A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

Revisiting a (Terribly) Wrongful Confession: Part II

Misskelley in Prison 1994

 

By Chelsea Silverstein

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?

Comments

14 Comments »

14 Responses

  1. Gabriella says:

    I enjoyed these two articles about his wrongful confession. I’m a dancer, not a lawyer, so I knew the confession didn’t sit well with me but couldn’t point to why. Very helpful.

  2. Lethalstorm says:

    There’s a reason that this WM3 debate goes in endless circles. It usually starts and ends like this:

    SUPPORTER GUY: “A retarded kid was dragged to the police station and beaten for 20 hours”

    NON-SUPPORTER GUY: “The records don’t show that. It looks like his dad brought him to the cops — and Jessie implicated himself after 4 hours of questions. Here read these….”

    SUPPORTER GUY: “Whatever… but he should of had a lawyer at the very least!”

    NON-SUPPORTER GUY: “He waived his rights to an attorney and signed a form. Here, look at them…”

    SUPPORTER GUY: “Come on! He has NO idea what they meant. He has never heard of a Miranda right or even had it explained to him.”

    NON-SUPPORTER GUY: “Actually, he has. Four times before. During PRIOR police incidents where Miranda was explained. Here look at the trial transcripts.”

    SUPPORTER GUY: “Well they certainly didn’t have to be hard on him.”

    NON-SUPPORTER GUY: “They were trying to solve a triple murder. Not the kind of case that people volunteer admission of guilt without pressure from police.”

    SUPPORTER: “Either way… THEY DIDN’T HAVE TO QUESTION HIM FOR 21 HOURS WITHOUT HIS PARENTS OR LAWYERS THERE!”

    NON-SUPPORTER GUY: “Do we really need to stay in this loop?”

    SUPPORTER GUY: “Yes. Yes we do.”

  3. I’m simply astounded that there are still people out there who believe the WM3 are guilty.

    They cite Jessie’s statements. Take the time and READ THEM. They are ridiculous at best – http://www.dpdlaw.com/jmstatements.htm . Only someone with an IQ lower than Jessie’s could possibly cite these as a basis to believe in guilt. They’re internally inconsistent and don’t align with ANY of the physical evidence – not one piece.

    They cite Damien’s psych issues, as if this substituted for evidence. There was not a single hair, fingerprint, footprint, drop of blood, or strand of DNA that linked back to the WM3. In spite of Damien having shoulder length black hair and always wearing Army boots, which leave a somewhat distinctive print.

    Asserting that the WM3 are guilty does nothing more than make you look foolish.

    Even the victims’ families (with the exception of the Moores, who refused to meet with the investigators in 2007) have seen the truth. The WM3 aren’t guilty. Hobbs most probably is.

  4. Michelle says:

    Timely: New York Times ran article today “Why Do Innocent People Confess?”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/26/opinion/sunday/why-do-innocent-people-confess.html

  5. Ted says:

    Fishmonger Dave, I might believe Misskelley’s confession was coerced if he hadn’t confessed to police twice more, as well as to friends in and out of prison. Or if he hadn’t confessed with details that had not been made public.

    And that’s simply not true about a lack of physical evidence linking the three to the crime scene. There was blood that could have belonged to one of the victims found on a necklace belonging to Echols. There were also clothing fibers found that may have belonged to the three as well.

    And Echols was violent and nuts, I think this is important to mention.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I think there’s something seriously wrong with anyone who threatens to kill and eat his parents, or talks about having a baby and sacrificing it. I think someone is not all together there that brutally beats a dog and cuts it open and pulls out its innards, or beats a kid to the ground and sucks his blood.

    Call me old-fashioned, but I think that’s not normal teenage angst.

  6. Ted says:

    And Fishmonger Dave, only Pam Hobbs and John Byers believe the three are innocent. In addition to Todd Moore and Diana Moore, Stevie Branch, Sr. and Terry Hobbs believe the three are guilty. Melissa Byers has since passed away, but was adamant about the three’s guilt up until her death.

  7. Magick Trick says:

    Eh, just give it a few more years until the film crowd turns their lens of “truth” towards another suspect when Hobbs doesn’t pan out… Just like they did with Byers.

    These articles are editorializing and inaccurate on many levels.

    Whether or not you agree with it, cite ARKANSAS LAW correctly — a juvenile charged as an adult was under a different set of rules.

    And how about the fact that Jessie’s daddy knew where he was the whole time? And that he hoped they could get to the bottom of why Jessie was up all night, crying and having nightmares.

    And could somebody tell me how this first grader is managing to chat on Facebook, and attend college (trade school or whatever it is)?

  8. G.T. says:

    I’m actually not sure that Hobbs did it, Magic Trick. But I’m sure these 3 didn’t.

  9. Linda H says:

    *** And how about the fact that Jessie’s daddy knew where he was the whole time? And that he hoped they could get to the bottom of why Jessie was up all night, crying and having nightmares. ***

    Where on EARTH did you get this bit of information? Big Jessie was told the cops wanted to talk to Little Jessie solely because they wanted to see if he had any information, because he had lived at Lakeshore at one point. Big Jessie never once, not ONCE, said he consented to this so the cops could figure out why “Jessie was up all night, crying and having nightmares.” Seriously, if you’re going to say ridiculous things like that, at least TRY to make it plausible or root it in some kind of reality.

