That image is from the false confession of Ronald Jones, a man whose tragic story begins my book, Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong. In fact, it is an image of his entire false confession, at least the statement that the detectives had typed at the end of eight grueling hours of interrogation in Chicago in the mid-1980s. I turned the statement into a word cloud to illustrate the words that Jones had repeated the most. In his statement, Jones was unfailingly polite, and according to the police stenographer, at least, he responded “Yes, Sir,” as the detectives asked him questions. In reality, he alleged at trial, detectives had brutally threatened him, beat him, and told him what to say about a crime he did not commit. The jury readily sentenced Jones to death for a brutal rape and murder on Chicago’s South Side.
The word cloud shows why the jury put Jones on death row. Some of the most prominent words, after “Yes, Sir,” are key details about the crime scene: that there was a knife, that the murder occurred in the abandoned Crest hotel, that the killer left through a window. Jones protested his innocence at trial, but those facts were powerfully damning. The lead detective had testified at trial Jones told them in the interrogation room exactly how the victim was assaulted and killed, and finally signed that confession statement. The detectives said they brought Jones to the crime scene where Jones supposedly showed them where and how the murder occurred. After his trial, Jones lost all of his appeals. Once DNA testing was possible in the mid-1990s, he was denied DNA testing by a judge who was so convinced by his confession statement that he remarked, “What issue could possibly be resolved by DNA testing?”
In my book, I examined what went wrong in the first 250 DNA exonerations in the U.S. Jones was exonerated by a post-conviction DNA test. Now we know that his confession, like 40 other DNA exoneree confessions, was not just false, but likely contaminated during a botched interrogation. Now we know that 190 people had eyewitnesses misidentify them, typically due to unsound lineup procedures. Now we know that flawed forensics, in about half of the cases, contributed to a wrongful conviction. Now we know that informants, in over 50 of the cases, lied at trial. Resource pages with data from the book about each of these problems, and with material from these remarkable trials of exonerees, are available online.
Returning to Ronald Jones’ false confession, the Supreme Court has not intervened to regulate the reliability of confessions, such as by asking courts to inquire whether there was contamination, or simply requiring videotaping so that we know who said what and whether the suspect actually knew the actual facts of the crime. Typical of its rulings on the reliability of evidence in criminal cases, the Court held in Colorado v. Connelly that though a confession statement “might be proved to be quite unreliable . . . this is a matter to be governed by the evidentiary laws of the forum . . . not by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Preventing wrongful convictions has largely fallen on the states. I end the book with optimism that we are starting to see stirrings of a criminal justice reform movement.