Any good criminal-defense attorney will tell you to say four words if you are about to be arrested for murder: I want a lawyer.
This is simple advice and should be easy to remember during an interrogation, but not everyone recalls it under the pressure of police questioning. Some people make matters worse for themselves in the face of strong evidence by providing an alibi or identifying another person as the perpetrator. Many succumb to the wiles of homicide detectives and implicate themselves to some lesser degree in the crime, heeding the admonition that a partial loss is better than going down for the whole thing. Some accused people are tricked into confessing, and some confess to crimes they did not commit. A certain percentage, worn down by conscience or questioning or the simple desire to get the interrogation over with, provide a detailed and honest explanation for what they did.
And then there's Anthony Sylvanus. He came to the attention of Philadelphia homicide detectives in March 2001 while minding his own business at the State Correctional Institution at Albion -- a stone's throw from Lake Erie, and as far away from his crime as the geography of Pennsylvania allows -- where he was serving a sentence of 10 to 20 years. While someone doing that much time can't be said to have much luck, whatever small amount he did possess was about to run out. Two events would cause this turn: the advent of the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, and a random conversation between a police captain in Philadelphia and a murder victim's granddaughter.
The Automated Fingerprint Identification System is an algorithm-driven method of comparing millions of known fingerprints to a single partial print. The process replaced the labor-intensive manual examinations required since police had begun using fingerprint identification in the late 19th century. The Philadelphia Police Department instituted the computer technology in the early 1990s and by 2000 could, without much trouble at all, plug in a print and see who came out. That was the year Ann Ruane's granddaughter, attending a piano lesson for her daughter, asked a fellow parent, Philadelphia Police Captain Alan Kurtz, if he might look into her grandmother's unsolved murder from 1980.
The phrase cold case has now entered the lexicon. DNA breakthroughs and Internet databases have made prosecutions and exonerations for old crimes more common today, and various television shows feature law-enforcement units dedicated solely to righting a wrong, no matter how frozen in time that wrong might be. Such units were less well known in 2000, and had Kurtz not been asked to look into the 20-year-old crime, Ann Ruane's murder might have remained unsolved. But a fingerprint happened to have survived from the case, and that print led to Anthony Sylvanus.
Not long after the print was identified, Sylvanus was transported across the diagonal of the state and confronted by Philadelphia homicide detectives. His initial denial of the crime was perfunctory, and after being told of the fingerprint hit, he quickly confessed to pushing his way into Ann Ruane's house, beating her to death, and ransacking her home for drug money. The Defender Association of Philadelphia was appointed to represent him -- I was one of his lawyers -- and the crime, although old, appeared headed toward a routine and typical prosecution. Given his full confession, the case seemed certain to end in conviction.
As for Sylvanus, he was no novice to the criminal-justice system -- surely he realized that his confession had sealed his doom. Perhaps this awareness is what motivated him to do what he did next, or maybe his conscience simply caught up with him. Whatever the reason, he decided that he had more to say. Much more. While his lawyers begged him to stop talking, and peppered the homicide unit and the district attorney's office with letters and faxes admonishing them to cease their questioning, Sylvanus defiantly insisted that he knew and understood his rights and wanted to share more about other killings. This offer obviously pleased the prosecutors, who informed the Defender Association that they would not seek the death penalty against Sylvanus; they simply wanted to know everything he knew. When all was said and done, Anthony Sylvanus confessed to five murders -- all senior citizens, all to get money for drugs, and all between May 1980 and January 1981. He was immediately charged with four of the murders, but a problem arose with the fifth. Two other men seemed to be serving time for that one. Long time.
The last murder Anthony Sylvanus confessed to was Dr. Charles Langley's beating, strangulation, and robbery. Langley, age 63, was an optometrist in the Kensington area of Philadelphia, a run-down neighborhood of crumbling storefronts in the shadow of the El. On the afternoon of January 15, 1981, the police found him in his office, choked by his own necktie; $123 and a wristwatch had been taken. Detective Frank Suminski was assigned to the case, and the murder left him with one clue: whoever had killed Langley had used his hand to "chop" him in the back of his neck.
