Posts Tagged ‘coerced confession’

Shawn Whirl who served 25 years in prison for a murder he said he was forced to confess to, walked out of prison October 14th.  Whirl, now 45, was convicted of shooting and killing taxi driver Billy Williams in 1990.  Whirl said former Chicago Police Detective James Pienta tortured him until he confessed.  Whirl was stepped on, slapped, and Pienta yelled racial slurs at him.  Pienta allegedly forced Whirl to confess when Whirl professed his innocence.  Pienta also stabbed Whirl in the legs with his keys.  Whirl’s girlfriend was also at the police station and reported hearing him screaming out.  Police questioned Whirl because his fingerprints were found in the taxi.  Whirl told police that two days before he had hopped in the taxi to escape gang members who were trying to rob him.  Whirl’s lawyers advised him to plead guilty because he confessed and the state planned to pursue the death penalty.  Whirl was sentenced to 60 years.

Using Whirl’s false confession, prosecutors formulated the motive for the crime.  Whirl was having financial issues and struggling to pay his rent so he robbed Williams.

An appeals court overturned Whirl’s conviction in August.  Whirl was the first defendant given a new trial as the result of the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission investigations.  The commission was founded in 2009 to correct wrongful convictions of people who were tortured by the police especially under Police Commander Jon Burge.  The cases span 3 decades, from the 1970s through the 1990s.  Burge and his detectives are suspected of torturing 200 men.

Tara Thompson, Whirl’s lawyer and a member of the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project said, “I think that Shawn’s case is proof that it’s not too late for those of us that are making sure people who were tortured into giving confessions can still have their day in court…I hope Shawn’s case brings hope to other people…”

The Exoneration Project is a non-profit organization at the University of Chicago, where law students work to help prisoners who profess their innocence.  Whirl could pursue a certificate of innocence, which will expunge and seal his records, or he could file a wrongful conviction and torture lawsuit, but any damages would be capped at $200,000.

Whirl has served half of his life in prison and said he knows that it will be hard to adjust, “God is not through with me yet and he hasn’t brought me this far for no reason…I don’t hold any bitterness, or anger, or animosity because I don’t have room for it…I think I’ll be OK.”

Sources:  AFRO

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Wilford Hunter, Stinney’s cellmate said, “[George] said, ‘Why would they kill me for something I didn’t do?’”

The trial took 2 hours, the jury took 10 minutes, he was put to death at 7:30 p.m. on June 16, 1944 for the murders of two girls.  George Stinney was just 14 and needed a booster seat for the electric chair.  Just 81 days had passed between the murders and his execution.

It took 4 minutes for him to die.

And 70 years for justice.

Police came for George Stinney, 14, when his parents weren’t home.  As his sister hid in the chicken coop, they took George and his older brother, Johnnie, into custody.  Two young girls had been found brutally murdered, beaten over the head with a railroad spike and dumped in a ditch.  Stinney and his sister were the last people to see them alive.

“[The police] were looking for someone to blame it on, so they used my brother as a scapegoat,” his sister Amie Ruffner told WLTX-TV.

They later released Johnnie Stinney with no charges.

Calling it a “great and fundamental injustice,” a South Carolina judge on Wednesday vacated the 1944 murder conviction of the youngest person executed in the U.S. in the last 100 years.  Judge Carmen T. Mullen of Circuit Court ruled that the prosecution in the case failed to safeguard Stinney’s rights during his confinement, trial, and execution.

First, the all-white jury could not be considered a jury of peers, the Judge wrote and his court-appointed attorney did “little to nothing” to help defend him (including not cross-examining witnesses) as he was seeking local office at the time.  Due to his political aspirations, he never appealed Stinney’s conviction either.  Today, an appeal from a death sentence is all but automatic and decades can pass before execution allowing further investigation.

Stinney’s confession was likely coerced, “due to the power differential between his position as a 14-year-old black male apprehended and questioned by white, uniformed law enforcement in a small, segregated mill town in South Carolina.”

The ruling was a rare application of coram nobis (“mistakes were made”), a legal remedy that can only be applied if all other remedies have been exhausted and only when a conviction is based on an error of fact or fundamental unfairness.

“I am not aware of any case where someone who was convicted has had the trial conviction and sentence vacated after they’d been executed,” said Miller W. Shealy Jr., a professor at the Charleston School of Law.

