photo by Boardhead
A criminal defense investigator sheds light on why people confess to crimes they didn’t commit, how our justice system is skewed toward the prosecution, and what we can do to fix it.
Sedley Alley: The Truth Died With Him
Convicted killer Sedley Alley of Millington, Tennessee, tells us from the grave why zealous defense advocacy and investigation are essential in every serious criminal case.
I met Mr. Alley on Riverbend Maximum Security’s death row in 2003, 18 years after the horrific rape-torture-murder of Suzanne Collins, a U.S. Marine lance corporal and student of avionics at Naval Air Station Memphis in West Tennessee. Sedley Alley confessed to the murder hours after the victim’s naked, bloody body was discovered by police lying face down next to a tree. A branch had been broken off, sharpened to a point, and forced between her legs deep enough to pierce her lung, repeatedly, until her last breath. This brutal act followed over 100 other injuries to the 19-year-old’s body in the last hour of her life.
Alley confessed to the murder the following day and led police to the scene of the murder. However, some of the details he offered were not consistent with the forensic evidence found at the scene.
Still, the evidence mounted against Alley, to include: blood on his car of the same blood type as Collins’, a hair in the blood on his car of the same color as Collins’, blood on Alley’s shorts of the same type as Collins’, an eyewitness who described Alley as the man who abducted Collins, and, of course, his full, signed confession following local police and FBI interrogation.
During his interrogation, Alley told detectives that voices had instructed him to kill the girl. Prior to trial, Alley spent time in a mental health facility, where he was evaluated and deemed to be faking his mental illness.
The State of Tennessee sought the death penalty. His trial attorneys pursued an insanity defense as mitigation, arguing that Alley suffered from a multiple personality disorder.
After deliberating for less than three hours, the jury convicted Alley of kidnapping, aggravated rape, and first-degree murder and imposed a death sentence for the murder conviction.
So what did the Federal Defender of Tennessee want me to do after 18 years? Investigate the allegations.
It was about time: No one had ever investigated on behalf of the defendant. He may have confessed, but he was still entitled to a thorough investigation before his final plea to avoid execution.
My investigation turned up information that our team felt might help Alley in his plea for relief. First of all, there were problems with Alley’s confession—certain details he supplied about her death, including that he had hit her with a car and driven a screwdriver into her head, were not supported by forensic evidence. Other forensic evidence found by police did not reliably match Alley.
I also discovered potentially exculpatory evidence that the prosecution did not disclose (Brady evidence), which could have supported a claim of factual innocence: First, the medical examiner’s initial time of death calculations put Alley under police surveillance at the time of the murder; and second, the eyewitness who reported seeing a man speaking with Collins shortly before her disappearance described someone who looked nothing like Alley (but who did look like the victim’s boyfriend).
We also asked the state to test DNA evidence preserved on the victim’s body, clothing, and the sharpened stick. (Collins was murdered in 1985 before reliable DNA testing.) A DNA test, we argued, would settle the question once and for all. But the court ruled against us: No DNA test. And the court discounted the new evidence I uncovered, saying it was simply too late.
Alley was executed in 2006.
Hope Schreiner: The Witness Dreamt It
Hope Schreiner was a friend of my parents when I was child. I hadn’t seen her since I was about six years old—until one afternoon in 2006, when I was flipping through cable TV channels, and heard Nancy Grace announce: “Death in the driveway. Hope Schreiner, a 73-year-old librarian on trial for allegedly bludgeoning her husband to death in the couple’s driveway.”
I called my mother and told her to turn on Court TV. Schreiner was soon convicted of second-degree murder. I asked my mom to call her old friend and tell her what I do for a living.
Her new attorney didn’t seem very interested in working with a criminal defense investigator, so Schreiner hired me directly to investigate the allegations and to help with an Ineffective Assistance of Counsel claim. There was plenty to support the claim: Unseasoned attorneys were trying their first murder case. They conducted no real investigation, called no defense experts. The crime scene had been contaminated.
But, once again, the defendant had confessed.
After my investigation, I wrote a lengthy affidavit detailing our claim. I concluded that if Schreiner had had an adequate defense, her team would have challenged many of the prosecution’s claims: their flimsy stated motive; the state medical examiner’s time of death, which we felt he’d retro-fitted to the narrow window of time when Hope had no alibi; the state expert toxicologist’s testimony to establish time of death (which we considered unreliable), and their failure to consider another suspect, who had motive, mental health problems, and a history of confrontation with the victim.
None of this evidence was presented at trial.
In my investigation, I found experts who signed affidavits contradicting state expert testimony and putting time of death clearly within a period wherein Schreiner had a rock-solid alibi. Oh, and the confession? It was quoted by a friend who awoke from sleep, suddenly remembering that Hope had whispered, “I did it.”
The jury believed this story because the defense offered nothing better.
My affidavit was never presented to a court because the attorney never motioned for an IAC (Ineffective Assistance of Counsel) hearing. Schreiner served eight years in prison before being medically furloughed last year. She was the second-oldest incarcerated person in the State of Vermont, and the governor created a program to release elderly prisoners with health problems.
Once again, an unbalanced system, with the cards stacked on the side of the prosecution, may have put an innocent person in jail. She certainly didn’t have the opportunity to have all the facts heard in a court of law. And her conviction has destroyed her finances and family.
False Confessions: Do they Really Happen?
In both cases, it was their confessions that sealed the defendants’ fates. Once a client admits to a crime, little is done on their behalf. Why investigate? Why would anyone falsely confess to murder if they did not commit it?