Kensington Philly 570.jpgThe Kensington section of Philadelphia, circa 1980. (Rusty Kennedy/AP)
The detective scoured the local hospitals, and soon learned that a man named Russell had been admitted to Episcopal Hospital with an injured hand the evening of the crime. Maybe it wasn't the best lead Suminski had ever had, but it was a start. The man had given the hospital a fake last name and address, but three weeks later, Russell Weinberger was escorted into police headquarters, where he told Suminski that he had broken his pinky finger helping move a refrigerator.
The detective elicited an account from Weinberger that surely gave him pause. Although Weinberger said he had injured his hand before the murder took place, he also said he did not go to the hospital until afterwards, because he "was pretty well drunk." Though 25 days had passed since the crime, Weinberger, when told of the murder, said he knew exactly where he had been -- at home -- when it was committed. But his recounting of the accident that injured his hand was not consistent. At one point, he said he had been at Front and Cumberland Streets when the refrigerator dropped. Later, he said he'd been at 2507 Kensington Avenue, only a few dozen yards from Langley's office. Still, Weinberger denied ever having seen the eye doctor or having been in his office, and identified the man who dropped the refrigerator that broke his finger as "Oscar." Weinberger said he knew Oscar from "drinking with us," and named other fellow drinkers as "Alvin" and "Felix." Asked who he thought might have committed the murder, Weinberger said Alvin and Felix because "they both like to beat up on old men." After Weinberger gave his statement, the police administered a lie-detector test, during which he again denied knowing anything about the murder. The results were "inconclusive."
Little question exists that Suminski liked Weinberger for the murder. The next day, the police went to the Kensington neighborhood and picked up Alvin Papas, which prompted Oscar Vasquez to go see the homicide detectives himself and deny whatever Papas had told them. At that point, though, the investigation looked like a bad case of Whisper Down the Lane. Papas said nothing about falling refrigerators, and had not even been asked about one; but Vasquez told a detective that Papas had accused him of delivering a refrigerator to Langley's office, and that this was untrue. A man named James Ferrares, who accompanied Vasquez to the police station, denied that the imaginary refrigerator in the doctor's office had come from his store. The investigation appeared to be going nowhere.
But one seemingly useful opinion emerged: that the third man Weinberger had identified, Felix Rodriquez, was not a nice guy, especially when he was drinking. Papas said that Rodriquez was a troublemaker, and that he was capable of killing, especially when he was "boozed up." Furthermore, according to Papas, Rodriguez had disappeared from the neighborhood after the eye doctor's murder and had just started reappearing again.
Tracking down Felix Rodriquez took more than a month. Suminski eventually found him standing on the sidewalk before a junk shop a few blocks from the crime scene. According to the detective, Rodriquez came along willingly, and even sat in the back of an unlocked police car while Suminski went to two hardware stores, doing some personal shopping. When they finally arrived at the homicide unit, the detective put some papers together to prepare for an interview, leaving Rodriquez alone in a room for half an hour. Nothing of consequence had occurred between the two men.
Which made the following exchange between the prosecutor and the detective at Felix Rodriquez's eventual murder trial all the more shocking:
Q: What happened when you came back in to speak to Mister Rodriquez?
A: He admitted killing the doctor and said he wanted to tell the truth.
Q: Had you asked him any questions at that point?
A: No. As a matter of fact I was quite shocked at that.
Q: Had you warned him of his constitutional rights?
A: At that time, no. No.
Q: As best you can remember, what were the words that Mister Rodriquez
said when you walked back into the room?
A: He said, I want to tell the truth. I killed him. I want to tell the truth.
Q: And what did you say as soon as he said those words?
A: I said, don't say anything else until I read you your rights. I don't want to hear another thing.
Out of the blue, and with no evidence against him, Felix Rodriquez had confessed to the murder of Dr. Charles Langley.
