Until I Could Be Sure: How I Stopped the Death Penalty in Illinois by George H. Ryan, Sr., with Maurice Possley, will be released Sept. 1, 2020.
Author Jennifer Grant of Compassionate Christianity recently sat down (via Zoom) with Maury to talk about his work in the world, his spiritual journey, and what keeps him hopeful during 2020 in spite of global pandemics, social upheaval, and perhaps the most important presidential election of his lifetime.
Maurice recently was a guest on David A. Harris’ Criminal (In)Justice podcast, where he discussed his journalistic work around exonerations of the wrongfully convicted.
With hundreds of exonerations of the wrongfully convicted, it’s easy to think that the law and lawyers making use of DNA have made all the difference. But investigative journalists have made huge contributions: exposing shoddy forensics, showing the public how eyewitness testimony goes wrong and how false confessions get made, and confronting police wrongdoing and lack of accountability. Without the untiring efforts of reporters, much of the injustice in the criminal system would stay hidden.
Maurice received a nice shout out from Rick MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine, in a recent column by James Warren at the Poynter Institute.
In response to Warren’s question about the current state of criminal justice journalism, MacArthur said:
“It’s terrible now. It used to be very good when there were more newspapers. Two stars were Maury Possley (then at the Chicago Tribune, now the National Registry of Exonerations in California) and Jim Dwyer when he was at Newsday (now at The New York Times). But there were other people, too. All over the country, local papers were doing big investigative pieces on wrongful convictions and judicial malpractice. Now most of the reporters have been wiped out. So I would say the state of enterprise reporting on travesties of justice — the classic pieces — is very poor. And there’s no replacement.”
Read Warren’s column in its entirety HERE.
With my colleague Sam Gross, director of the National Registry of Exonerations, I recently published a piece on the 50th anniversary of the Miranda warnings and why so many suspects confess to crimes they haven’t committed, at The Marshall Project.
Here’s an excerpt:
“You have the right to remain silent.”
If you’ve ever watched any of the tens of thousands of hours of television devoted to crime dramas, you know the first warning given to suspects who are arrested and questioned. And the second: “Anything you say can and will be used against you.” The Miranda warnings—named for Miranda v. Arizona, the 1966 Supreme Court decision that required them—celebrate their 50th anniversary on June 13. In that period, they have become so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget their origin and purpose.
Miranda was the culmination of 30 years of Supreme Court cases that were designed to protect criminal suspects from abuse in police interrogations. The earliest of these decisions prohibited violence and torture. The first concern was to prevent confessions that are “unreliable”—that is, false.
In 1966, false confessions seemed like a rare problem. Fifty years later, we have seen hundreds of exonerations of innocent defendants who confessed to terrible crimes after they received Miranda warnings.
It’s a good time to take stock.
Do innocent people really confess without torture?Why would an innocent person ever confess to a murder or some other terrible violent crime?
Torture would explain it. That was the issue in Brown v. Mississippi in 1936, the first case in which the Supreme Court excluded a confession from a state court prosecution. Three suspects had been tortured for days. Asked how severely one defendant was whipped, the deputy in charge testified: “Not too much for a Negro; not as much as I would have done if it were left to me.”
Between 1936 and 1966 the use of torture to extract confessions declined greatly, a major accomplishment by American courts and criminal justice reformers. When Miranda was written, a shift was underway to more “modern” methods of interrogation: isolation, deception, manipulation and exhaustion rather than beating. Without torture or threats of death or violence, it seems implausible that an innocent suspect would confess to a serious crime. That is precisely why confessions are such powerful evidence of guilt. But we know it happens, time and again.
The National Registry of Exonerations has collected data on 1,810 exonerations in the United States since 1989 (as of June 7, 2016). They include 227 cases of innocent men and women who confessed, 13 percent of the total, all after receiving Miranda warnings (at least according to the police). Nearly three quarters of those false confessions were homicide cases.
But these exonerations deeply understate the extent of the problem.
Read the article in its entirety HERE.
Just got word from our agent that 2011’s Hitler in the Crosshairs just made the New York Times Best Seller list!
From the Washington Post, Wednesday March 18, 2015:
In a major turn in one of the country’s most-noted death penalty cases, the State Bar of Texas has filed a formal accusation of misconduct against the county prosecutor who convicted Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas man executed in 2004 for the arson murder of his three young daughters.
Following a preliminary inquiry that began last summer, the bar this month filed a disciplinary petition in Navarro County District Court accusing the former prosecutor, John H. Jackson, of obstruction of justice, making false statements and concealing evidence favorable to Willingham’s defense.
“Before, during, and after the 1992 trial, [Jackson] knew of the existence of evidence that tended to negate the guilt of Willingham and failed to disclose that evidence to defense counsel,” the bar investigators charged.
The bar action was filed March 5 without any public announcement. It accuses Jackson of having intervened repeatedly to help a jailhouse informant, Johnny E. Webb, in return for his testimony that Willingham confessed the murders to him while they were both jailed in Corsicana, the Navarro County seat.
