NEWS- False confession: When the innocent admit guilt

Earl Washington was nine days away from execution for a rape and murder he didn't commit. He eventually served 18 years before DNA testing cleared him and implicated a convicted rapist. Now waging a civil suit expected to end soon in Charlottesville, Washington and his plight have put a spotlight on false confessions, an emerging topic on the national scene and one that a few folks believe may have caused some local teens to be jailed indefinitely.

Why would someone confess to a crime he didn't commit? It happens more often than you'd think.

Take the 1989 Central Park jogger case, where five teenagers confessed to a brutal rape and beating. DNA evidence later linked the crime to a lone attacker.

"We know more and more about false confessions because of DNA evidence," says UVA law prof Brandon Garrett, who represented one of the Central Park teens. "Otherwise, it's hard for a court to reverse a conviction because a confession is so powerful."

In 340 exonerated cases in the United States, 15 percent of the convictions were based on false confessions, says Garrett, citing a 2005 study published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.

In the federal courthouse in downtown Charlottesville, Earl Washington took the stand Tuesday, May 2 to explain how it felt to be an innocent man counting the days to the electric chair. He is suing the estate of the investigating detective, Curtis Lee Wilmore, who died in 1994, claiming Wilmore fabricated Washington's confession.

Washington is said to have a low intelligence level and to be susceptible to police suggestions, even if the suggestions are entirely untrue, says Garrett.

"He just agreed with what they said," Garrett says. "The detective said he volunteered statements no one else could have known, and that's why we know he did it. Now we know he couldn't have volunteered that information."

Washington told police the victim was black (she was white), that he stabbed her three times (she was stabbed nearly 40 times), and that the victim was alone (in fact, her two small children were present).

"Earl Washington is a textbook false confession," says attorney Steve Rosenfield, who's representing Washington and who handled another high-profile case that he believes is a false confession, though that client is sitting in jail.

In February 2003, the murder of Nola Charles and her three-year-old son, and the burning of their house, horrified Crozet. Four neighborhood teens were held, and three were charged.

Eighteen-year-old Robert Davis, who was in special education, was interrogated by police for five hours and denied– 78 times– being in the Charles home that night. He had been up for nearly 24 hours when he finally capitulated, says Rosenfield. "He was without sleep, and he had emotional issues exploited by law enforcement," he adds.

Davis offered an Alford plea, in which he maintains his innocence but concedes there is enough evidence to convict him. He could serve 23 years.

"I still contend, even though the judge allowed it, it's a false confession," maintains Rosenfield. "The final chapter has not been written. I think one day he will be found innocent."

False confessions have been around for centuries; a prominent US example is the Salem witch trials. Saul Kassin of Williams College started studying false confessions 25 years ago and has identified three types.

First is the voluntary false confession in which the confessor may be bragging or seeking attention. For example, more than 200 people confessed to the kidnaping of the Charles Lindbergh baby.

The most common is the compliant false confession induced by police. "They know they're innocent, they're tired, but they want to go home," says Kassin.

Third is the internalized false confession made by vulnerable people who didn't commit the crime and have no memory of it, but who, when police tell them they have evidence, actually begin to believe they committed the crime.

Kassin mentions the so-called Norfolk Four, former sailors convicted in a 1997 murder to which another man eventually confessed after DNA linked him to the crime.

Three of the Norfolk Four are still in prison, which their supporters blame on their coerced false confessions. "We hope– it's wishful thinking– one of your governors would pardon them," says Kassin.

Experts believe that some people– especially children– can't handle the stress of an interrogation and just want to please authority figures. Some people wonder if that's what happened to the four teens convicted of allegedly conspiring to blow up Albemarle and Western Albemarle High Schools.

Sources indicated that no physical evidence was introduced in their trials– just alleged confessions to police.

"He would have confessed to the Kennedy assassination," says the father of the 15-year-old Albemarle High student. The family is appealing the conviction of their son, who's been incarcerated since February 1.

Detective Gary Pistulka, who interrogated the boy, did not return the Hook's call.

The youth's family has expressed outrage that their son was never read a "Miranda" warning that he could remain silent nor was given the chance to have an attorney present. His father says police called him to bring the boy in for questioning, and he had to take him out of school.

"I will never concede it was in fact a confession," says one of the teen's attornies, Bill Hicks. "I think [the boy] was answering hypothetical questions that the court and police interpreted as a confession. I think he got the impression that as soon as he said what the cop wanted, he could go."

Hicks contends that the 15-year-old was talking about a 17-year-old Western Albemarle student, also charged in the alleged plot, who pleaded guilty.

As long as the teen is not in custody, Miranda doesn't apply, says Hicks, explaining police logic with "'Heck, he's here voluntarily,' even though they pulled him out of school."

In Andy Griffith's fictional town of Mayberry, parents would have taken a misbehaving youth down to the station to talk to the sheriff and clear things up, trying to scare him enough to prevent future misdeeds, and then go home to a family dinner. But in post-Columbine America, where zero-tolerance for perceived threats can mean time behind bars, Hicks says, he wouldn't allow his own son into such an interview.

"No way, no how," says Hicks, "unless I have a lawyer and a letter granting full immunity for any comments my son makes."

Earl Washington (left) is a textbook false confession case, says his lawyer, Steve Rosenfield. Washington is suing the estate of the investigator he says fabricated his confession.