People have been admitting to things they haven't done for as long as they've been committing crimes. On the North American continent, prominent examples reach back to 1692 and the Salem witch trials. DNA exonerations over the past 24 years have established not only how error-prone our system of justice is, but how more than a quarter of those wrongly convicted have been inculpated by their own words. Now an entire body of scientific research is devoted to the phenomenon of the false confession. In his article "The Psychology of Confessions," Saul Kassin, a professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, details three different categories of false confession: voluntary, compliant, and internalized.
Voluntary false confessions are the best known, the most easily disproved, and perhaps the simplest to understand. They are prompted not by police behavior but rather by a need for attention or self-punishment. For obvious reasons, these confessions contain only facts known to the public; they surface in high-profile cases. The kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby garnered hundreds of such confessions.
Compliant false confessions are the opposite of voluntary confessions. They are coerced by police conduct, and are generally made in the hope of ending the coercion. What stressors would make someone confess to a horrible crime, knowing that the confession's long-term implications would far outweigh any short-term relief? Torture, of course: physical violence, or the threat of future violence such as execution or prison rape. But the coercion need not be nearly as severe as that. Promises of food, a phone call, drugs to feed a habit -- all of these have led to compliant false confessions. The guarantee of sleep or simply being left alone has been enough to get an innocent person to admit to a horrendous crime. Even the illogic of a promise to go home was sufficient to get five New York City teenagers to confess, completely independently, to a Central Park jogger's rape.
Internalized false confessions differ from voluntary and compliant ones in a significant way: the confessor comes to believe that he may be guilty of the crime. Richard Leo, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, prefers to call them persuaded rather than internalized, and explains that such confessions result from interrogations that "shatter the confidence you have in the reliability of your own memory." In essence, some people begin to doubt their own memories, and start to instead believe that they might have done something awful, sometimes confabulating false memories in the process.
Even when they are false, confessions are incredibly powerful. Academics studying their importance in criminal trials have come to a perhaps unsurprising conclusion: other than physical evidence such as DNA or fingerprints left at the scene of a crime -- and in some documented cases even in spite of exculpatory DNA or other physical evidence -- a confession is the most powerful proof of guilt. But confessions are not nearly as reliable as DNA.
Multiple recent studies have shown that jurors approach confessions counterintuitively. In surveys, people seem to understand that confessions are occasionally false--previous confessors' high-profile DNA exonerations allow no other conclusion. Jurors also understand that police interrogations are designed to break down a person's will to deny culpability. But those same survey respondents, by a large percentage, do not think that they would ever succumb to such an interrogation; and they can't accept the possibility that the man in the dock might have admitted to a horrible crime he did not commit, particularly when the risk of doing so might be a death sentence.
"Mock jurors have told us time and time again that they recognize the power of psychological coercion, and that it might lead an innocent person to falsely confess," says Leo, who has studied the science of confessions for two decades. "But those same jurors also see such behavior as self-destructive rather than involuntary, and they believe that they would be able to withstand the coercive techniques utilized by the police." What this thinking leads to, says Leo, is an overwhelming tendency to accept confessions at face value.
So many years later, it is impossible to determine how the Rodriquez jury received the testimony of Detective Suminski. Did it seem strange to them that a man might blurt out a confession to murder for no reason other than being left alone in a room for 30 minutes? Or did they believe that the detective had used skillful interrogation to extract the truth? Suminski himself testified as if no interrogation had taken place at all. After pausing his conversation with Rodriquez to give him his Miranda warning, Suminski began taking a written statement from the now-confessed murderer. Yet the written confession bears little similarity to the oral admission Suminski claimed to have heard--almost as if Rodriquez forgot what he'd said only a few minutes earlier. When asked what happened on the day of the murder, he began talking about a refrigerator delivery. Vasquez and Weinberger, he said, had helped him take the appliance, not to the doctor's office or to Front and Cumberland Streets, but to a house blocks away on Green Street; then Rodriquez and Weinberger went out and bought two bottles of Thunderbird. They drank the wine on some school steps just down the block from the doctor's office, saw police cars arrive at the crime scene, and watched officers remove Charles Langley's body.
"Then I told Russell I'm going to go around Front Street, because I don't want anyone to mess with me," Rodriquez told the detective.
"Why didn't you want anyone to mess with you?," Suminski asked, according to the written confession.
