(Photo by Rod Sanford, Lansing State Journal)
Claude McCollum was first freed on bond, then his electronic tether was removed, and finally, Ingham County Prosecutor dismissed all of the charges against McCollum. The process from the time McCollum was granted a new trial until the time of his exoneration moved quickly (about a month) because of the diligence of the prosecutor and because of the excellent reporting of the Lansing State Journal reporters (primarily Kevin Grasha) who kept the pressure on with story after story detailing the collapse of the case. What lessons can be learned from this tragedy? When a plane crashes, the FAA and other agencies conduct a thorough review of all the available evidence to find the cause of the crash and to learn how to prevent such crashes in the future. A similar such analysis must be conducted in Michigan, preferably by an outside agency with no connection to the Lansing Police Department, the Ingham County Prosecutors, or any other law enforcement agency connected to the case. Michigan may want to consider creating an Innocence Commission like those established in a number of state. Any such report should be made public. Until such reports are released, however, some lessons are clear:
1) Michigan must join the 8 states and the District of Columbia that require electronic recording of all interviews and custodial interrogations of suspects (at least in homicide cases). Parts of McCollum's interrogations were not recorded, making it impossible to determine if the facts in McCollum's confession that he did get right came from McCollum or were suggested to him by police. If they have the equipment to record some of the interrogation, then they have no excuse for their failure to record the entire conversation.
2) The so-called confession from McCollum should not have been admitted into evidence. "Hypothetical statements" are not confessions and are not statements against penal interest or admissions. Such statements are unreliable hearsay, the probative value of which is greatly outweighed by the prejudice to the defendant. They should not be admitted into evidence.
3) Confessions must be corroborated before being admitted into evidence. Law enforcement officers must assess whether the details of the confession fit the objectively knowable facts of the crime. If there is a fit, they must ask, did the suspect provide non-public information that only the true perpetrator could have known. They must not only look to whether the suspect got some facts right but whether he made mistakes or was unable to provide key details when pressed by police (McCollum's statement was short on details about what the victim looked like, what she was wearing, etc). and it was filled with errors. They must examine whether the suspect could lead police officers to any information that they did not know (McCollum could not lead them to items presumed missing from the crime scene). But perhaps most important, investigations do not end when a suspect confesses. Investigators must evaluate a confession in light of all of the evidence and seek to corroborate the confession. If new information comes to light which calls into question the reliability of the confession, they must reexamine the confession, not try to dismiss the evidence or explain it away as being inconsistent with their theory. Once the DNA from under the victim's fingernails excluded McCollum, prosecutors and police should have reassessed their case and reopened the investigation instead of proceeding full speed ahead against McCollum. The fact that they proceeded against McCollum even though they had video evidence that he was elsewhere at the time of the murder was another warning sign that they ignored. This was a trainwreck that could have and should have been avoided. Not only did they imprison an innocent man but they may have left a violent predator out on the streets to wreak havoc on other innocents in the community.
4) Lansing prosecutors should have an open file in criminal cases and there should be reciprocal discovery with defense attorneys. There is no reason why a report in which a detective says that Claude McCollum is caught on video in a different building on campus at the time of the murder should not have been produced. When someone's life is on the line, prosecutors and police officers' should not be allowed to play hide and seek with such important documents. Even if prosecutors used the video in their case against McCollum, they obviously misled the jury by failing to tell the jury that the video actually exculpated McCollum.
5) The forensic testimony of the "forensic scientist" who testified that a fiber found on the victim was "consistent" with a fiber found from McCollum's clothing should never have been admitted into evidence. Such testimony is junk science of the highest order and gives the appearance of corroborative evidence where none exists. The circumstances behind this testimony should be investigated -- was she pressured by the authorities to come up with some evidence to corroborate the confession?
6) Police officers and prosecutors need to receive training on how to interrogate mentally limited suspects and on false confessions. In the wake of a series of false confessions in Broward County, Fla., State's Attorney Michael Satz brought false confession expert Richard Leo to Broward and mandated that all officers and prosecutors be trained on how to recognize false confessions. Ingham County prosecutor Dunnings should consider doing the same thing. The kinds of tactics used in the McCollum case are especially dangerous when used with vulnerable, highly compliant suspects.
7) The press should be careful about the language they use in describing criminal suspects. Virtually every story described McCollum as "homeless" and as a "drifter", two words that conjure fear in the hearts of the public and which may have created an environment in which it became easier for the public (and the jury) to believe that he was capable of such a brutal crime. McCollum may have not had a fixed address but the man was trying desperately to improve his situation, working overtime to get a business degree. Most importantly, there was nothing in his background that suggested he was capable of such a violent sadistic crime.
There will no doubt be other recommendations to follow once more information comes to light, including recommendations concerning how Mr. McCollum should be compensated for the 33 months he spent incarcerated (jail plus prison) but this should provide some fodder for discussion as Lansing and Michigan begins to grapple with the horror of what was done to Claude McCollum.