Revisiting a (Terribly) Wrongful Confession: Part II
In Part I of this investigation, we examined Jessie Misskelley’s confession under a due process clause analysis to reveal the coercive tactics that lead to a factually inaccurate confession by a vulnerable, borderline-retarded teen. That unreliable and highly prejudicial confession was leaked to the press without any mention of its weaknesses. Based on that confession, Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin appeared guilty to the general public before their trials even began.
Today we will examine his confession through the prism of the fifth amendment.
Just as the due process clause protects against involuntary confessions, the fifth amendment protects people from the use of “compelled” confessions in trials. Our judicial system is very protective of people’s fifth amendment rights against compelled confessions. The Supreme Court has even acknowledged that any “police interview of an individual suspected of a crime has coercive aspects to it.”
To mitigate these coercive aspects, the Court in 1966 announced a rule in Miranda v. Arizona that required police to inform people of their Constitutional rights before beginning a formal interrogation. These rights, well known to all of us as the Miranda rights, require that people be warned of their right to remain silent, that anything they say may be used as evidence against them, and that they are entitled to an attorney and if they cannot afford one, the court will appoint one. Anyone who’s watched an episode of “Law & Order” knows that.
What’s not as well known: courts presume that people haven’t waived these rights unless the government proves that they did so “voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently,”
Although Mr. Misskelley was read his Miranda rights, his age and cognitive disabilities should have been carefully considered when determining whether he validly waived them. And without a valid waiver, Mr. Misskelley’s confession should have been excluded from his trial.
In the 2010 Supreme Court case, J.D.B. v. North Carolina, the Court considered age a relevant factor in determining whether a 13-year-old was “in custody” and entitled to a reading of his Miranda rights during an interview conducted in his middle-school conference room. The Court considered age relevant because “children often feel bound to submit to police questioning when an adult in the same circumstances would feel free to leave.”
The Court noted that a custodial interrogation entails “inherently compelling pressures” that can induce even adults to confess to crimes they never committed. Studies cited by the Court in J.D.B. indicated that the risk of false confessions is even greater for youths. The Court observed that children “often lack the experience, perspective, and judgment to recognize and avoid choices that could be detrimental to them.” As amici on behalf of J.D.B. argued in their brief, it’s debatable whether children of any age can be said to have fairly waived Miranda warnings.
Some states, like Arkansas, provide additional safeguards to juveniles subject to custodial interrogations. Arkansas law, (on the books when Mr. Misskelley was questioned but patently ignored), requires police to obtain a written waiver of a minor’s Miranda rights from his parent or guardian before the interrogation begins. The police never obtained a written waiver from Mr. Misskelley’s father as required by law; Mr. Misskelley was charged as an adult, and so the court – despite his age and mental disability – admitted the confession at trial. In all, a flagrant violation of Mr. Misskelley’s rights.
And Mr. Misskelley’s cognitive disabilities further complicate the validity of his Miranda Rights waiver. Studies indicate that Miranda warnings are ineffective for people who are of below average intelligence. Cognitively disabled individuals will answer affirmatively when asked if they understand their rights to gain approval or hide their disability. The court in Mr. Misskelley’s trial should have given more weight to Mr. Misskelley’s cognitive disabilities when determining whether his waiver was valid.
In ruling the confession admissible, the court stressed that Mr. Misskelley had been advised of his rights in three previous juvenile hearings; he was, the court stated, “no stranger to the criminal justice system.” But that just means he’d gone through the process before, not that he’d understood anything about it.
In fact, it’s unlikely that he did. Mr. Misskelley’s prior brushes with the law were for petty crimes like shoplifting. The stakes were considerably higher now, and more attention should have been paid to Mr. Misskelley’s appreciation for what was happening to him.
In a 2004 case, the Supreme Court of Illinois considered whether a mentally retarded woman had effectively waived her Miranda rights, and determined that she hadn’t –because she was incapable of understanding them in the first place. The court came to this conclusion based on the testimony of the four doctors who had examined her and law enforcement personnel who observed her actions and demeanor. The court in Mr. Misskelley’s case should have considered similar evidence instead of concluding that he understood his rights based on his prior dealings with the law.
Mr. Misskelley’s wrongful confession sealed not only his fate, but the fates of Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin. Although he refused to repeat his confession at their trial (despite being offered a considerable reprieve to his life sentence by the prosecution), the films make painfully clear that once word of the Misskelley “confession” Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin were pronounced guilty in the hearts and minds of the community.
If not for “Paradise Lost”, and the movement it inspired, Mr. Echols would probably have been put to death by now and Mr. Misskelley and Mr. Baldwin would still be in prison. It’s alarming that what led to the freedom of these men from prison was the public outcry created by a chance HBO film. How many wrongful confessions don’t we know about? How many people are innocent of the crimes they were convicted of? How many guilty are allowed to walk free?