"I don't want to go to jail."
"Why would you worry about going to jail, if you didn't do anything?"
"The people in that neighborhood always bother you and say things."
In short, Felix Rodriquez wasn't confessing at all.
But midway through the interrogation, things took an inexplicable turn, prompted by this innocuous question: "Felix, is there anything else you want to tell me?" Suddenly, there was. Rodriquez said he wanted to tell the truth, then went on to detail how he had murdered Langley, with Russell Weinberger's help. Weinberger, according to Rodriquez, suggested the doctor's office as a likely spot for them to get money, and Rodriquez hit the doctor in the face with a stick while Weinberger choked him. At this point, the detective noted that Rodriquez started crying and said, "I only wanted to get some money. I didn't mean to kill him!" A little later, Suminski asked Rodriquez whether Weinberger had hurt his hand. "Yes, his right hand, when he was punching Doctor." Then Rodriquez identified Weinberger as Philadelphia police photo No. 559645.
Detectives often have a suspect review his written statement and add his initials to any mistakes that might have been made during the transcription. Indeed, experienced detectives often make small mistakes on purpose, so that the accused can initial them to indicate that he read the statement over carefully. Although many corrections and parenthetical additions were made to the Felix Rodriquez statement, no initials appear at all. However, his signature and the date of the statement appear clearly at the bottom of all six pages. Thus, while no evidence supports the fact that Rodriquez carefully read over the confession, more than enough shows that he saw each page. The investigation was starting to come together after all.
One other loose end remained: Russell Weinberger. More than a month earlier, he had denied everything, but three days after the Rodriquez confession, he told a very different story to Detective Suminski. In most ways, Weinberger's new version was similar to what Rodriquez had said: both men had been drinking Thunderbird; both had a hand in beating the doctor; they split the take. Whereas Rodriquez said the robbery had been Weinberger's idea, Weinberger blamed Rodriquez -- not an unusual state of affairs when men turn on each other -- but for the most part, the statements fit neatly together. Again, as with Rodriquez's statement, there were no initialed corrections; but Weinberger's signature -- an extraordinarily neat and childlike autograph -- appeared on every page. Toward the statement's end, Weinberger drew a map to show where they had taken the doctor's watch to sell it: to Cumberland Street, two blocks from Weinberger's house. He spelled the street name "Cumlbirlin."
No lie-detector test was administered this time around. As far as the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was concerned, the investigation of Doctor Langley's killing was closed.
The case against Felix Rodriquez and Russell Weinberger did not immediately proceed to trial. First some legal wrangling took place -- a judge in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia ruled that Rodriquez's statement was inadmissible, then the Superior Court of Pennsylvania reversed that ruling. By the time the parties were finally ready to go to trial, four and a half years had passed since Charles Langley's death.
All those years gave Russell Weinberger time to think. For some of that time, the Commonwealth surely must have feared that its case against Rodriquez had slipped away -- if his confession remained inadmissible, nothing linked him to the killing. Weinberger was offered a deal to testify against his friend -- years later, he claimed that the offer had been for three years in prison, and he wanted the deal back -- but when the Superior Court decided the Rodriquez confession could be used after all, the equation changed in a dramatic way. Now, in the summer of 1985, the offer to Weinberger was 15 to 30 years; if he didn't take it, prosecutors had his own carefully signed confession, and were going to seek the death penalty. Pennsylvania hadn't executed anyone since 1962, but its death row was growing quickly, and Philadelphia was sending more than its share of inmates there. If he was lucky enough to avoid the electric chair, Weinberger was a likely candidate for a life sentence without the possibility of parole, which was the mandatory punishment for a murder that took place during a robbery.
Whether out of fear of execution or of a life sentence without hope of release, Weinberger decided to deal his way out of the jam. Six months before the scheduled trial, he agreed to serve as a witness against his drinking buddy by pleading guilty to third-degree murder, robbery, and conspiracy in exchange for the 15-to-30-year sentence. The only condition was that he testify truthfully.
