Doing hard time in a federal prison is unthinkable for most. Even more unimaginable would be serving that time because you confessed to a murder that you didn’t commit. But if the rise of DNA testing has taught us anything, it’s that confessions aren’t as reliable as we might assume.
10 Anthony Caravella
When Anthony Caravella was arrested in late December 1983, he knew he was in trouble. After all, he had failed to appear in Florida juvenile court over charges of stealing a bicycle. But he certainly wasn’t expecting to be questioned about the two-month-old rape and murder of Ada Jankowski.
Caravella, a 15-year-old with an IQ of 67, eventually gave four different confessions, which conflicted with each other as well as the crime. For example, he initially admitted to killing Jankowski by hitting her over the head with a bottle. She had actually been stabbed 29 times. He repeatedly called Jankowski a “girl” when she was actually 58, and said that she was taller than him, when she was almost 30 centimeters (12 in) shorter. His lawyers now allege that police officers pressured Caravella into confessing, then gradually fed him details of the crime until his statements became plausible. Although there was no physical evidence, the teenager was given a life sentence in 1984.
In 2001, prosecutors agreed to DNA test the physical evidence from the crime, but the results were inconclusive. Years later, in 2009, the evidence was sent to California DNA expert Edward Blake. Dr. Blake was able to do what the local lab couldn’t and isolate a sperm sample from the rape kit. Caravella was soon ruled out as the source.
Caravella was provisionally released from prison in 2009, after serving 26 years. Further tests resulted in his official exoneration in 2010. In 2013, a jury found that two former police officers had framed Caravella and ordered them to pay $7 million in compensation. A federal appeals court confirmed the verdict in 2015.
9 Jeff Deskovic
It didn’t take much for Jeff Deskovic to become a suspect in the rape and murder of a classmate in 1989. The 16-year-old first came to police attention because he was late to school on the day after the murder. The authorities also thought it was suspicious that he visited the victim’s wake three times, appearing “overly distraught.” When the police spoke to Deskovic, the teenager told them that he had begun his own amateur investigation and offered to give them a list of potential suspects.
In January 1990, the police asked Deskovic to take a polygraph test. He agreed, believing that the test would simply clear him so that he could help the police as a sort of junior investigator. The exam took place at the private polygraph business run by a local sheriff’s deputy. Deskovic was kept in a small room all day and given frequent cups of coffee, but no food. Detectives interrogated him between polygraph sessions.
After six hours, the detectives accused Deskovic of failing the polygraph test and advised him to confess. This apparently triggered a breakdown, with Deskovic sobbing uncontrollably and curled up in a ball underneath the table. He subsequently made a full confession, mostly in the third person. DNA testing then found that Deskovic wasn’t the source of semen recovered from the body. But he was prosecuted anyway, with his confession as the key evidence. He was found guilty of rape and murder in 1991.
The prosecution had argued that the semen could have come from a consensual partner, so it didn’t matter that it wasn’t from Deskovic. However, almost exactly 15 years later, the semen was retested and the results entered into a DNA databank of convicted felons. It was a match for a man named Steven Cunningham, who was in prison for a similar murder. When confronted with the evidence, Cunningham confessed to the earlier murder as well. Deskovic was released shortly afterward.
For his wrongful imprisonment, Deskovic received over $13 million from New York state, Westchester County, and Peekskill. In a civil rights lawsuit against Putnam County, a federal jury awarded him $41 million more.
8 Henry Lee McCollum And Leon Brown
In 1983, an 11-year-old girl was found raped and murdered in the small town of Red Springs, North Carolina. The police had no leads, but a local youth suggested that the culprits might have been half brothers Henry McCollum and Leon Brown. The teenage brothers were both mentally disabled and had recently moved to Red Springs from New Jersey with their mother.
After five hours of questioning, McCollum signed a confession in the belief that he would be allowed to go home if he did. The police then told the 15-year-old Brown that his brother had confessed and implicated him; they urged him to confess as well to avoid the death penalty. He did.
McCollum and Brown both quickly renounced their confessions, but they were still convicted and sentenced to death. Brown’s sentence was later downgraded to life in prison, but McCollum remained on death row. The US Supreme Court declined to review the case in 1994.
Three decades after the murder, North Carolina’s Center For Death Penalty Litigation was able to secure new DNA testing on much of the physical evidence. DNA found on a cigarette butt at the crime scene was found to belong to a man named Roscoe Artis, who lived nearby and had previous convictions for sexual assault. A few weeks after the murder, Artis had confessed to another rape and murder in the area, for which he was eventually sentenced to life in prison.
It is not clear why the authorities continued to prosecute the brothers after discovering that a man living a block away from the crime scene had committed a virtually identical crime less than a month later. McCollum and Brown were released in 2014 and officially pardoned in 2015, entitling them each to receive the maximum allowed compensation from the state: $750,000.