September 24, 2007

Another fascinating disputed confession case

DNA catches real killer, but convicted men remain behind bars

Why read fiction, when real life is so much more compelling? Just in time for this week's University of Texas conference on confessions, I just read an expose on another fascinating case of multiple disputed confessions.

The Norfolk Four are Navy enlistees convicted and imprisoned in the 1997 death of a fellow enlisted man’s wife. The case could prove just as important as the Central Park jogger case in altering public perceptions about the reliability of confessions.

Indeed, the cases have major similarities. In both cases, multiple individuals confessed to a rape-murder after lengthy interrogations. And in each case, DNA evidence later tied the crime to a known sex offender who admitted acting alone. (Astonishingly, in the Norfolk Four case, police ignored the real killer despite the fact that he raped another young woman just 10 days later and a few hundred yards away.)

If the sailors' convictions are ultimately overturned or they succeed in their bid for gubernatorial clemency, this case may shine a welcome spotlight on the vulnerabilities of individuals with diminished mental capacities to coercive police interrogation. The enlisted man who was the focus of police suspicion, Joseph Jesse Dick Jr., is mentally slow, a factor that researchers have found to correlate with heightened susceptibility to falsely confess.

Prosecutors are fighting to uphold the convictions, and three of the men are still incarcerated.

A half-hour video on the case is available online, as is an excellent New York Times Magazine expose.

Hat tip to Jane for alerting me to this case.