Anthony Sylvanus made his formal confession to the Langley killing in 2001, 20 years, two months, and 20 days after the doctor's death. By that time, Detective Suminski had passed away. Two Philadelphia detectives were present for the confession, as were Sylvanus's public defenders -- the Commonwealth had already agreed to offer a life sentence for the crime -- and the interview took place in the more neutral Criminal Justice Center rather than the police homicide unit. Sylvanus calmly detailed the crime, informed the detectives that he had committed the murder with a juvenile named Raymond Ortiz, and added that he had confessed his transgressions to a priest some time before his fingerprint alerted police.
Did he know Felix Rodriquez? Not by his last name, but Sylvanus knew a Felix from the neighborhood. In 1981, when both of them were in the county jail, they had run into each other. Sylvanus had asked Rodriquez what he was in for, and Rodriquez told him he'd been accused of a homicide somewhere on Kensington Avenue where a guy was killed in his store. Sylvanus assumed he was talking about the Langley robbery and murder; even 20 years later, he remembered the exchange:
Q: Did you tell him that you robbed that store?
Q: Did you know that it was a doctor's office?
A: I knew, but Felix never mentioned anything along those lines that it was a doctor's office.
Q: Why didn't you tell him?
A: 'Cause I was facing serious charges already. It was stupid. I didn't care if he took the fall or not. Better him than me.
When the statement was concluded, Sylvanus signed the bottom of every page. An error appeared on page three, and he initialed there as well. One last thing was on the detectives' minds.
Q: Are you aware that people are incarcerated for this crime?
A: Yes, when I first confessed to this murder, you came back and said there is a problem, that someone else was arrested for this crime.
Q: We explained to you earlier that two people confessed to this crime and were sentenced to prison. Can you explain that?
A: They were either crazy or stupid.
Anthony Sylvanus may have been joking, but he wasn't far off when he commented that only a crazy or stupid person would admit to a crime he hadn't committed. False confessions are often obtained from those suspects most vulnerable to suggestibility and compliance; juveniles and adults suffering from intellectual disability predominate the list of known exonerees who falsely confessed. In the case of Atkins v. Virginia, the United States Supreme Court, while barring the death penalty for mentally retarded people, expressly noted their greater likelihood of falsely confessing, and thus facing "a special risk of wrongful execution."
Russell Weinberger turned out to be intellectually disabled, with an IQ score between 60 and 65. Perhaps Detective Suminski knew this--at the very least, he might have had his suspicions when Weinberger spelled "Cumberland" without an e or an a. On the other hand, some such confessors come to believe in their own guilt. Had Weinberger convinced himself that he was guilty of Langley's murder? The evidence isn't clear. A few years after the trial was over and he had been given the 15-to-30-year sentence he had bargained for, Weinberger complained about the deal he had received--not that he had confessed to a crime he didn't commit, or that the police had framed him. His complaint was that he should have been given the three-to-10-year sentence he had initially been offered. But in the late '90s, when he came up for parole, Weinberger professed his innocence and was turned down. Members of the parole board felt that he had "failed to take responsibility for the crime."
The jury trial of Felix Rodriquez finally got under way in August 1985. Just as the death penalty had hung over Russell Weinberger's head, so too did Rodriquez now face execution were he to be convicted of first-degree murder. By any analysis, the case against him was strong, with his signed confession and the corroborating signed confession of his co-defendant, Weinberger, who was now also a witness against him. Although a witness who testifies for a deal is generally considered unreliable--thought to be a "polluted source" whose testimony jurors are told to accept with extreme caution--Weinberger had not pleaded guilty in exchange for probation or some unconscionably lenient sentence. Rather, he had accepted 15 years in state prison, which surely lent him some credibility. Who in his right mind would take such a deal if he weren't guilty?
No discussion of Weinberger's intellectual impairment arose while he was on the stand. Neither attorney asked whether he could read or spell. Neither established that he had been in special education. No one appears to have raised an eyebrow when Weinberger, asked what language Rodriguez spoke, answered "American."