    *** And could somebody tell me how this first grader is managing to chat on Facebook, and attend college (trade school or whatever it is)? ***

    Jessie does not “chat on Facebook.” In fact, it’s extremely rare for Jessie to post on his Facebook page. I’d be shocked if he has posted more than 3 times since his release. Also, Jessie isn’t in college studying to be a brain surgeon; he’s in college studying to be a mechanic — something he has done with his father since he was a little kid. You can go to trade school without a high school diploma; you need only show mechanical aptitude.

    *** Eh, just give it a few more years until the film crowd turns their lens of “truth” towards another suspect when Hobbs doesn’t pan out… Just like they did with Byers. ***

    Many supporters were NOT on the anti-Byers bandwagon. Byers always remembered every moment of the night the boys disappeared, was surrounded by people who attested to his whereabouts and most importantly, had a rock-solid alibi for when the boys disappeared (he was bringing his other son to court to testify in a trial). However, a lot of supporters DO believe Hobbs was involved for a variety of reasons that are so well-known they need not be repeated here: more than one false alibi, people whom he said he was with say he was not with them; claiming he filed a police report at 5:30pm (a lie); DNA found at the dump site; DNA wrapped in a ligature; a history of violence against his wife, Stevie and his daughter, Amanda; etc etc etc. I know it’s a common “non” strategy to say that supporters are just jumping from one person to the next, but get your facts straight: those who felt Byers was involved were a minority NOT the majority. However, if the “case against Byers” (faulty as it was) proved anything, it’s that even HE seemed like a more viable suspect than the WM3.

  10. Linda H says:

    God, the crap that comes out of you nons.

    *** Fishmonger Dave, I might believe Misskelley’s confession was coerced if he hadn’t confessed to police twice more, as well as to friends in and out of prison. Or if he hadn’t confessed with details that had not been made public.***

    Here’s a simple question: have you actually READ and LISTENED to Jessie’s “confessions” to the police — the first, extremely flawed one or the second confession, when the cops seem to be trying to get Jessie to cobble together a more believable, consistent “confession”? Jessie parrots everything the cops say to him. Nons say, “Well how did he know this or that?” Listen to WHEN he says he “knows this or that.” Overwhelmingly, he gives details *AFTER* the police give those details to him. And when he gets the details wrong — identifying the wrong victim, getting the times wrong, etc — the cops keep nudging him, “Are you SURE about that? Are you sure it couldn’t have happened THIS way?” to make him say what they need him to say. Absolutely ridiculous.

    *** And that’s simply not true about a lack of physical evidence linking the three to the crime scene. There was blood that could have belonged to one of the victims found on a necklace belonging to Echols. There were also clothing fibers found that may have belonged to the three as well. ***

    Let me direct you here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=thjpLjNKpc4. If you can watch this and with a straight face STILL bring up that necklace as “evidence,” then you are clearly shortchanged in the logic department. As for the fibers that “may have” belonged to the three: these fibers weren’t even “microscopically similar”. Referring to those fibers is like saying, “A red fiber was found and Damien owned a red t-shirt.” That’s it? So, not similar, not anything but hey, the colour might be right. To say this is stretching it is an understatement.

    *** And Echols was violent and nuts, I think this is important to mention. ***

    He was not. He had no more altercations than any other teenaged boy.

    *** Maybe it’s just me, but I think there’s something seriously wrong with anyone who threatens to kill and eat his parents, or talks about having a baby and sacrificing it. I think someone is not all together there that brutally beats a dog and cuts it open and pulls out its innards, or beats a kid to the ground and sucks his blood. ***

    With the exception of the incident where Damien dipped his fingers in Jason’s blood and licked it, NOBODY has ever verified the stories you’ve mentioned above. Just like Damien had no animal parts hidden under his bed, or Christopher Byers’ penis in a jar of formaldehyde or anything else nons point to, these stories are pure fantasy.

  11. Linda H says:

    *** And Fishmonger Dave, only Pam Hobbs and John Byers believe the three are innocent. In addition to Todd Moore and Diana Moore, Stevie Branch, Sr. and Terry Hobbs believe the three are guilty. Melissa Byers has since passed away, but was adamant about the three’s guilt up until her death. ***

    Pam Hicks, John Mark Byers and Christopher Byers’ biological father, Rick Murrray, all believe the WM3 are innocent. As for Melissa Byers, she passed away before the evidence against Hobbs was known. If John Mark Byers realized he was wrong, I’m pretty sure Melissa would have realized she was wrong, too. The disgusting part is that this woman — as well as Pam Hicks’ father and brother — all passed away believing a horrible, horrible lie.

  12. Lethalstorm says:

    This document pretty much destroys the credibility of this article:
    https://courts.arkansas.gov/opinions/1996/cr94-848.html

  13. Lethalstorm says:

    @Linda H There is no evidence against Hobbs. Only a moron would believe that. Or a supporter. Same difference.

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