False Confessions: Police Get Them, Prosecutors Use Them – Three Recent Examples and How to Protect Yourself
Let’s talk about Confessions. False confessions.
Think about this: you’re tried — and convicted — of a very public crime, let’s say a homicide, and sent off to prison. Your lawyers keep working; the judge orders a retrial. Then, wham! The prosecutors in the case go before the judge and file their motion to dismiss the whole case. Their reasoning: it’s “in the interests of justice based on recent unforeseen developments that were investigated over the past week.” Suddenly, you’re out. You’re free. It’s like a movie, right?
1. Chandra Levy Case Dismissed Against Man Convicted Based in Part on Alleged Confession to Snitch Cellmate
Except this is a true story — it’s exactly what happened to a man named Ingmar Guandique last month. He was arrested and convicted of killing Chandra Levy, the former intern for then Congressman Gary Condit, back in 2001. The federal prosecutors won their first trial against him based in part on testimony given by a cellmate of Guandique, who made a deal on his own case in exchange for taking the stand for the prosecution.
This even though the man passed a polygraph and there was absolutely NO evidence — physical evidence, witnesses, forensics, etc., — to connect him with Levy’s death.
So who was this informant? A man named Armando Morales. The two shared a prison cell; Guandique was behind bars for attacking two women in the same park where Levy’s body was located.
The cellmate swore that Guandique confided to him, confessing that he had killed Chandra Levy. Seeing an opportunity to better his situation, the cellmate contacted prosecutors and negotiated a better deal for himself. Sweet, right?
Even back in 2011, Chandra Levy’s mother told reporters she had some doubts about whether or not the right man had been convicted and if the U.S. Attorney’s Office had gone after the right guy. See coverage in the Huffington Post, “Chandra Levy’s Mother: Convicted Killer Ingmar Guandique May Not Have Murdered My Daughter.” Clearly his lawyers weren’t willing to throw in the towel.
Guandique’s lawyers won a big victory for him after his conviction, when a judge granted their motion for a re-trial of the case. Their arguments were based upon the total lack of evidence against Guandique, plus the fact that his alleged confession had been given to a man who had lied when he claimed he had not worked with prosecutors in past cases, something that the prosecutors knew at the time and failed to share with the defense team.
Discount Morale’s credibility on the alleged confession, and what was left to re-try? So, the Levy case has been dismissed. What happens to Ingmar Guandique now? The feds are working to deport him back to his home country of El Salvador.
2. Brendan Dassey of Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” Has Conviction Overturned in Part on Coerced Confession
Most likely, you’ve seen the Netflix series “Making a Murderer” (we wrote about it here), and if not it’s available online. It is based upon a real-life murder up in Wisconsin and the police investigation and criminal prosecution of that case.
This month, Brendan Dassey stood in court to hear a federal judge rule that his murder conviction was being overturned. His uncle, Steven Avery, was arrested and charged along with Dassey for the murder of Teresa Halbach back in 2005. Dassey was 16 years old at the time.
In the Netflix series, “Making a Murderer” shows how Steven Avery was convicted for an earlier killing and served 18 years until he was exonerated. After this exoneration, Avery and Dassey were both arrested and charged with the murder of Halbach, a photographer who had taken photos of Avery’s car for a used-car sales magazine.
Now, the judge has ruled that the confession given by Dassey doesn’t pass muster. Dassey’s defense team successfully argued that Dassey’s alleged confession — and that this, combined with evidence planted to point to Avery’s guilt, should free Dassey.
Additional factors: There was no physical evidence to connect Dassey with the crime. Dassey was a minor at the time he was arrested, and the police questioned him alone, without an adult or guardian present. Also, Dassey has some mental challenges or learning disabilities that were not considered by law enforcement during questioning. These conditions made the boy extremely vulnerable to police — even more so than another teenager his age.
Finally, the police lied to him. They told him over and over again that they knew exactly what had happened in the killing and committed what is sometimes called “interview contamination” by telling him facts and then getting him to repeat what has been said, in order to build a “confession” brick by brick.
On the witness stand, Dassey testified he made everything up he told the police.
What happens to Brendan Dassey? The prosecution has about three months to decide if they want to try him a second time or not.
3. Waco Judge Rules Lifer Should Be Freed as “Actually Innocent” After False Confessions Confirmed
Down in Waco, a judge has recommended that the Court of Criminal Appeals grant an application for writ of habeas corpus for a man who has served over 20 years behind bars on a life sentence for two murders that happened back in 1992.
Seems that Richard Bryan Kussmaul, James Edward Long, Michael Dewayne Shelton, and James Wayne Pitts Jr., were co-defendants back then, facing a District Attorney’s Office who wanted the death penalty in the case.
Last month, three of the four admitted to the judge that back in 1994, they lied on the witness stand and testified under oath that Kussmaul had killed the two victims. Why lie? Because one of the prosecutors promised them probation if they would do so.
They also admitted that their confessions back then were lies, and that a deputy sheriff had coerced them into giving those false confessions by threaten them with the death penalty.
Get probation if you lie about your friend, or stay in the trial and face a death penalty sentence? It’s not hard to imagine how pressure was brought to bear on these three and they choose to give false confessions and hang out their friend.
Add to this new DNA evidence that confirms that the wrong man was convicted. Gotcha.
Now, Richard Kussmaul waits to see if the Court of Criminal Appeals will confirm and act on the findings of Judge George Allen and give him his freedom. The other three are already free, even though that promise of probation in that pled deal wasn’t worth much. Long served 20 years, Shelton 17 years, and Pitts 20 years, after each pled guilty to sexually assaulting one of the murder victims based upon those coerced confessions.
What happens now for these four men? Assuming that the CCA releases Kussmaul, then all four men may be able to receive around $80,000/year for each year they spent behind bars as innocent men once they have official CCA confirmation that they are “actually innocent.”
Lesson Here: Know Your Rights and Protect Yourself in Police Interrogations Because False Confessions are a Big Problem
There are laws in place at both the federal level and on the books here in Texas that are supposed to protect against false confessions and prevent coercion from forcing people to admit to things that they did not do.
For one thing, you have a RIGHT TO A LAWYER when you are being questioned by the police. That’s right there in the Miranda Warning.
Thing is — maybe the police explain this to you, maybe they don’t.
False confessions lead to unjust convictions. These three cases are just three recent examples of how often law enforcement will step over the line to get a case closed and another win on their career tally. If you are interested in how bad this problem really is — and it’s a serious problem, getting people to confess to things they didn’t do — read more about false confessions at the Stand Down Texas Project or the Innocence Project’s website.
Also check out our web resources, including this post “Texas Police Interrogations: Constitutional Protections Exist, Do You Know Your Rights Should Police Question You?” as well as Michael Lowe’s Case Results and read his article,
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