Although the star witness's impairments were not exposed at the trial, there were some inconsistencies you might not expect in a robbery-murder case. Weinberger claimed to have taken Langley's wallet, which contained $15 or $20; Rodriguez claimed that he was the one who took the wallet, finding $120 in it. But these discrepancies did not sidetrack the jury members, who appear to have believed the central fact of both confessions, which was that neither perpetrator intended to kill Langley. Felix Rodriquez was convicted of second-degree murder, which in Pennsylvania is a killing that takes place during the course of a felony. He was sentenced to mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole.
When Anthony Sylvanus confessed to his string of murders, he told the police that he had committed the last two with a juvenile named Raymond Ortiz. A week later, the police brought Ortiz, now age 36, into homicide; he quickly admitted his role in the robbery-murder of 87-year-old Vincent Morelli in his own home, a crime that had happened five days before Langley's killing. During the next month, both Sylvanus and Ortiz, separately and with their lawyers present, confessed to the Langley case. Neither man was threatened or coerced. The police did not feed them information. "He provided details that only someone who was there would know," Ortiz's lawyer said not long after his client's confession.
So the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania had a problem: four men had confessed to a crime only two had committed. Almost a year later, Sylvanus pleaded guilty to four of the five murders he had admitted to for four consecutive life sentences. No question remained that he was guilty of the crimes; the judge who sentenced Sylvanus noted that he wanted to plead guilty because he did it. "He was truthfully and candidly admitting to something he had done. I was 100 percent convinced." When offered the chance to allocate, this is what Sylvanus said:
Your Honor, I would just like to say that this proceeding has been long overdue; that [to] the victims' surviving family members, if any of them are here today, I would like to apologize for my past actions; that there's no justification or excuse for what I've done. And that I know that can't bring them back, but if there's a God in heaven, I'm quite sure that I will also stand before our creator and be judged for what I have done.
I intend to sleep better at night [now] that this has finally come to an end, and you have any interests at heart and I pray that we all can sleep well, you know, without me ever being a future member of society.
I know what I've done was wrong, and I accept that. And whatever judgment comes down on me today, I accept that as well.
Raymond Ortiz pled guilty as well. Since he was only 16 at the time of the crime, and was pretty clearly following the older Sylvanus, he received a five-year sentence for the killing of Vincent Morelli. Neither man was ever charged with Langley's murder. Perhaps the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania thought it unseemly to charge two new men with a crime -- even if they were clearly guilty -- when two others had confessed, been convicted, and spent years in prison for the same crime.
Anthony Sylvanus's allocution comprised his last public words. He was 47 years old at the time of his guilty plea, and met his creator sooner than his life expectancy would have dictated. On a Friday afternoon in August 2009, seven and a half years after being sentenced to four consecutive life sentences, he committed suicide by jumping off the third tier of his housing unit at the state prison in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania.
What about Weinberger and Rodriquez, the two innocent men still in prison? Everyone understood that they needed to be released, but law enforcement couldn't simply open the prison gate. Lawyers had to be involved, and procedures had to be followed, and in the end it was more complicated than that. The district attorney's office wasn't objecting to their release--not exactly, anyway. But the little matter of a lie-detector test allegedly flunked by Sylvanus and Ortiz did persist--apparently the machine wasn't certain they were telling the truth when they claimed they had killed Langley. Lie detectors have never been reliable enough to be admissible in a court of law, and the Commonwealth wasn't claiming that a test failed by two obviously guilty men was going to change its mind about Weinberger and Rodriquez. But no district attorney's office likes to admit it has made a mistake, especially when such an admission might expose the process to serious questions and, even worse, serious liability. So the failed tests, if that's what they were, opened up a third option. The Commonwealth said it had no objection to granting the men a new trial; nor did it object to releasing the men. But before their release each of them had to plead nolo contendere, meaning that, in this case, neither man was contesting the evidence of his own false confession. That way, the two men who committed the murder would be in prison, albeit for different crimes; the two innocent men, having spent more than two decades in prison for a crime they didn't commit, would be released; and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania wouldn't have to say it was sorry.
On September 20, 2002, 21 and a half years after their arrests, Russell Weinberger and Felix Rodriquez were formally sentenced to the time they had already served in prison for Charles Langley's murder, and declared free to go. When asked by the judge if either man had anything to say, Weinberger demurred. Rodriquez said, "I want to say thanks."
