Did Craig Michael Wood give a false confession in Hailey Owens case

May 19, 2014

Monday, May 19, 2014

Good morning:

Craig Michael Wood is scheduled for a preliminary hearing on Thursday, May 22nd. The hearing was originally scheduled for April 24th, but the judge reset the hearing at the request of Wood’s attorneys because they wanted additional time to consider two new charges added by the prosecution to the three original charges: first degree murder, kidnapping and armed criminal action.

The two new charges are rape and sodomy. The prosecutor said they are based on recently available information obtained at the autopsy.

As most of my regular readers know, Wood is accused of kidnapping 10-year-old Hailey Owens as she was walking home. There appears to be no doubt that he is guilty because neighbors witnessed the abduction and described the kidnapper’s pickup truck, including providing a license plate number. Police used that plate to identify the registered owner, who turned out to be Wood’s father and he provided them with Wood’s address. They found her dead body a few hours later in the basement of Wood’s home. She had been shot in the back of the head.

I believe all of us suspected a sexual motive for the abduction and the addition of the two charges confirms our worst suspicions. Wood has apparently confessed to the crime, but his statement has not been released to the public.

Because this will almost certainly be a death penalty case, the court has appointed Patrick J. Berrigan and Thomas Jaquinot to represent Wood. Berrigan and Jaquinot are death-penalty lawyers who work for the Capital Division of the Missouri Public Defenders Office. Berrigan has considerable experience handling death cases and an excellent reputation.

They have filed a motion to exclude Wood’s statement asserting that he was drunk, drugged and mentally ill when police took him into custody, that they failed to advise him that he had a right to remain silent and refuse to answer their questions, that they ignored his request to consult with counsel before answering their questions and that they coerced him into providing a statement by promising they would go easy on him, if he cooperated and told them the truth.

Assuming for the sake of argument that the assertions are true, the statement would be inadmissible because it was involuntary and obtained in violation of the Miranda rule.

Whenever the prosecution seeks to use a defendant’s confession against him to prove guilt, one should immediately consider whether the confession contains truthful information. As the video at the beginning of this article demonstrates, false confessions are a reality and one of the causes of wrongful convictions of innocent people.

While the evidence against Mr. Wood appears to be substantial, I recommend against assuming he is guilty. For example, eyewitness identifications are notoriously unreliable and we do not know if someone else might have been involved. Forensic fraud is another major cause of wrongful convictions as are police and prosecutorial misconduct.

Therefore, watch the video and let’s see if there is any evidence that he was coerced into confessing to a crime he did not commit.

Finally, “The System with Joe Berlinger,” which premiered last night on Al Jazeera America, will explore the complexities of the U.S. criminal justice system in an eight-part series that uses real cases to question the effectiveness of laws. Looks to be an excellent documentary. Check it out.

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The Kansas City highway shootings investigation and danger of false confessions

April 18, 2014

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good morning:

The Kansas City Star is reporting this morning that police arrested a suspect yesterday at 5:40 pm in connection with a series of shootings on highways in the Kansas City area commencing March 8th and ending April 6th.

According to the article, the man has not been charged. He is an African American.

I do not know if he is the shooter or if he has confessed to committing the crimes, but I do know something about the effects of community panic, pressure on police to solve a crime or series of crimes, and false confessions.

The police offered a $10,000 reward and set-up a tip line for people to call. That strategy created 10,000 reasons for people to report anyone who appears to be suspicious to them.

Loners, oddballs, minorities, the mentally ill, the unemployed, the homeless and young people with a history of being in and out of trouble are especially vulnerable to being suspected and reported to police during times like these.

The following quote in the Star regarding the suspect arrested by police bothers me:

Neighbors said the man kept to himself and would come and go at odd hours of the night.

“The dude was like a ghost,” said neighbor Kevin Cooksey. “In and out. I’m just glad they got him.”

Cooksey said the man would drive up in the car at night, turn out the lights and sit inside without getting out.

I do not see anything suspicious in that behavior and I am more inclined to believe that Mr. Cooksey is a neighborhood busybody who needs to mind his own business rather than believe the suspect is the feared shooter. I also suspect Mr. Cooksey is white.

On January 7th and 8th of last year, I wrote about false confessions and the Phoenix Buddhist Temple murders.

I wrote:

On August 10, 1991, nine bodies were discovered at the Wat Promkunaram Buddhist Temple in the West Valley near Tucson Phoenix, AZ. The nine victims were six Buddhist monks, a nun and two acolytes.

William Hermann of The Arizona Republic described the scene.

Investigators found nine victims lying face down and grouped together, their heads pointing inward like spokes in a wheel. Some had their hands clasped in prayer. The carpet was bloody from head wounds made by .22-caliber bullets and shotgun blasts to torsos, arms and legs.