Ernest A. Finney III, the solicitor who had opposed the request on the state’s behalf argued during the hearings that the conviction was valid under the legal system at the time.

Stinney’s two sisters and his brother testified that they had spoken to the two girls, Betty June Binnicker, 11, and Mary Emma Thames, 8, who were riding their bicycles.  Two white men who had helped search for the girls and a cellmate of Stinney testified that on numerous occasions Stinney asserted his innocence and said he was forced to confess.

Judge Mullen emphasized in her ruling that the case should not be a standard resort for families grieving over decades-old injustices, “The extraordinary circumstances discussed herein simply do not apply in most cases.”  However, the problems in the Stinney case were not uncommon in the past especially during the Jim Crow-era of the South.

Stinney’s case has haunted civil rights advocates for years. (more…)

A decades-old Idaho case resulted in a grave injustice, according to the conclusions of two reports released by the non-profit, Judges for Justice, which investigates suspected wrongful convictions.  In 1998, Chris Tapp was convicted of sexually assaulting and murdering Angie Dodge, 18.  The Judges for Justice reports were completed by Steve Moore, a retired FBI special agent, who formerly led investigations into Al-Qaeda, and Gregg McCrary, a retired special agent, who formerly trained FBI agents in interrogation techniques.  Moore’s 85-page report is a scathing review of the Idaho Falls Police Department’s work.  It found that Tapp’s confession was demonstrably false, or obtained by threats of severe sentences partnered with promises of mercy, and that the physical evidence does not match the law enforcement conclusions.

“In the final analysis,” Moore concluded, “the actions of the IFPD detectives in this matter, even if well-​​intentioned, were egregious. In their zeal, they abandoned even the most basic investigative cautions and proceeded on a course charted by their uninformed hunches, not the evidence.… In the end, the failure of this inves­ti­ga­tion has resulted in freedom for a vicious murderer, the incar­cer­a­tion of an innocent man for 18 years, and it has denied Angie Raye Dodge the justice she deserves.”

Bonneville County Prosecutor Bruce Pickett said his office is currently reviewing the new reports, “We have an obligation…to Mr. Tapp and to the citizens…to go back and review it.  If we think it is a credible report, then we have the obligation to…at that point make a decision as to which is the best course of action.”

The reports were the result of eight months of investigation. The two original detectives on the case, who elicited the confession, Ken Brown and Jared Fuhriman did not respond to media requests for interviews.  Fuhriman went on to become mayor of Idaho Falls after he retired from the police force. The victim’s mother, Carol Dodge, has long supported Tapp’s innocence.

The new report is the most comprehensive look at the case in 18 years.

“These indi­vid­u­als did this inves­ti­ga­tion out of the goodness of their hearts and because they want justice for all,” Dodge said, “(Judges for Justice) had nothing to gain, but by exposing the truth about their findings, it is pos­si­ble that the real killer can be found and prosecuted.”

In the late 90s, Dodge’s murder quickly went cold after several weeks of good investigative work, said Mike Heavey, a retired judge who co-founded Judges for Justice.  Benjamin Hobbs was arrested for rape in Nevada, shortly after the case went cold. “Ben Hobbs was a good suspect,” Heavey said. The detectives quickly concluded that Hobbs was the killer, so they stopped looking for other suspects and began to work to extract a confession from him, Moore stated in his report.  There was only one glaring issue:

“There was not one piece of cred­i­ble evidence, phys­i­cal, cir­cum­stan­tial or tes­ti­mo­nial of Hobbs’ involvement in the Dodge mur­der. It existed only in the minds of the IFPD detectives,” Moore wrote.

Hobbs was never charged in the case, but served time for the Nevada rape. Hobbs’ friend Chris Tapp was brought in by police and after several days of interrogation, he said that he and Hobbs committed the Dodge murder.

“This is a false con­fes­sion,” inter­ro­ga­tion expert McCrary wrote, “The author­i­ties manip­u­lated Mr. Tapp through a series of explicit threats and promises, used false evidence ploys, asked a host of leading questions and con­tin­u­ally con­t­a­m­i­nated the inter­ro­ga­tion by dis­clos­ing non­-public details of the crime and the crime scene, all of which was improper.”

(more…)