Diane Polan, Defense Attorney vs. New Haven Det. Clarence Willoughby
Central Park Jogger Case
Last week, a New Haven, Ct jury acquitted 14 year old Kwame Wells-Jordan on charges connected to the armed robbery and murder of 70 year Herbert Fields in August 2006.
In her closing, defense attorney Diane Polan urged the jury: " Don’t let this be Connecticut’s ‘Central Park Jogger’ case... The police here did not “connect the dots;” once they had the boys’s statements on tape (two other juveniles had falsely confessed) they did not follow evidence that two different teenagers had committed the crimes.
How did Polan persuade the jury to acquit her client in the absence of DNA evidence proving that the confession was false. She did it the old-fashioned way -- by leaving no stone unturned in her investigation, by painting a picture of police coercion, by educating the jury about false confessions and the vulnerabilities of youthful suspects, by pointing out errors in the confessions and inconsistencies among the confessions, and by pointing the finger at two other suspects who were linked to the crime by physical evidence. Even with such a no holds-barred defense, it is hard to win confession cases. When it succeeds, the defense should be celebrated and studied. Here is a quick case-study (any factual errors are mine).
On August 1, 2006, 70 year old Herbert Fields was sitting in his car, in New Haven Connecticut, waiting for his girlfriend to return from her house. Minutes later, he was shot to death, the victim of an apparent armed robbery. A police canvas of the area turned up little useful information. Witnesses saw two black teenagers, ages 15-16, one of whom was taller than the other, one who had light skin color and the other who was medium-complected. With no suspects and no leads after two weeks, New Haven police officers began to lean on neighborhood teens for information about the Field shooting. One such interview produced another lead- “I heard that Bo did it,” said one arrestee, “I think he lives on Willis.”
The “Bo” on Willis was a 16 year old named Bobby Johnson. Two New Havendetectives assigned to the homicide-- Detectives Clarence Willoughby (see above) and Michael Quinn arrived at Johnson’s home and asked his mother to take Bobby downtown for some questioning. Despite hours of interrogation, the police were unable to get a confession and released Johnson. Johnson did tell the police that when he heard the sirens, he ran to the crime scene to see what was up.
Bobby’s house, they had seen his firend, Kwame Wells-Jordan, a tall lanky
14-year old. The next day, they returned to Johnson’s house, where they saw
Kwame sitting on
a stoop. They took him downtown for questioning. Wells-Jordan claimed that he
also knew nothing of the crime. He told police a similar story as his friend
Bobby Johnson, admitting to being curious and going to the crime scene with
Johnson after the shooting took place. Citing “discrepancies” between the
stories of the two boys, the police came to view Johnson and Wells-Jordan as
suspects. They pursued the two boys with a
vengeance, hell-bent on proving that they were the culprits.
September, about a month after the killing, Detectives
Willoughby and Quinn picked up Johnson again. This time they turned up the
heat. They told Johnson that a palmprint found on the passenger side of
the car was his (a lie). Feeling like he had no choice but to confess, Johnson said he was the
shooter. His accomplice, he said, was his 16 year old cousin Michael Holmes.
The confession, but not the interrogation, was captured on audiotape.
Willoughbyand Quinn next turned to Holmes. The detectives confronted Holmes with Johnson’s statement and tried for over an hour to get Holmes to admit his involvement. But Holmes would have none of it. According to Holmes, Willoughbynext took a page right out of the interrogation playbook used by the detectives in the Central Park Jogger case. They told Holmes that if he simply said he was there- “a witness”-- but ran away after the shots were fired, he would not be charged. Holmes took the bait. And by the way,Willoughby asked “wasn’t Kwame there as well?” Holmes said “yes.” Again, only the confession statement was recorded.
The next day, the police tried in vain to get Wells-Jordan to confess. According to Wells-Jordan’s aunt and legal guardian, Julia Sykes,
Detective Willoughby told Wells-Jordan that the palm print was his.
Wells-Jordan held firm, saying “it’s not mine” and even offered to give the
detectives a fresh set of his own palm prints to compare. When Willoughby began to get even more aggressive,
Sykes decided to take Wells-Jordan and leave.
In mid-September, the police got an arrest warrant based on Johnson’s own confession and that of his cousin , Michael Holmes. Once Johnson was in custody, Willoughby and Quinn again pressured Johnson, telling him he had to “fix” his story and implicate Kwame and telling him “we know he was involved.” Johnson, alone and under arrest for murder, finally gave in and told another story, this time claiming that Wells-Jordan grabbed the victim’s wallet and took his money. That second confession gave the police the probable cause to get an arrest warrant for Wells-Jordan.
In November, the police arrested Wells-Jordan pursuant to an arrest warrant based completely on Holmes’s statement and the second confession of Johnson implicating Wells-Jordan as his accomplice. Willoughbyand Quinn pressured Wells-Jordan to come clean, telling him that this was his last chance to help himself: “It’s your chance to tell your side of the story.” After several hours of this, Wells-Jordan’s aunt gave up- “just tell them what they want to hear,” she told her nephew, “we’ll deal with this when it comes to court.” Wells-Jordan confessed.