Maricopa County Sheriff’s detectives spent six days processing the crime scene. They made numerous diagrams, collected all of the shell casings, tore down walls, and removed all of the carpeting. However, despite all of their efforts they did not identify any promising suspects until a month later when they received a phone call from a patient in a mental hospital named Mike McGraw. He told them that some of his friends had committed the murders.

After the phone call, the police picked up McGraw and four of his friends: Mark Nunez (age 19), Dante Parker (age 20), Leo Bruce (age 28), and Victor Zarate (age 28). Over the course of three days of grueling nonstop interrogations from 9 pm to dawn, they eventually obtained confessions from four of the five suspects by refusing to take “no” for an answer and, after breaking them down, they committed the additional sin of providing them with some details of the crime that only the killers would know so that their confessions would be self-authenticating. Only Mark Nunez Victor Zarate failed to succumb to their tactics, so they released him and then they held a big press conference where they triumphantly announced that they had solved the murders.

Six weeks later their case against the Tucson Four, who had subsequently recanted their confessions, fell apart when the crime lab announced that it had identified the murder weapon.

How did that happen, you ask?

On August 21st police had confiscated a .22 caliber rifle from two West Valley boys, Rolando Caratachea and Johnathan Doody, after stopping them at Luke Air Force Base. When the crime lab finally got around to testing the rifle, the analyst discovered that that it was the murder weapon.

The next day, detectives picked up Caratachea (the owner of the gun), Doody and a third boy, Alessandro Garcia, and subjected them to the same non-stop interrogation tactics. Two days later, Garcia confessed that he and Doody did the shootings. Doody admitted that he was present but denied shooting anyone. Caratachea denied being involved.

Three weeks later, Garcia confessed to another murder. Katharine Ramsland reports he told the police that two months after the temple massacre,

he and his 14-year-old girlfriend, Michelle Hoover, had murdered Alice Cameron, 50, in a campground. Garcia had goaded Michelle to do it, so she had pulled the trigger. They waited an hour to be sure the woman was dead and then stole her money, which amounted to $20. Michelle pleaded guilty and got 15 years.

As in the case of the Tucson Four, police had coerced an innocent man into falsely confessing to killing Hoover. He was released after serving more than a year in prison.

One month later the prosecution dismissed the charges against the Tucson Four and released them from jail.

Garcia and Doody, who were juveniles, were charged with the murders. Their cases were transferred to adult court due to the seriousness of the charges and the prosecution announced that it would seek the death penalty against both defendants.

Garcia eventually entered into a plea agreement in which he agreed to plead guilty to first degree murder and testify against Doody in exchange for the prosecution agreeing not to seek the death penalty against him.

Doody was convicted. The judge declined to impose the death penalty because he was not certain whether Doody was more culpable than Garcia. He sentenced him to 281 years in prison. Garcia was sentenced to 271 years in prison.

In May, 2011, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Doody’s conviction on the ground that his confession was coerced. The Court remanded the case to the trial court for a new trial. The SCOTUS denied review.

His case has not been resolved.

The Tucson Four sued Maricopa County and the case settled for $2.8 million.

The man who falsely confessed to the Hoover murder also received a settlement.

Please do not misunderstand. I hope the police have arrested the right person in the Kansas City highway shootings case. I am merely using this arrest and the comment by the suspicious neighbor to illustrate how community pressure to solve a case and aggressive police questioning of a suspect in response to that pressure can create a false confession.

There will be a news conference later today, perhaps this morning, when police announce additional information about the suspect and the case against him.

If you are interested in reading more about false confessions, please google the name Dr. Richard Ofshe or go to falseconfessions.org

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NYC settles wrongful conviction claim for $6.4 million

February 21, 2014

Friday, February 21, 2014

Good morning:

Frances Robles of The New York Times reported yesterday that New York City has settled a wrongful conviction claim for $6.4 million by David Ranta, an innocent man who was framed for a murder by a rogue Brooklyn detective named Louis Scarcella. Ranta served 23 years in prison and suffered a heart attack the day after he was released from prison. Fortunately, he survived the heart attack.

The crime occurred in 1990. The victim was Chaskell Werzberger, a Hassidic rabbi and Holocaust survivor who was shot in the head as he got into his car by a person who had robbed a jewelry store across the street. The robber stole his car and used it as a getaway vehicle.

The unsolved murder upset the Orthodox Jewish community that had overwhelmingly voted for the newly elected District Attorney, Charles J. Hynes. He felt pressured to solve the crime and convict the perpetrator.

Ranta was convicted by eyewitness testimony and a confession that he denied making.

Many years after the conviction, one eyewitness admitted that Detective Scarcella told him which photograph to select in a photo spread. Two other witnesses subsequently admitted they had lied in exchange for leniency in matters pending against them.

A reinvestigation of the case by the Conviction Integrity Unit of the D.A.’s office resulted in the discovery that Detective Scarcella had investigated a suspect named Joseph Astin, who was identified as the killer by an anonymous caller. However, he stopped investigating Astin after Astin died in a traffic accident and he did not submit any paperwork documenting his efforts.

