Nathaniel Hatchett hugging his brothers after his release from prison after servind 12 years for a rape he did not commit.
Nathaniel Hatchett was just 17 years of age when he decided to take a car that was parked outside of his house for a joyride. Little did he know that this car theft would lead to a wrongful rape conviction that would keep him confined for the next 12 years. The car, as it turned out, had been reported stolen by a rape victim who had been carjacked, abducted, and raped by a hooded man who stalked her as she was leaving her place of work in Sterling, Michigan.
Three things contributed to Hatchett's wrongful conviction: a false confession, a mistaken identification by the victim, and prosecutorial misconduct -- failing to turn over exculpatory DNA evidence and misleading jurors about that evidence at trial.
Prosecutors should have known the confession was unreliable says Hatchett's attorney, Donna McKneelen, co-director of the Innocence Project at Cooley Law School. The confession did not fit the facts of the crime. Hatchett gave police the wrong day of the crime, he said there was a struggle when there was none, and he described sexual acts that never occurred. And of course, there was the DNA exclusion. DNA tests of bodily fluids found in the car and on the victim's clothing excluded Hatchett. Nevertheless, prosecutors told the jury that the DNA could have belonged to the victim's husband. But advanced DNA testing at the time proved it was not the husband's DNA. These additional test results (which form the basis of the prosecutorial misconduct) provided further proof at the time that Hatchett's confession was false.
Why did Hatchett confess? It's the classic story of many juvenile false confessions -- police pressure overwhelms a young and unsophisticated teenager and he gives in to bring the interrogation to a halt. As Hatchett describes it: "They kept telling me what to say, and I got confused. I told them I didn't rape nobody but they wouldn't listen. I was 17, and scared, and I didn't know what to think. I started getting tired, and I just told them what they wanted to hear."
The false confession in this case is perhaps the easiest thing to understand (although extremely difficult for juries to get) but what is baffling is the prosecutorial misconduct. Deceiving a jury and burying exculpatory evidence are potential license-losing offenses if caught. Few prosecutors are willing to engage in such overtly unethical tactics. The good news is that there will be a forum for prosecutors to explain these actions -- Hatchett has already retained a civil lawyer who plans to file suit in federal court. Stay tuned.