bury it and hope no one finds out" mentality.

computer bbs directory said...

I applaud those whose efforts brought this to light instead of the old "bury it and hope no one finds out" mentality.

Anonymous said...

reading this story makes me want to vomit. How can any DA/Cop/jurist see the evidence and allow this man to plea out? Truly despicable. I can only hope the prosecutor of this case remembers this case and any others like it adn decides to withdraw from the human race permanently.