Transcript

210:

Perfect Evidence
Transcript

Originally aired 04.19.2002

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

This is how far it's gone. In his office at a place called The Innocence Project in New York, Huy Dao stands amidst piles of letters and legal documents.

Huy Dao

I'm not really sure how to describe it. At some points, the piles are actually as tall as I am and I'm six feet tall. It might be funny if it weren't so sobering at the same time.

Ira Glass

Just outside the door of his office are four stacks of letters that go waist high.

Huy Dao

We estimate there's 2,000 letters here that have only been logged in and not even looked at. The volume of mail has grown exponentially. If you had come here two years ago, there would have been two weeks worth of mail and now there's eleven months worth.

Ira Glass

All these letters from prisoners who hope that DNA evidence will set them free. These are the only cases The Innocence Project takes on. For after they're done screening the letters and choosing the best cases and sending the prisoners to get their DNA tested, half the time, the test proves the prisoner was guilty, which when you think about it, the prisoner knew all along.

How far has it gone? How much have things changed because of DNA evidence? The largest and oldest private DNA forensics lab in the country, Cellmark Diagnostics in Germantown, Maryland, still tests for murder and sexual assault cases. But now the fastest-growing part of their business is old, unsolved cases. They test evidence for over 500 of these a month. Lab director Charlotte Word says they're also doing robberies, assaults, criminal paternity suits, private eye work, insurance fraud, medical malpractice--

Charlotte Word

Well, there have been cases where individuals were told they had cancer. They went in and had an organ or tissue or something removed, and then when the pathologist did the review of those tissue samples, no form of cancer was identified. So the question was, in the original slide that was looked at, was there a mistake that this slide really belongs to someone else who truly has cancer?

Ira Glass

A person who actually has cancer but doesn't know it because the slides got switched?

Charlotte Word

That's correct.

Ira Glass

How far has it gone? Even medium-sized cities like Arlington, Texas, population 350,000, are going back through all their old, unsolved homicides to see if there's evidence with usable DNA.

John Stanton

I found it very interesting to go through some of these large case books or three-ring binders full of yellowed investigative notes from decades gone by.

Ira Glass

Detective John Stanton says that one case he stumbled upon was one that he had worked on himself on his first day on the job as a crime scene officer on Valentine's Day, 1985: the grisly murder of a young woman.

John Stanton

Back then, we had a cigarette butt in that case, believe it or not. And, of course, back then, just how definitive a piece of evidence this is going to be, it's probably not. There's probably a lot of people who smoke this brand of cigarette.

Ira Glass

Nearly 20 years later, he opened the evidence bag that he'd sealed back in 1985. And the DNA in the saliva on the cigarette butt was perfectly preserved. Matching it with a DNA profile in a database is probably the only hope of ever solving this murder. There are over 1,266,000 DNA profiles of criminals in government databases. But that number is climbing fast as more states gear up their programs. 1,300 criminals are matched to crimes every year by the FBI through their DNA.

John Stanton

So that case may rest very strongly on that little cigarette butt.

Ira Glass

How far has it gone? Here in Illinois, there have been more wrongful convictions overturned with DNA evidence than anywhere in the country. 18. Enough people wrongly sentenced to death that a Republican governor put a moratorium on the death penalty and commuted the sentences of everyone on death row in the state, 167 people.

Maurice Possley has written a number of investigative stories about wrongful convictions for the Chicago Tribune, and he says that one of the most important things about DNA evidence is that by overturning these convictions, it's giving us a window into some disturbing police procedures. How they get innocent people to confess to crimes they did not commit, how they get witnesses to lie, and pin crimes on innocent people.

Maurice Possley

People said these things happened before. These are not new accusations. But now people can make those with a new certainty. This is not guesswork in these cases.

Ira Glass

The newest thing that's happening, he says, is that even in cases where there's no DNA evidence, prosecutors and judges are willing to go back and consider whether there might have been a wrongful conviction.