Let me assure you: False confessions actually happen. The Innocence Project reports that more than one in four people exonerated by DNA evidence had falsely confessed or made incriminating statements:
False confessions and incriminating statements were present in approximately 31 percent of cases [DNA exonerations]. Looking at only the homicide cases, false confessions are the leading contributing factor, contributing to 71 (63%) of the 113 homicide cases among the DNA exonerations. Thirty-three [out of 71] of the DNA exonerees pled guilty to crimes they did not commit. (Innocence Project: DNA Exonerations in the United States)
People admit to things they didn’t do for all sorts of reasons: They may be mentally impaired, too young to understand the consequences, or ignorant of the law. They may believe that confessing will get them out of trouble or decrease their punishment. Or they may be coerced by police, psychologically or even physically.
Three general categories of false confessions include voluntary, internalized, and compliant.
In voluntary false confessions, people freely confess to crimes they didn’t commit, without any influence by police. Around 60 people reportedly confessed to the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, known as the “Black Dahlia.”
People may voluntarily confess because of guilt feelings (about something related or unrelated), a desire for notoriety, or for other psychological reasons, including sacrificing oneself for a loved one, or even mental illness.
With internalized false confessions, defendants are persuaded to believe in their own guilt, often after intense suggestive police interrogation.
We can never know for sure whether Sedley Alley was innocent. But I’ve always believed that his confession fell into the category of “compliant false confession.”
Saul Kassin, psychology professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, explains how coercive interrogations can bring about both compliant and internalized confessions:
The reason why people confess to crimes they did not commit is because they are subject to pressures of interrogation, a highly aggressive form of social influence … people can become so stressed and so broken down and they start to feel so hopeless about their current situation that they come to believe in a rational way a confession is in their best interest. In some cases, they get so confused by the fact that American police are permitted to lie about evidence — and I mean lie about DNA, prints, surveillance footage, polygraph results — that in some cases people accused of crimes, particularly kids and others who are limited intellectually, become so confused by the lies that they actually come to believe they have committed this crime they did not commit. They wonder why it is they can’t recall it. They are led to believe that it is possible for people to transgress without awareness, for people to do something terrible and repress it. So they develop basically an inference that they must have committed this crime. (The Psych Report)
Hope Schreiner’s confession would fall into yet another category: Witness dreamt it.
An Unbalanced System
With so much at stake, shouldn’t we level the playing field for defendants, by providing the same resources for their defense that the state wields for the prosecution?
If you were on trial, wouldn’t you want a full-throated defense and a thorough investigation on your behalf?
First, we must convince attorneys that a professional defense investigator is essential to every serious criminal case. Next, courts must agree to adequate funding for indigent defendants.
Too often, courts don’t always consider the complexity of cases when dispensing defense funds and approving budget caps. Meanwhile, the prosecution basically has the unlimited resource of the entire police department, government-run forensic labs, and prosecutor’s office investigators.
If we stand behind the notion of “innocent until proven guilty,” then why do the courts not grant more resources to defend the presumption of innocence?
In a perfect world, there would be no need for defense. In the world we live in, the government has an army. The defendant at least needs a team.
How can we effect a more balanced justice system? Investigate every case on behalf of defense. Defense professionals are the unsung heroes of the justice system, preserving citizens’ freedom and even saving lives.
Last year, I was instrumental in saving three innocent men from life in prison. One of those clients, a Black man in a mostly White town, was instructed by his trial attorney to plead to second degree murder—because he would not get a fair trial where he lived.
After more than a year in jail, the defendant successfully withdrew his plea based on IAC. After a thorough investigation, with an amazing defense attorney arguing that the evidence supported justified homicide in self-defense, the jury acquitted him of all charges.
The importance of a diligent defense investigation and strong legal advocacy cannot be overestimated.
We should never become complacent about our work. Peoples’ lives hang in the balance. We are strongest when working with defense counsel as a true, collaborative team.
Attorneys, if you do not yet feel my angst, maybe you could take a few minutes to research how many people have been wrongfully convicted in this country due to ineffective assistance of counsel. The Innocence Project’s review of overturned convictions found cases of attorneys who failed to investigate alibis, to consult forensics experts, or even to show up for hearings.
And remember, most IAC cases are not overturned. Once an attorney fails at his or her job, the damage is often irreversible.
No matter the statistics, when even one person is wrongly convicted, it is one too many. Our criminal justice system deserves better: zealous and competent attorneys, who compel the courts to provide adequate funds for defense experts, and who hire and collaborate with a competent defense investigator in every serious criminal case.
Investigators, dig deep, and never become complacent. And to all defense professionals, never give up on innocence. It is our duty to ensure that our clients’ constitutional rights are defended. In a perfect world, there would be no need for defense. In the world we live in, the government has an army. The defendant at least needs a team.
About the Author:
April Higuera is a criminal defense investigator with ADH Investigations, based in Reno. She is licensed in NV and CA and specializes in complex criminal matters, including pre-trial and post-conviction capital cases.
You can read more about the Alley and Schreiner cases—and much more commentary on criminal justice system issues and criminal defense investigation—in her book, Making A Case For Innocence, which comes out this month.
You may also enjoy:
“An Innocent Man?” by William Hinton (Nashville Scene)
“Coerced to Confess: The Psychology of False Confessions,” by Evan Nesterak (thepsychreport)
“False Confessions: Causes, Consequences, and Implications,” by Richard A. Leo (Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law Online)
“Exonerations in 2015,” The National Registry of Exonerations (Michigan School of Law)
“An Inadequate Defense” (The Innocence Project)
“On the Defensive,” by Dylan Walsh, (The Atlantic)