For most of us, it probably seems impossible to imagine confessing to a crime we did not commit — especially something as serious as assault, rape, or even murder.
Perhaps, though, that may be because most of us have never been properly accused of such grievous felonies, let alone been subjected to hyper-intense questioning, psy-will-breaking techniques, and other sensorily overwhelming elements of professional interrogation.
Even when utilized with the best intentions, such approaches to getting suspects to spill their guts remain subject to human frailty, miscommunication, and a subject’s desire to simply make the terrifying pressure stop.
With tremendous advances in DNA matching and other technologies further perfecting the art and science of law enforcement, such tools are being used to correct past mistakes, as well — some of which are shocking, heartbreaking, and absolutely tragic.
The following five cases prove just how devastating convictions based on false confessions are to all involved. They also chillingly suggest that such miscarriages may well be far more common than we think.
At least, though, these sagas of “justice betrayed” turned into “justice delayed” also showcase how hard-working investigators, loved ones, and legal groups such as the Innocence Project can team with courts and police officers to make sure that truth prevails going forward — and that mistakes like these become extinct in what we hope will be the near future.
1. BRENDAN DASSEY
In 2015, the world caught on big time to the case of Brendan Dassey — along with that of his uncle Steven Avery — via the Netflix documentary series, Making a Murderer.
At age 16, Dassey confessed to assisting Avery in the 2007 sexual assault and murder of Teresa Halbach, as well as helping to dispose of the body and cover up the crime. While Avery remains a controversial figure, the series moved the public to sympathize with Dassey, who has an IQ of 70 (which puts him at the level of a fourth grader), particularly after viewing his interrogation video.
In the tape, which was shot at Dassey’s high school without a parent or guardian present, the nervous, downtrodden youth seems willing to admit to any crime that’s suggested, in no small part so that he can go home later to watch professional wrestling.
After Dassey “confesses” to a litany of felonies, in fact, he thinks he can just walk back to class in the school’s special-education department. Instead, he begins down the road to a life sentence for first-degree murder, mutilation of a corpse, and second-degree sexual assault.
Following the furor over Making a Murderer, in August 2016, a judge overturned Dassey’s murder conviction. Prosecutors appealed the rule, and set off a political ping-pong match that has kept the now 27-year-old Dassey locked up — despite his guilty verdict being vacated. As it stands, Dassey still technically remains bound for freedom. [The Sun]
2. THE WEST MEMPHIS THREE
Unspeakable horror befell the Arkansas town of West Memphis on May 5, 1993, as three eight-year-old boys turned up dead, hogtied, and sexually mutilated in a ditch.
Desperate for answers, the small, overwhelmingly Christian community immediately cast suspicions on three teenagers who wore black clothes, listened to heavy metal music, and had each bumped up against the law in their youth: Jason Baldwin, 16; Jessie Misskelly, 17; and Damien Echols, 18.
Following a severe 12-hour interrogation, Jessie Misskelley, whose IQ measured 72, agreed with the police’s insistence that he committed the atrocity along with Baldwin and Echols.
A court convicted the trio, who became known as the West Memphis Three. Baldwin and Misskelley got life in prison; Echols, because he was 18, received a death sentence.
For the next 17 years, the West Memphis Three fought to free themselves from behind bars. Multiple high-profile documentaries, celebrity support, and global campaigns finally prompted a fresh look using new DNA technology. It proved the West Memphis Three had been innocent all along.
In 2011, the now middle-aged men entered Alford pleas (a legal declaration in which a suspect can proclaim innocence while acknowledging that a trial would likely result in a guilty verdict) and walked free. [Psychology Today]
3. THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE
On April 19, 1989, Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old Wall Street bank vice president, set out to jog around New York’s Central Park.
Once there, Meili fell prey to an assault during which she was beaten, raped, and stabbed five times. She lost 80 percent of her blood, suffered severe brain injuries, and one eye had come out of its socket. Meili spent the next 12 days in a coma, not expected to live.
Police arrested a number of juvenile males for the crime who would come to be known as the “Central Park Five”: Korey Wise, 16; Antron McCray, 15; Yusef Salaam, 15; Kevin Richardson, 14; and Raymond Santana.