Astin’s widow later claimed that Astin had committed the murder, but efforts to free Ranta were unsuccessful.

Ranta’s wrongful conviction is not the only case in which now retired Detective Scarcella used false confessions and coached witnesses to lie in order to obtain a conviction.

Kenneth P. Thompson, the new Brooklyn District Attorney who defeated Charles J. Hines last November in a landslide election due in no small part to citizen outrage about the way he mishandled wrongful-conviction complaints about Scarcella, has convened a three-person panel to review dozens of his cases.

Ranta is still planning to sue the State of New York.

Missouri Court of Appeals reverses murder conviction for withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense

November 5, 2013

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Good afternoon:

Big news out of Missouri this morning: The Missouri Court of Appeals reversed Ryan Ferguson’s conviction for the 2001 murder of sports editor Kent Heitholt of the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, MO.

Basis for the ruling: Prosecutorial misconduct for withholding material exculpatory evidence from the defense.

48 Hours covered this case.

Kent Heitholt, the sports editor for the Columbia Daily Tribune, was beaten and strangled to death with his belt in a parking lot outside the building where he worked. Two janitors discovered his body and called the police. They told the police that they first noticed two men in their twenties standing next to Heitholt’s car and then saw Heitholt’s body on the ground nearby. Neither of them were able to provide police with a detailed description of either of the two men.

One witness worked with a sketch artist, however, who eventually produced some sketches of the two suspects.

Ryan Ferguson and his friend Chuck Erickson were drinking in a nearby bar. Ferguson was the driver and late that night he dropped Erickson off at Erickson’s house and then he drove home and went to bed

When Erickson got up the next day, he could not remember much about the events of the previous evening. After reading about Heitholt’s murder, he began to wonder if maybe he might have been one of the two young men reportedly seen by the two janitors.

Several years later after looking at the sketches in the news, he really began to worry about whether he might have been involved and he expressed his concern to several friends, including Ferguson.

Ferguson laughed at him and assured him that he had an intact memory of that evening and they had nothing to do with Heitholt’s death.

One of Erickson’s friends called the police and they decided to subject him to a custodial interrogation. Unfortunately, nothing he said matched any of the evidence at the crime scene, but instead of letting him go, they began to provide him with snippets of information that only the killers would know. In this way, they eventually succeeded in getting him to sign a confession. He named his friend Ryan Ferguson as his accomplice.

Ferguson denied committing the crime and police did not find any evidence at the crime scene implicating either of them.

Erickson ended up pleading guilty and testified against Ferguson in exchange for a reduced sentence.

The other janitor, who did not participate in the sketch effort because he told police that he could not recall anything about the two young men in the parking lot, suddenly contacted the prosecutor just before trial and announced that he had recovered his memory and could positively identify Erickson and Ferguson as the two young men he saw.

When asked to explain the miraculous recovery, which happened when he was in prison serving a sentence on an unrelated matter, he said his wife sent him a package wrapped in newspaper. As luck would have it, a photograph of Erickson just happened to be the first thing he saw when he glanced at the newspaper. Voila! He instantly recognized Erickson and then Ferguson.

The jury found Ferguson guilty.

The janitor and Erickson subsequently recanted their trial testimony.

The newspaper-jogged-my-memory was a false story and, not surprisingly, the wife had no recollection of sending it to him.

The defense subsequently discovered that the prosecutor who tried the case had interviewed the janitor in prison just before the janitor contacted police and told them about the miraculous recovery of his memory.

The prosecutor did not take any notes and did not inform the defense about that meeting. He also did not disclose to the defense that the janitor’s wife did not recall sending a newspaper to her husband.

The prosecution did not and that the prosecutor had met with the janitor just before he recovered his memory.

The Court of Appeals was not the least bit amused, noting that the only evidence implicating Ferguson was two in-court identifications of extremely suspicious provenance that had subsequently been recanted.

The Court of Appeals held:

We conclude that Ferguson has established the gateway of cause and prejudice,
permitting review of his procedurally defaulted claim that the State violated Brady v.
Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963) by withholding material, favorable evidence of an
interview with Barbara Trump, the wife of Jerry Trump, one of the State’s key witnesses
at trial. The undisclosed evidence was favorable because it impeached Jerry Trump’s
explanation for his ability to identify Ferguson. The undisclosed evidence was material
because of the importance of Jerry Trump’s eyewitness identification to the State’s ability
to convict Ferguson, because the evidence would have permitted Ferguson to discover
other evidence that could have impacted the admissibility or the credibility of Jerry
Trump’s testimony, and because of the cumulative effect of the nondisclosure when
considered with other information the State did not disclose. The undisclosed evidence
renders Ferguson’s verdict not worthy of confidence.

The prosecutor who manufactured the case against Ferguson and withheld material exculpatory evidence from his attorney is now a Boone County Circuit Court judge.


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