The judge congratulated the district attorney's office for uncovering, investigating, and rectifying "an injustice." Both defense attorneys, appointed by the court to essentially stand next to the defendants because the Constitution required it, commended the prosecutors as well -- Rodriquez's lawyer even went so far as to point out that the district attorney's office rarely got good press when they helped "right what well could have been a wrong." The judge noted that no members of the press were in the courtroom, but that they surely would have been there if the case had been a "matter about which something critical might be written about any aspect of the criminal-justice system." No apology was issued to either man for his wrongful incarceration during the proceedings, which took up 48 pages of court transcript; in fact, everyone seemed to be under the impression that the criminal-justice system had acquitted itself well. There was no discussion of false confessions, nor did anyone show any interest in possible remedies to minimize such problems in the future.
Experts like Leo and Kassin recommend a series of reforms that might reduce the risk of wrongful conviction: orienting the police interrogation model away from "confrontational" and toward "investigative;" placing limits on the length of interrogations; precluding the presentation of false evidence to an accused person as real evidence of his guilt; eliminating implicit promises of leniency; and implementing special protections for vulnerable populations such as juveniles and those with cognitive or psychological impairments. Above all is the recommendation that police departments videotape interrogations in their entirety. Eleven years after two men were released from their wrongful prison terms, the City of Philadelphia has adopted none of these recommendations.
2520 Kensington Avenue is no longer an optometrist's office -- now it is the Golden Garden Chinese takeout store. To the north is the Hasty Beer Distributor; to the south, a nail salon called Crystal's. The El roars by every three and a half minutes.
Just as the doctor's office has changed, so has the ability to reconstruct the injustice that led to the wrongful incarceration of two men for more than two decades. Detective Suminski is dead, as is Anthony Sylvanus. And it turns out Russell Weinberger has passed as well; he died from cirrhosis of the liver in 2011. His sister, Elaine Weinberger, is still staggered by the case, and what it did to her brother. What might cause an innocent man to confess to murder? To accept 15 to 30 years in prison and testify against his best friend? "You have to understand: He was slow. He couldn't read or write," she says. "He thought if he went to trial he might get the death penalty, and he was afraid of that, I guess." Russell never wanted to talk about the case with Elaine, and she didn't push him. "He said he didn't remember all that much. When I would ask him, he would just say, 'I never did it, I never did it.'"
One man is left to tell the tale. Felix Rodriquez now walks with a cane. He looks 15 years beyond his age of 54. He has suffered a stroke and now has slurred speech, but his memory has not dulled. On the subject of the case, he says that "they" did this and "they" did that, but when asked to clarify who "they" is, he says "Detective Suminski."
"First they showed me pictures of the dead guy. I started to cry. I said I didn't do that. That's when they slapped me on the back of my head, said 'They gonna put you in the electric chair.' So I signed the statement. I knew it might be bad, but I didn't know what to do. I'd never been in real trouble before. I signed the statement 'cause they said I could go home." He shakes his head and looks to the ground. "People got no business deciding who lives and dies," he says. But what about your friend - what was it like hearing him admit to the murder, and saying under oath that you did it with him? How could he do that? "You have to understand, I was never mad at Russell. Even now I'm not. Me and him grew up together. He was scared, and he was slow anyway. I knew how he felt, I was scared too."
We read about people who have suffered grievous loss through no fault of their own and yet take life's fate with equanimity. Felix Rodriquez is not one of those people. He blames the police: "They knew I didn't do this; they just scared us." Only once does his veneer crack, when the conversation turns to loss. His mother passed away in his seventh year of incarceration. "This killed her," he says of his time in prison.
Then he puts his head down and cries. "They let me go to her funeral," he says. "I got a lawyer to file something for me, and they let me go. They put cuffs on my hands and legs. There were guards on each side of me. That's how I went to my mom's funeral." Then he stops crying. He has outlived the detective who put him in prison, and the man whose confession let him out, and even the friend he went there with. But he has not outlived that memory. There are some things you don't outlive.
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