Four supects were black, one was of Hispanic descent. As Meili was white, race issues flared up around the case and turned New York City even more tense than usual.
During police interrogations, each of the Central Park Five suspects confessed to the attack. After two separate 1990 trials, the teens received sentences ranging from five to 15 years. The case seemed settled until 2002, when Matthias Reyes, a convicted serial rapist and violent felon, said he “found religion” and told authorities that he, in fact, had attacked Trisha Meili.
After DNA tests found traces of Reyes’ semen on Meili’s sock, a judge vacated the guilty verdicts of the Central Park Five and they walked free. Each cleared man has since said police coerced their confessions and obtained them under duress.
While Reyes’ involvement in the crime is indisputable, and the NYPD mishandled the questioning of juvenile suspects, a number of noteworthy observers are not convinced that the Central Park Five suspects did not also attack Meili. Either way, the whole tragedy points out how crucial it is for police to conduct questioning and record confessions with utmost adherence to the law. [New York Times]
4. EARL WASHINGTON, JR.
On the night of June 4, 1982, an assailant slipped inside the Culpeper, Virginia, apartment of 19-year-old Rebecca Lynn Williams. The intruder raped the mother of three and then fatally stabbed her 38 times.
An entire year passed until police believed they caught a break after arresting Earl Washington, Jr., for an unrelated crime. The 23-year-old farmhand had an IQ of 69, which renders him intellectually disabled. After a few hours in an interrogation room, Washington confessed not only to the savage slaying of Williams, but to four other unsolved felonies.
Despite the fact that officers rehearsed Washington four times before recording his official statement, and that many of the details he shared did not match up to the crime scene, a court convicted him of the murder and sentenced him to death.
New evidence emerged over the years and, while the state refused to grant Washington a new trial, in 1994, the Supreme Court commuted his sentence to life in prison, a mere nine days before he’d been scheduled to be executed.
In 2000, DNA evidence completely exonerated Washington. He successfully sued both the state of Virginia and the lead officer who coerced his confession. In 2002, the United States Supreme Court, citing Washington’s case, ruled that the death penalty could not be applied to persons with intellectual disabilities.
Seven years after Washington walked, DNA matched Kenneth Tinsley to the Rebecca Williams murder. He pleaded guilty and received life in prison. [Innocence Project]
The November 1, 1983, death of Susan Hamwi, 38, in Fort Lauderdale proved to be a tragedy of horribly multiple levels. Not only did a home invader stab Hamwi to death in her kitchen, but no one found her body for a week. More heartbreaking still, Shane, Hamwi’s 18-month-old daughter, had been asleep in her crib at the time. The baby died then from dehydration over the next few days.
As the public cried out for justice, police picked up John Purvis, 41, who was known, not affectionately, as “the town weirdo.” Purvis, who lived with his mother, suffered from chronic undifferentiated schizophrenia. He experienced panic attacks in public and became known for strange behavior.
Officers questioned Purvis as his mom listened outside. She accused them of terrifying her son and abusing their power, particularly without arresting him or allowing him to get a lawyer. She told Purvis to keep his mouth shut.
Detectives allegedly then separated Purvis from his mother and got him to confess to the murder. He later also told a psychiatrist that he killed Hamwi. Despite a judge tossing out the police confession, a jury found Purvis guilty and sentenced him to life in prison.
In 1992, an investigator in Aspen, Colorado, linked Paul Hamwi, Susan’s ex-husband, to the crime. Not wanting to pay alimony, Paul hired a pair of hit men, Robert Beckett and Paul Serio, to kill his former spouse for $14,000. Upon getting arrested, Beckett rolled on the other two conspirators and they all went to jail.
John Purvis walked free in 1993, telling the press on his way out of jail, “It’s been a long nine years.” [National Registry of Exonerations]
To learn more about the case of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, watch Investigation Discovery’s Steven Avery: Innocent or Guilty? on ID GO now!
Main photos: Brendan Dassey [Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office]; Damian Echols [West Memphis Police Department]