November 7, 2010

Don’t miss Frontline's "The Confessions" airing Tuesday

The Norfolk Four sailors are out of prison, but they remain convicted sex offenders with all of the stigma and draconian restrictions that status entails. Now comes what some are calling the best program ever on the subject of why people falsely confess:
Why would four innocent men confess to a brutal crime they didn’t commit? FRONTLINE producer Ofra Bikel (Innocence Lost, An Ordinary Crime) investigates the conviction of four Navy sailors for the rape and murder of a Norfolk, Va., woman in 1997. In interviews with the sailors, Bikel learns of some of the high-pressure police interrogation techniques -- including the threat of the death penalty, sleep deprivation, and intimidation -- that led each of the “Norfolk Four” to confess, despite a lack of evidence linking them to the crime. All four sailors are now out of prison -- one served his sentence and the other three were granted conditional pardons last summer -- but the men were not exonerated as felons or sex offenders. The case raises disturbing questions about the actions of the police and prosecutors, who relied on the sailors’ often contradictory confessions for their convictions, and disregarded DNA evidence that pointed to a lone assailant who would later confess to the crime himself while serving prison time for another rape.

Airing this Tuesday night on PBS, The Confessions is incredibly timely. Two weeks ago, a federal jury convicted the lead homicide detective of extortion for taking bribes from criminals in exchange for favorable treatment in a series of unrelated cases.

But meanwhile, the four sailors from whom he extracted confessions continue to live "in a hellish limbo," writes Virginia journalist Margaret Edds, author of "An Expendable Man: The Near-Execution of Earl Washington Jr."
  • In Michigan, Danial Williams wears an electronic ankle bracelet 24 hours a day. He cannot even work in the yard without permission.
  • In Texas, Eric Wilson was denied admission to a school for electricians and cannot adopt his wife’s son because of his criminal record.
  • In North Carolina, Derek Tice washes windows for a living, his dream of becoming a nurse forever barred.
  • In Maryland, Joseph Dick fears taking his parents’ dogs for a walk because a school backs up to their property.
Having blogged about this case since 2007, I am excited to see this show finally airing. Hopefully, it will create enough public pressure to force Virginia's governor to at long last exonerate the four.

So, as a colleague said, "Tape it, burn it, TIVO it, watch it, have your family members watch it, have their friends watch it, have your students watch it, your teenage children watch it, tweet it, Facebook it, blog it."

Bottom line: Don't miss it.

Further resources:

PBS' website on The Confessions is HERE.

My reviews of
The Wrong Guys by Tom Wells and Richard Leo are HERE (Amazon) and HERE (California Lawyer magazine).

rior blog posts on the case:
Hat tip: Luis


Truth in Justice Files said...

Unfortunately, I believe that the current Virginia governor is even less likely than his gutless wonder predecessor to pardon these men. He, too, has political aspirations beyond his present office, and fears he would be seen as "soft on crime." The victim's parents remain utterly and vocally convinced that all four men participated in the rape and murder of their daughter, another factor denying them justice.

FpsY said...

Very good documentary. Jessie Miskelly of "The West Memphis Three" was also coerced into giving a false confession and he also implicated two other boys in the crime. He also had no legal counsel with him. Every time he got the facts wrong, the police coached him so that his confession matched what evidence they had. Miskelly recanted his confession.

The moral panic that swept the community including those employed in criminal justice system helped fuel the process.

The confession was a compelling piece of evidence that the jurors found difficult to ignore. In addition to the junk science.

Three boys now men have been incarcerated for 12/13 years, one on death row. They are hoping for a new trial where DNA evidence not available at the time will exonerate them.

Anonymous said...

I watched this in my criminal law class and I have to say this is embarrassing to the law field, I cannot believe this still happens in American. Mr Ford should face the death penalty for his extreme and outrageous conduct!!! These confessions should not matter they are unjust and can be proven through DNA. Innocence should be a defense alone, these facts should be viewed as a criminal who made these gentleman's confession his version not the truth WHERE IS THE JUSTICE!!!!!