Maurice Possley

Because DNA has showed us that mistakes can be made and are made, they are willing to take a look at those cases. That's significant because heretofore, you really needed incredibly powerful evidence to even get in the courthouse door.

Ira Glass

This is just how far it's gone. This is the historic change that's been wrought with DNA evidence. Never before have we had evidence that is so good, so indisputable, that it doesn't just prove wrongdoing by criminals, it sometimes proves wrongdoing by police and prosecutors. Today on our radio show we look at what it has revealed to us as it's done that.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Our program today in two acts. In Act Two, in the second half of our show, we will look at how police interrogation procedures-- common procedures, no violence, nothing fancy-- were able to get a normal, suburban, 14-year-old boy to confess to killing his own sister, a crime it was proven later he did not do.

Act One. Hawks And Rabbits.

Ira Glass

And we begin our show with Act One, an act that we are calling Rabbits and Hawks. This is a story about some teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of murder and who served 15 years before DNA evidence got them out. One of the things that's extraordinary about this story is that there is no ambiguity at all at this point about their innocence. We don't have to wonder about any little loopholes. Not only did DNA evidence prove that they had not done the crime, two other guys confessed to the crime 15 years after the fact and their DNA evidence was a perfect match. Shane DuBow about tells this story and explains how police pinned the crime on these first guys.

Shane Dubow

This is the story of how one tragedy became two. The first involves a young woman named Lori Roscetti who was raped and killed in 1986. The second involves four innocent teenagers who were wrongfully imprisoned for that crime. In Chicago that year, 284 other murders took place. But Lori's was the one that grabbed the top headlines and came to be viewed as a symbol as much as anything else. A typical quote from the papers read, "It wasn't just a murder. It was a bestial, barbaric, horrifying, senseless massacre."

She was a medical student, bright, promising. Of course the fact that she was also white medical student murdered in a black neighborhood was a constant subtext. Her body was found by some railroad tracks, not far from her car. Her head had been bashed in with a rock. When no arrest came quickly, people got upset. A reward was offered. There was a march on a police station. Some students held a vigil. The pressure was on and the police needed suspects. On January 24, three months after the murder, they dragged in 16-year-old Larry Ollins.

A little about Larry. He's got an angular build, a slow smile, and a habit of squinting that can make him seem moody even when he's not. Back then, he'd already been arrested several times for things like non-violent burglaries. The police, he says, strapped him to a wall, slapped him around, and then started asking him leading questions about a vague but brutal crime. They wanted him to admit to it. Instead, he told them this.

Larry Ollins

I don't know nothing. I can't tell you nothing because I don't know nothing. I know a little bit about the law because I have been arrested before, man. I'm not taking no murder case or no rape and all this other stuff. I'll take one of them missing candy bar cases you all got missing in the back, but I ain't going to be able to do this, man.

Shane Dubow

The police were unable to bully a confession from Larry, but their tactics worked better on his friend, Marcellius Bradford and his 14-year-old cousin, Calvin. Marcellius says the police beat him up until he gave in. Calvin says he was tricked. After keeping him for hours, Calvin says, the police told him that if he'd just sign a confession, he could go home and see his mom. He signed. They locked him up instead. And because both confessions also named Larry, the police locked him up too, in solitary confinement, without even fully explaining his charges.

Larry Ollins

I'm sitting in that room. I can't come out. I'm in there 24 hours a day for about a week. I was just so depressed, man, from not understanding how it was that they pulled this stuff off that I couldn't even eat. I couldn't even drink. And I wasn't using the washroom that much. All this stuff just happened instantly. And when they detained me and put me in this room, I could hear the TV out there. I could hear the TV, and it would get real quiet because the TV is talking about me.

Female Reporter

Well, two of three teenagers being held in the rape and murder of medical student Lori Roscetti are being held without bond tonight. 17-year-old Marcellius Bradford, shown here in the yellow hat, appeared in court today along with 16-year-old Larry Ollins, who is being tried as an adult.

