True Confessions?

Seventeen years ago, Charles Raby said he killed an old lady. Now he's not so sure.

Wilkin, a nurse, volunteers with prisoners and cries as she tries to explain why:

"It's my fault that he's in there, because of the confession that he signed, and the reason that he will never be released, and the reason that he may die, and they will kill him. And I will take that with me to the grave."

Wilkin has never asked Raby if he did kill Franklin. "I can't even answer that. I've never been able to say yes or no."

No physical evidence tied Charles Raby to the murder. He and his lawyers found out only recently that someone else's blood was beneath the victim's fingernails.
No physical evidence tied Charles Raby to the murder. He and his lawyers found out only recently that someone else's blood was beneath the victim's fingernails.
Attorney Sarah Frazier thought she'd be little more than a rubber stamp on Raby's impending execution. Instead, she has found blood and DNA evidence that suggests someone else may have killed Edna Mae Franklin.
Chris Curry
Attorney Sarah Frazier thought she'd be little more than a rubber stamp on Raby's impending execution. Instead, she has found blood and DNA evidence that suggests someone else may have killed Edna Mae Franklin.

From time to time, Raby's cell fills with legal documents and case files. Then he tears them to shreds.

"I can't explain to you how much it bothers me not to remember that night. And it eats at me, man. I try and try and try. And it drives me crazy. I bounce off the walls," Raby says. "That blackout, it scares me. To this day it scares me."

Memories change, according to Dr. Christian Meissner, and are inherently unreliable things. He has been hired by the U.S. Army with exactly that in mind.

A cognitive and behavioral scientist at the University of Texas-El Paso who specializes in false confessions, Meissner is helping interrogators to produce more reliable information. The key is understanding how unreliable human sources can be.

"Memory evolves over time. It's a product of how we tell the story over time, a product of what we hear about other stories and how that changes our own. It's a product of simple memory loss, and us filling in some of the details of what should have happened, or would have happened, given where we were," he says. "But even these memories that we think we have complete control over, and have high confidence in, are in fact inaccurate for a variety of reasons."

Faulty memory can corrode witnesses and alibis. It can also, Meissner says, lead a person to confess to a crime he didn't commit — and even begin to believe his confession.

"Here's an individual who did commit crimes previously," Meissner says of Raby. "He's probably wrestling with his persona. With his own perception of himself."

Meissner points to two main factors for what he calls a coerced-internalized false confession. The suspect's memory for the time frame in question must be vulnerable in some way. And he must be faced with perceived evidence of his guilt. It also helps, Meissner says, if the suspect's friends and family, and even the suspect himself, believe he is capable of the crime.

From here, common interrogation tactics, such as leading questions and minimizing guilt, can backfire. Police may have little idea that the information they're getting could be unreliable.

"I think they underestimate the power of their authority," Meissner says. "I think they underestimate the power of their techniques."

Allen, who is now a private investigator, did not respond to requests to comment for this article. Raby initially denied even visiting the neighborhood that day, but Allen had already interviewed all the people who'd seen him. In the offense report, Allen writes that when he told Raby he had been seen jumping Leo Truitt's fence, Raby teared up and began to confess.

In Raby's version, he told Allen everything "all the way until I blacked out." But Allen insisted there was more to the story:

"You blacked out so you might not know."

Allen tried to hold his hand:

"You might not remember this, but it's possible you done it."

Allen told him he'd been seen jumping the fence.

"Okay, I jumped the fence then."

"You got out the back door."

"Then I went out the back door."

Since human evidence is always suspect, Meissner says, a reliable confession should provide new information about the crime, or volunteer something that only the person who committed it could possibly know.

"The only thing that you can get an innocent person to confess to is your version of events," he says.

The confession should also be supported by the rest of the investigation. But too often, Meissner says, it stops with the statement, leaving questions that become harder and harder to answer.

"The story of what happened has evolved over time," he says. "I had a memory for some of the event, other people had a memory for other parts of it, and now it's been shaped by the trial record, by having discussed it with other people, by having told it, and so forth. You may actually never get back to the truth."

And it isn't only Raby's memories that have shifted and scrambled over time.

When Benge first told police about Raby's argument with Franklin, he said he and Rose weren't there at the time. He'd heard from his grandmother that Raby got mad when she tried to run him off and swore and broke a beer bottle on the porch. The argument took place five days before the murder.

Rose told the television camera he was there that day. Raby broke the bottle on the porch and stormed off, and that was the last he'd seen of him. In trial, Rose added that he went with Raby to make sure he left.

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