For Earl Washington, it was the location of a blue, blood-stained shirt left by the killer at the crime scene. For Douglas Warney, it was the fact that the victim was cooking chicken at the time of his death and that he was wearing a red-striped night shirt. For Bruce Godschalk, it was the fact that the rapist removed a tampon from the victim and threw it against the wall. These facts -- which police claimed were non-public and which could only have been known by the true perpetrators -- gave the false confessions of Warney and Washington some credibility and made it easier to convict them (and in Washington's case, sentence him to death).
Never mind that the confessions of all three men were replete with errors (which the true killers would not likely have made). The confessions were rescued by the few key facts the men supposedly got right. When the cases went to trial, prosecutors simply portrayed the men as liars, dismissing the errors as evidence that the men were unwilling to come clean about what really happened. And when the cases reached the appellate courts, it was the "non-public" facts that led courts to affirm their convictions.
As a rule, focusing on such non-public information is one way to distinguish reliable from unreliable confessions. The problem is that in the absence of a recording of the entire interrogation, there is simply no way of knowing whether the information was inadvertently or intentionally suggested by law enforcement officers to the suspect. Fortunately, for Warney, Washington, and Godschalk, DNA evidence exonerating them conclusively proves that interrogators fed these details to the men. But what about the thousands of confessions police take each year in which there is no conclusive DNA evidence......
The case of John Spirko is a perfect case in point. Spirko is scheduled to be executed in July in Ohio for the murder of Betty Jane Mottinger. His appeals have been exhausted, the Pardon Board has twice denied him clemency, and he has been issued several reprieves by the Governor, the latest for DNA testing which is not likely to be conclusive. What is keeping Spirko on death row? Two "non-public" facts which were attributed to him by a Postal Inspector who claims that Spirko gave him information that only the true killer would have known. Inspector Paul Hartman claims that Spirko told him that " a red stone had been pried from a ring worn by the victim" and that the victim's handbag had "loop handles and was cream-colored." Spirko's statements about the death of Mrs. Mottinger were filled with errors, he could not lead police to a single piece of evidence they did not already know (when asked to identify the safe house where she was held before being killed, he led the police on a wild goose chase), no physical evidence links him to the crime and none of the fingerprints found at the post office from where Mottinger was abducted, were Spirko's. And Spirko had a decent alibi for the time of the crime- he was taking his sister to the doctor and meeting with a parole officer.
The NY Times Editorial on the Warney case was entitled "DNA is Good for the Soul." This may be so but the soul of the criminal justice system will never be free until the lessons of the DNA revolution are applied by courts and governors to non-DNA cases like John Spirko's.