By the time of
Wells-Jordan’s trial, Bobby Johnson had pleaded guilty to the murder and been
sentenced to 38 years. The State expected him to be one of their star witnesses
against Wells-Jordan. The other star-witness would be Holmes who was never
charged in the case. With this testimony and Wells-Jordan’s statements, the
State must have been confident in its ability to get a conviction against
But Polan had
a few tricks up her sleeve as well and caught a few unanticipated breaks. One
big break was that Detective Willoughby had been arrested on
charges of forgery, larceny, and making a false statement after he was
allegedly caught stealing money and forging documents from a fund for
confidential informants. He would not take the stand for the prosecution
against Wells-Jordan, although he was brought into the courtroom and forced to
assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination (outside the
presence of the jury).
State’s star witnesses- they
both turned out to be surprise star witnesses for the
defense. In a move that stunned everyone in the courtroom, both Johnson and Holmes recanted their statements and blamed Willoughbyfor pressuring
them into implicating themselves and into naming Wells-Jordan. The exchange between Johnson and Assistant
State’s Attorney James Clark grew so heated that it almost came to blows, with Clark trying to bait Johnson into fighting him in the courtroom.
the reliability of Wells-Jordan’s statements, Polan relied on her
cross-examination of Quinn to score some points, getting him to admit that he
lied to Wells-Jordan when he told him that the palm prints were his. He
referred to the tactic as “misinformation.” When she asked "you mean that you lied to him, right?," Quinn had to say "yes." He Told the jury that he
lies to suspects “to get them to tell the truth.”
She also called Julia Sykes to describe the intensity of the interrogation and Willoughby’s in-your-face tactics. Sykes served as Wells-Jordan’s proxy. The fact that she broke, eventually telling her nephew to confess, must have made the jury think that if the interrogation was so intense as to break an adult, it must have had an even more powerful effect on a fourteen year old.
called false confession expert Solomon Fulero who testified about the Reid
technique and the special risks of false confessions when police used modern
psychological interrogation techniques on juveniles. Fulero also testified
about the central role of the evidence ploy. “The goal is to get somebody to
the place where (they believe that) for them to say they did something is
better for them than to say they didn’t,” Fulero testified, “even if they
didn’t do it.” Fulero said police use “the evidence ploy” in which a suspect is
falsely told of evidence against him. “This makes the person think his
situation is hopeless and denials will be useless.”
realized that simply relying on recantation evidence by two co-participants and
evidence that police interrogation tactics can lead to false confessions, might not be enough to shake a jury’s faith in a confession. To succeed, the defense
attorney in a false confession case has to persuade the jury not
only that the confession is coerced and that the confession is unreliable,
she has to give the jury a reason for believing that the confession is false.
Unlike the Cental Park Jogger case, however, there was no DNA evidence to disprove
Wells-Jordan’s confession. Polan had to convince the jury that the confession
was false by highlighting the
inconsistencies among the confessions of the co-defendants, the lack of any
physical evidence linking her client to the crime (and the presence of physical
evidence linking others to the crime), the many errors contained in the “facts”
provided by her client in his confession, and by attacking the credibility of
the police officers who obtained the confessions.
Polan demonstrated that the boys’ confessions did not match the objective evidence of the crime and were probably scripted by the police. For example, one of the boys told police that Fields was shot after he bumped into Michael on the street. This was clearly false as Fields was shot in his car. Another statement claimed that Kwame had grabbed Fields’ money out of his wallet and threw the wallet back into the car. This was clearly false as the wallet was secured in a closed center console and the police officer who processed the car testified that it had been “undisturbed.”
Polan not only underscored that there was no physical evidence linking her clients to the crime, she told them that the only scientific evidence in the case both cleared Wells-Jordan and (Johnson and Holmes) and identified the likely perpetrators. In August 2006, less than a month after Fields was killed, 17-year old Larry Mabery, who had a lengthy criminal record of violence, was shot to death in New Haven. Police recovered a weapon on Mabery. Ballistics tests proved that this weapon was the same weapon that was used to kill Fields. Police also found a match to the palm print on the passenger side of Fields’ car. The print matched to Richard Benson, another teenager, with a history of weapons offenses. Benson is Mayberry’s first cousin. Polan brought Benson into the courtroom and forced him to “take the Fifth” to any questions about the shooting. She also subpoenaed Benson and Mabery’s grandmother who testified that the cousins were “as close as brothers.”
The acquittal of Wells-Jordan is a textbook case of how to defend a false confession case. Although Wells-Jordan was acquitted, Polan does not see her work as done. After all, Bobby Johnson is still locked up and will be for the remainder of the next thirty-plus years. Much of the evidence developed at Wells-Jordan’s trial can and should be used to reopen Johnson’s case. Polan is already scouting for the Connecticut Innocence Project or some other seasoned defense attorney to take on Johnson’s case.
The Wells-Jordan case is yet another in a long line of false confession cases in Connecticut (Peter O’Reilly, David Saraceno) that underscore the need for Connecticut’s legislature or Supreme Court to require that interrogations (not just the final confession) of both adults and especially juvenile suspects be electronically recorded. Perhaps, the acquittal of Bobby Johnson and mandatory electronic recording of interrogations will be part of the legacy of Connecticut's Central Park Jogger case.