The Wrong Guys
California Lawyer

The Wrong Guys

Murder, False Confessions, and the Norfolk Four

April 2009


By Tom Wells and Richard A. Leo
The New Press, 368 pages,
$25.95, hardcover


Innocent people do not confess. Especially to rape and murder.

That is the belief of most people, including jurors, judges, attorneys, and even the very police detectives who induce false confessions. It is supported by TV police dramas, in which the cops always nail the guilty, and the guilty then tell all.

The belief is strengthened by the emotional nature of confessions. Jurors find such declarations the most compelling of all evidence. And once a jury votes to convict someone who has confessed, reversal or exoneration is well-nigh impossible.

The Norfolk Four case is the perfect vehicle to challenge this misguided faith. A routine investigation into the murder of a young sailor's wife in 1997 turned into a runaway train, as detectives blindly pursued a gang-rape scenario that was inconsistent with physical evidence suggesting a lone assailant. Each time a suspect's DNA failed to match the sample found at the crime scene, the detectives added another suspect, essentially at random, until their list grew to at least eight.

Even when DNA testing established the identity of the killer - a convicted rapist who had confessed in a letter from prison - detectives refused to abandon their baseless theory. Four suspects were still coerced into confessing, and all four were convicted despite the lack of any other evidence of their guilt. One won an appeal and was released after serving eight and a half years; the other three remain in prison.

Tom Wells and Richard Leo are the ideal storytellers for this tale: Wells, author of The War Within: America's Battle Over Vietnam (University of California Press, 1994), followed the case for seven years; Leo, an associate professor of law at the University of San Francisco, is a leading expert on the social psychology of police interrogation. The book is meticulously researched, through primary-source documents and dozens of interviews.

Wells and Leo deconstruct the tangled web of complicity in these wrongful convictions. At the center of it is the shared belief of everyone involved - from police and prosecutors to judges, defense attorneys, and even the young sailors' own families - that innocent people do not confess.

It all started with the detectives. Once they developed a theory, tunnel vision kept them from considering alternatives or checking disconfirming facts. As the passive and exhausted suspects spun ever-wilder and inconsistent tales in the hope of escaping endless interrogation, the detectives' gang-rape theory took on absurd proportions.

Yet no one seemed to notice. Prosecutors, whose performance is measured by conviction rates, clung to a naive faith in the detectives' integrity. Judges refused to suppress statements obtained through violations of the suspects' Miranda rights, and barred countervailing evidence on how false confessions occur.

Perhaps most blameworthy of all, in Leo and Wells's rendition, were the men's own attorneys. Ignorant and unmotivated, they became yet another layer of coercion, pressuring their young clients to plead guilty to crimes they had not committed in order to avoid the death penalty.

Yet despite their convictions, the Norfolk Four are luckier than most wrongfully convicted defendants, who lack the massive resources needed to mount an exoneration bid. Leo brought this egregious case to the attention of the Innocence Project, which recruited several leading law firms, including Holland & Knight; Hogan & Hartson; and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, to assist pro bono. This, in turn, led to sympathetic coverage in the New York Times, Time magazine, and on ABC's Nightline.

The story's moral? Travesties like this will occur until attorneys and judges come to understand that innocent people do confess. And The Wrong Guys, with its step-by-step deconstruction of one especially Kafkaesque case, is a great starting point to teach that lesson.

The book ends rather abruptly, however, without any concluding remarks. Perhaps this is fitting, as the case itself has not ended. A clemency campaign is ongoing; 30 former FBI agents just added their voices to the growing chorus - which includes 13 jurors from two of the sailors' trials - calling on Virginia's governor to pardon the three sailors still serving time.

For those wanting additional analysis of the false-confession phenomenon, Leo's Police Interrogation and American Justice (Harvard University Press, 2008) provides a scholarly historical perspective. Tracing the evolution of police interrogations from the blatantly vicious "third-degree" practices of yesteryear, Leo shows how modern police hide behind a scientific and professional facade to target guilty and innocent suspects alike in a ruthless and fraudulent game of psychological manipulation, which has enormous influence on criminal justice outcomes.

Despite the continuing incarceration of the Norfolk Four and many others whose guilt has been called into question, Leo writes that we are entering an "era of innocence" in which widespread reforms may transform police interrogation from an adversarial practice to a truth-finding one.

The Wrong Guys is a harbinger of this cultural shift. Through it, the Norfolk Four join a collective body of wrongful-conviction narratives that challenge our entrenched cultural belief that innocent people do not confess.

Karen Franklin, PhD, is a forensic psychologist in El Cerrito. She writes about forensic psychology at forensicpsychologist.blogspot.com

We welcome your comments!

Error Encountered

We're very sorry!

This website has experienced an error. The website administrator has been informed and is working on the problem.