In 2008, three books were published detailing the cases of six men who were wrongfully convicted of brutal murders on the basis of their "confessions." All are must-reads and should be added to the collections of anyone interested in the literature of wrongful convictions.
Let's start with In Spite of the System, Gary Gauger's (with Julie Von Bergen) haunting first person account of his wrongful conviction in connection with the murder of his beloved parents Ruth and Morrie Gauger. Short and sweet, this book clocks in at just under 200 pages, and can be read in a single sitting. Beginning with Gary's account of the day he first noticed his parents were missing and the discovery of his parents' bodies, the book proceeds chronologically through his interrogation, arrest, trial, conviction, incarceration (including time on death row), and his exoneration. As a client and longtime supporter of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, and a man whose story has been featured in the award-winning play "The Exonerated," I've heard Gary's story many times and it always remains fresh. This book, based in part on letters Gary wrote from jail to his friend Nikki, gives the reader a true insight into Gary's character. Filled with Gary's musings about farming (Gary was a budding organic farmer when arrested), Gary's dreams and thoughts about getting back to the farm helped sustain him through the chaos of prison life. The letters also contain very insightful comments about the need for better communication between trial lawyers and clients, the importance of family support for those wrongfully accused, and the almost pathological need for some in law enforcement to insist on a convicted person's guilt even in the face of powerful and overwhelming evidence of innocence. It is an inspiring and uplifting tale, a tribute to Gary's indomitable spirit. The book deserves a wider audience. Self-published, it can be ordered at www.garygauger.com
A Criminal Injustice, Richard Firstman's and Jay Salpeter's book on the twenty year struggle to free Marty Tankleff, is a tour de force of a young man's (only a teenager when he was arrested for murdering his parents) and his family's struggle to regain Marty's freedom against a corrupt Suffolk County criminal justice system. The book works on all levels. Two thirds of the book is taken up with telling the back story of the case -- the tony suburb of Belle Terre, the lives of the victims, Marty's privileged, if not spoiled childhood, his relationships with his parents and extended family, the business disputes between Marty's father and one of his partners that ultimately led to the murders, and the challenges faced by Marty's trial, appellate, and post-conviction lawyers. Marty was privileged to have quality lawyers at every stage of the process, a reminder that confession evidence is so powerful, that even the best and brightest lawyers face and uphill battle. The final third of the book reads like a detective novel because that is exactly what it is -- an account of Jay Salpeter's great gumshoe work to develop the evidence that eventually would prove that Marty was innocent and that a trio of other men, connected to Tankleff's father's business partner, were responsible for the killings. Salpeter and a team of lawyers worked for years for Tankleff on a pro bono basis, not only because they believed in his innocence, but because the power of Tankleff's personality, his own dedication to his case and his indomitable spirit, inspired them. "Get busy living, or get busy dying" says Morgan Freeman in the Shawshank Redemption as he reflects on how he survived all those years in prison for a crime he committed as a youth. That's precisely what Marty did --he refused to be defined by his surroundings and his circumstances -- he became his own strongest advocate. This attitude, captured by Firstman and Salpeter -- leaves me no doubt he will succeed in his new, post-prison life.
The Wrong Guys by Tom Wells and Richard Leo (one of the leading social scientific experts on police interrogations and false confessions), tells the tragic story of the murder of Michelle Moore-Bosko, a young Norfolk Virginia woman who was the wife of a Navy seaman. The tragedy is compounded when Norfolk Police focus on another Navy man, Danial Williams, a neighbor, who supposedly showed an interest in Michelle, and browbeat this mentally vulnerable man into confessing to the murder and implicating several other Navy men. As the Norfolk police pursue these men, they obtain four confessions from the men, and ultimately arrest eight men in connection with the crime. It is a case of police tunnelvision gone haywire. None of the confessions are corroborated by physical evidence -- the crime scene suggests a single perpetrator -- and DNA testing later not only excludes the men as the rapists but links an eighth man to the crime, a man named Omar Ballard, who has a history of assaulting women, who knew the victim, did not know the other men, and who later confessed to committing the crime alone. When Ballard surfaced, police simply changed their story to accomodate Ballard, arguing, without any evidence, that Ballard met up with the sailors in the parking lot where they planned to rape Michelle. Four men -- Williams, Eric Wilson, Joe Dick, and Derek Tice, were convicted of Ballard's crime (Ballard was also convicted). There's no happy ending to this complex and gripping tale. Despite a powerful push for clemency, see www.norfolkfour.org, Governor Tim Kaine, of Virginia, has yet to right this wrong. Let's hope he reads this book which convincingly demonstrates why the confessions are false and why the men have been wrongfully convicted.