By Steve Drizin, Clinical law professor, Northwestern University School of Law
2015 was another momentous year in the world of false confessions. Here are my greatest hits:
2015 begins tragically as two exonerated false confessors from New York die — Sharrif Wilson, aged 38, and Daniel Gristwood, aged 48. Wilson spent 21 years and Gristwood spent 9 years in prison before being released. Wilson was a healthy 15-year-old when arrested but left prison an obese man with severe respiratory problems. He died less than a year after his release. Gristwood died of lung cancer only four months after being compensated for his wrongful conviction.
In 1985, 18-year-old Christopher Abernathy confessed to murder of his schoolmate in Park Forest, Ill. Thirty years later, the Cook County States Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit agreed to vacate his conviction after DNA evidence excluded him from several items left at the crime scene.
Carl Dukes and Lavell Jones confessed to murdering Erik Mitchell, an Albany, N.Y., college student in 1997. But new evidence – the confession of convicted killer and former Albany resident Jeffrey Conrad – prompts the DA to reopen their cases. The men remain behind bars.
CBS’s 48 Hours airs Blaming Melissa, a story which asks whether former daycare worker Melissa Calusinski falsely confessed to killing a child under her care in Lake County, Ill. Although Calusinski remains locked up, her case gets a big boost when the Lake County Coroner changes the cause of death from homicide to “undetermined” based on newly discovered X-rays which show that the child had a pre-existing head injury.
After 21 years, Angel Gonzalez, of Waukegan, Ill., in Lake County, is exonerated of a rape and kidnapping by DNA evidence.
Juan Rivera, another Waukegan man, who spent 20 years in prison before being exonerated, settles his civil rights case against Lake County authorities and others for $20 million dollars.
Debra Milke’s conviction for murdering her son is reversed and she is freed from death row in Arizona.
Amanda Knox’s long legal nightmare ends when the Italian High Court reverses her conviction.
Teina Pora, a New Zealander who falsely confessed to a rape and murder when he was just 17 and spent 20 years in prison, is exonerated.
Richard Lapointe’s 26-year-old murder conviction is reversed and he is granted a new trial by the Connecticut Supreme Court.
Tom Sawyer was never convicted of the 1986 murder of his neighbor in Tampa, Fla. But the fact that he had confessed left him with the stigma of someone who was guilty but had been released on a technicality (a judge suppressed his confession). That stigma was lifted when Stephen Lamont, whose DNA linked him to the crime, pleaded guilty to the murder.
Richard Lapointe is freed and released on bond pending the decision of the Hartford State’s Attorney on whether she plans to retry him.
Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions and Michigan’s Innocence Clinic file a petition for a new trial based on actual innocence in the case of Davontae Sanford. Sanford was only 14 years old when he confessed to and later pleaded guilty to a quadruple murder at a drug house in Detroit in 2007. Sanford has languished in prison despite the fact that a hit man, Vincent Smothers, who confessed and pled guilty to at least eight murders, also took responsibility for the four drug house murders.
Jason Strong, of Waukegan, Ill., is cleared of another Lake County, Ill., murder after serving 15 years.
A California appellate court tosses out a confession of Elias V., a 13-year-old boy convicted of a sex crime, in an opinion that draws the ire of several District Attorneys who immediately seek to “de-publish” the opinion. Justice prevails. The opinion stands.
Chicagoan Daniel Andersen’s 1980 murder conviction is vacated after DNA proves his innocence. Andersen, only 19 years old when he confessed, served 27 years in prison before being paroled. He is officially exonerated in August, is removed from the sex offender registry, and receives a certificate of innocence in December.
After settling the civil rights cases of Kenneth Kagonyera and Robert Wilcoxson, Buncombe County, N.C., officials agree to pay out settlements to the remaining three of the Fairview Five defendants– Larry Williams, Jr., Teddy Isbell and Damian Mills– even before their lawsuits were filed. Williams, the youngest, was only 16 years old when he confessed after being threatened with the death penalty. Williams, Isbell and Mills were later officially exonerated in a case that had five guilty pleas and four false confessions to a murder that was linked by DNA and a confession to another group of men. Those men remain uncharged.
Illinois appellate court vacates the conviction of Shawn Whirl and grants him a new hearing on his suppression motion based on newly discovered evidence of a pattern of police torture and the decision of Whirl’s interrogator to invoke the Fifth Amendment.
King’s County District Attorney Ken Thompson’s Conviction Review Unit vacates the conviction of Joel Fowler. Fowler was barely 18 when he falsely confessed to a 2008 murder in Brooklyn.
Bobby Johnson, who at age 16 falsely confessed and then entered a false guilty plea to a murder, is exonerated by a Connecticut court after he had served 9 years in prison. His co-defendant, 14-year-old Kwame Wells-Jordan, also had falsely confessed but had been acquitted.
Trevon Yates, a 17-year-old from East St. Louis who falsely confessed to an armed robbery and served 9 months in jail before being cleared, settles his civil suit against the Belleville authorities for $900,000.
In Death on the Hudson, 48 Hours asks whether Angelika Graswald falsely confessed to murdering her husband or whether her husband accidentally died when he fell out of his kayak into the cold water of the Hudson River without a life jacket and drowned?
Judges for Justice releases A Plea for Justice, a video laying out the case for Chris Tapp’s innocence. Many in Idaho Falls, Idaho, believe Tapp falsely confessed to the 1996 murder of Angie Dodge, including Dodge’s mother Carol.
Richard Lapointe is officially exonerated as the State decides not to retry him.
Dateline NBC releases The Confession, a story about 17-year-old Daniel Villegas’s false confession to a 1993 murder and the heroic efforts of John Mimbela, a local El Paso, Tex., businessman, to clear Daniel’s name.
A Japanese High Court in Osaka grants a retrial to Keiko Aoki, 51, and Tatsuhiro Boku, 49, finding that their 1995 arson-murder rests on an unreliable confession.
West Virginia Supreme Court vacates Joseph Buffey’s rape conviction, finding that his rights had been violated when prosecutors failed to disclose exculpatory DNA results to him prior to accepting his guilty plea.
Montana Governor Steve Bullock grants clemency to Barry Beach, who has always insisted that a Louisiana detective, linked to numerous questionable convictions, pressured him into confessing to a murder he did not commit.
Donovan Allen, who falsely confessed to the murder of his mother in 1990 at the age of 18, is exonerated by DNA evidence. Allen becomes the 334th person to be exonerated by DNA evidence.
New trial is sought for Lamarr Monson, a Detroit man convicted of the 1996 murder of a 12-year-old girl, after a bloody fingerprint found on the murder weapon – a porcelain toilet tank lid – is linked to another man.
George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts, and Eugene Vent — three Native Alaska men and one American Indian known as the Fairbanks Four – are freed and their 1997 murder convictions are vacated.
Netflix releases Making a Murderer, a ten-part documentary chronicling the convictions of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey for the murder of a Wisconsin woman. Moira Demos’ and Laura Ricciardi’s film raises questions about the then 16-year-old Dassey’s interrogation and focuses on the extent to which detectives coerced Dassey and fed him facts to make his confession appear to be credible.