September 1, 2011
“Three young men have had 18 years of their lives taken away. To see them get out is a blessing from God.”
— John Mark Byers, father of victim Chris Byers
“If I was a judge and somebody done that to a kid I would have probably done the same thing. But he was a judge, and he went to school and he was supposed to do the right thing.”
— Jessie Miskelley
On May 5, 1993 three eight year-old boys went missing in an Arkansas suburb. Relatives, friends and neighbors searched for them throughout the evening and overnight. In the morning, under the light of day, law enforcement teams expanded the search. By mid-afternoon the bodies of the three boys had been located in a drainage ditch. One of the boys died of extensive blood loss. The other two had drowned. They had committed no crime, done no wrong. They were the innocent victim of the most heinous crime.
The police investigation began immediately and eventually turned to three young men, two of them minors. One of the men, then seventeen, was interviewed by police and admitted involvement in the crime. He identified one of the other two as the murderer and said that he had been an accomplice. Based largely upon this clear statement of his involvement, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. His two co-defendants were tried together and they were both convicted as well. One of them was sentenced to life in prison and the other was sent to death row.
Earlier this month the three men were released from prison after serving 18 years of their sentences. Though the State of Arkansas maintains that they were, indeed, the murderers, their release brings the case of the “West Memphis Three” to conclusion as a result of years of claims that there is really no evidence of their guilt and that they are innocent men. This is a most curious statement, particularly coming from Jessie Misskelley Jr., who confessed to the crime.
It’s a question that arises more often than people generally think. Why would someone confess to a crime that they did not commit? Earlier this month The Economist took a look at false confessions and just how often they actually occur, immediately noting that of the 271 people exonerated via DNA by the Innocence Project since 1992 nearly one quarter of them had originally admitted to the crime that scientific evidence later showed they did not commit.
Several studies have been undertaken to try to figure out just why an innocent person would say that they had done something that had not, in fact, done. In one American study, unknowing participants were told that they were part of a reaction time study but were asked not to press a certain computer key because it would crash the computer program being used in the test. The program was set up to crash no matter what key they pressed and yet a quarter of the participants in the study admitted to pressing the illicit key when confronted. In another study out of the Netherlands people were told that they were part of a Supermarket taste test and that they could win prizes. Eight of seventy-two people admitted to cheating even though they hadn’t.
In the computer key study several factors increased the rate of false confessions. If participants were told that there was a video of the study that might show them pressing the wrong key, the false confession rate jumped to 50%. If they were told that someone actually saw them press the bad key, the false confession rate was a shocking 80 percent.
The difference in many of these situations is the techniques that are involved in the interview that brings about the confession. Length of interview, interview conditions and accuracy of information provided to the interviewee are just a few of the factors that affect the reliability of the interview. Fortunately, many modern interviews are recorded so that judge and jury can view them. Most law enforcement agencies have realized that they want a reliable confession, not just any confession.
There were signs from outset that Jessie Miskelley’s confession was questionable. Miskelley’s IQ is 72. He confessed to killing the boys hours before the last time they were actually seen alive. He alleged a sexual assault had occurred but the medical examiner found no evidence of that. His story changed frequently.
The West Memphis Three agreed to enter a new plea — one that said the prosecution had enough evidence to convict them even though they claimed innocence. They were released with credit for the 18 years they had served — largely because of the possibly false confession of Jessie Miskelley.
David Hejmanowski is a Magistrate and Court Administrator of the Delaware County Juvenile Court and a former Assistant Prosecuting Attorney.