Webb has since recanted that testimony. In a series of recent interviews, he told the Marshall Project that Jackson coerced him to lie, threatening a long prison term for a robbery to which Webb ultimately pleaded guilty, but promising to reduce his sentence if he testified against Willingham.
From the Washington Post, Tuesday March 10, 2015:
CORSICANA, Tex. — More than a decade after Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for the arson murder of his three young daughters, new evidence has emerged that indicates that a key prosecution witness testified in return for a secret promise to have his own criminal sentence reduced.
In a previously undisclosed letter that the witness, Johnny E. Webb, wrote from prison in 1996, he urged the lead prosecutor in Willingham’s case to make good on what Webb described as an earlier promise to downgrade his conviction. Webb also hinted that he might make his complaint public.
Within days, the prosecutor, John H. Jackson, sought out the Navarro County judge who had handled Willingham’s case and came away with a court order that altered the record of Webb’s robbery conviction to make him immediately eligible for parole. Webb would later recant his testimony that Willingham confessed to setting his house on fire with the toddlers inside.
Jackson’s handling of the case is now under investigation by the State Bar of Texas, following a formal complaint of prosecutorial misconduct last summer. That grievance asked that Jackson be sanctioned or even prosecuted for falsifying official records, withholding evidence and obstructing justice.
On Monday, an attorney for Jackson said he expected the Texas bar to notify his client soon that it will pursue formal charges of misconduct. The attorney, Joseph E. Byrne, said Jackson would seek to have any such charges heard by a jury, as the bar rules allow.
CORSICANA, Tex. — For more than 20 years, the prosecutor who convicted Cameron Todd Willingham of murdering his three young daughters has insisted that the authorities made no deals to secure the testimony of the jailhouse informer who told jurors that Willingham confessed the crime to him.
Since Willingham was executed in 2004, officials have continued to defend the account of the informer, Johnny E. Webb, even as a series of scientific experts have discredited the forensic evidence that Willingham might have deliberately set the house fire in which his toddlers were killed.
But now new evidence has revived questions about Willingham’s guilt: In taped interviews, Webb, who has previously both recanted and affirmed his testimony, gives his first detailed account of how he lied on the witness stand in return for efforts by the former prosecutor, John H. Jackson, to reduce Webb’s prison sentence for robbery and to arrange thousands of dollars in support from a wealthy Corsicana rancher. Newly uncovered letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently to intercede for Webb after his testimony and to coordinate with the rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., to keep the mercurial informer in line.
Along with Webb’s account, the letters and documents expose a determined, years-long effort by the prosecutor to alter Webb’s conviction, speed his parole, get him clemency and move him from a tough state prison back to his hometown jail. Had such favorable treatment been revealed prior to his execution, Willingham might have had grounds to seek a new trial.
Daniel Taylor didn’t commit murder — and the author, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, proved it in The Chicago Tribune. But it took the justice system more than a decade to catch up.
By Maurice Possley
THE ATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Aug. 29, 2013
During nearly 25 years as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, I received hundreds of requests for help from convicted defendants. None was more compelling than the hand-printed letter from Daniel Taylor, a 25-year-old inmate at Stateville Penitentiary in Joliet, Illinois. In neat block letters, Daniel explained that he was serving a life sentence without parole for a double murder in Chicago in 1992. Even though Daniel had given a court-reported confession, he said he was innocent and he had police records that proved it.
The letter was addressed to Steve Mills, my reporting partner on numerous stories about wrongful conviction. When Steve brought it to my desk, I was as intrigued—and skeptical—as he was. Why had this man confessed? How had he been convicted? Was he delusional about what the police records really showed?
But Daniel’s timing was fortuitous. It was the summer of 2001, and Steve and I, along with fellow reporter Ken Armstrong, were deep into an investigation of false and coerced confessions in the city of Chicago. Perhaps, we thought, Daniel’s case would provide a window into a world we suspected—and later proved—existed: a world where defendants were said to have confessed to crimes they did not commit.
And so, in December 2001, the Tribune published our five-part series, “Cops and Confessions,” Daniel’s case was the subject of an entire installment. We had uncovered strong evidence of Daniel’s innocence—evidence that he was actually in jail at the time of the crime and that his confession was false.
I had never been so confident of a convicted defendant’s innocence. And I never imagined nearly 12 years would pass before Cook County prosecutors would admit the truth and dismiss his conviction. But it finally happened. On June 28, 2013, Daniel, who was arrested at age 17, was released at age 38, having spent more than 20 years behind bars.
MoPo’s latest, published this week in the New Republic.
With 726 inmates sentenced to die, California has the largest death row in America. The state has executed just thirteen death row inmates since capital punishment was reinstated in 1977, and none since 2006. The path from conviction to lethal injection for those who were executed has taken as long as twenty-five years.
In May, the National Registry released a report describing the first 873 exonerations it identified – including seventy-nine state exonerations and one federal exoneration in California. The Report emphasized that the 873 were only a beginning—that the true number of exonerations still is unknown because there is no formal system for recording such cases as they occur.
Since then, the number of exonerations on the National Registry has grown to 996 and will soon top 1,000, according to Samuel Gross, Law Professor at the University of Michigan and editor of the Registry.