Larry Ollins

And I could hear through my doors because it's got big cracks through the doors. And it's talking about the Roscetti case and this and that. So I put my ear to the door and I'm starting to hear the story.

Male Reporter

With one of the youths driving, Roscetti was taken a mile south to this isolated stretch of railroad tracks.

Police Representative

Once at the location, one of the offenders took Miss Roscetti out of the vehicle to the rear of the auto and brutally violated her. An argument ensued between the first offender and the others over who would assault the lady next.

Man

This is a particularly gruesome crime and the ages involved of the people that perpetrated it is absolutely incredible.

Shane Dubow

One of the things that's so amazing about watching these old newscasts is how even now, even after these four men have been completely cleared and the real killers have not only confessed on video but been matched with crime scene DNA, even now, you watch that old footage and you think, thank God they caught those terrible kids. You see them in handcuffs, you hear they confessed, and then there's the details of the crime, which seem so believably specific.

Male Reporter

Police say at one point, Miss Roscetti was able to break loose from the gang and tried to run away.

Shane Dubow

Lori had been carjacked, police said, at the corner of Loomis and Flournoy. One of her attackers had needed cab fare. They'd all been teenage friends. And then after the first one had raped her, they'd had an argument about who would go next. 15 years later, now that the real killers have confessed, we know all those details are bogus. So where did they come from in the first place?

Kathleen Zellner, the four men's attorney, keeps a handgun in her desk and has an air of someone who's seen a lot and wouldn't mind shooting most of it. She discovered where those details came from completely by accident when she noticed a name buried in an old police report. Apparently, the famous FBI profiler Robert Ressler had analyzed the case. That means he'd done what profilers do, which is he'd studied the evidence and made an educated guess, a profile of the sort of suspects the police ought to look for. But this profile wasn't in any of the police reports. And so, because she's Kathleen Zellner, she then flipped to the world famous profiler's name in her Rolodex.

Kathleen Zellner

So I called him at his home. I have his home number. And I called him and I said, "I want to talk to you about the Roscetti case." He said, "I remember that case." He said, "I did a profile on that." And I said, "Yeah, but you didn't write it up." And he said, "Yeah, I did. It's in my book." And I said, "What's your book called?" And he said, "Whoever Fights Monsters." And I said, "I've got that on my bookshelf. Let me put you on hold." I said, "What page is it on?" He knew the page. So I went over and I got the book and I opened it and I thought, my God, I'm looking at the confession.

Shane Dubow

Ressler's best guess profile matched exactly what Calvin and Bradford confessed to. To Kathleen, it looked like the police had taken Ressler's scenario, filled it in with some local names and details, forced her clients to sign it, and then called it a confession.

Whoever Fights Monsters by Robert Ressler, page 166. "My guess was based on what I thought was likely to have happened after Roscetti had left the garage. She probably stopped at a light in this run-down district and some people came up to her, locked the car, and one pulled a door, which happened to be open. To my mind, this had been an opportunistic crime. The attempt to rob had been a primary motivator and the sexual assault was secondary.

Police Representative

It was subsequently learned that the reason Miss Roscetti was victimized originally was because one of the four offenders needed money to get to his home in Cabrini-Green. And the group had decided to rob the first person who comes along.

Male Reporter

Detectives will not reveal the specifics of how the case was solved. Meanwhile, police are now searching for a fourth suspect. Steve Sanders, WGN News.

Shane Dubow

When the real killers were caught, they explained what actually happened. They jumped Lori Roscetti in an alley near her house, not at the corner Loomis and Flournoy. There were only two of them, not four. They were adults, not teenagers. And neither needed money to get home.

The Chicago Police declined to be interviewed for this story. Because of pending lawsuits, they're not commenting publicly on the case. But if the original defendants are to be believed, what happened next, in 1987, was this. The police didn't just sell their version of the crime to the TV stations. They also tried to sell it to some possible witnesses. Omar Saunders says he was brought to the Area 4 headquarters on February 11 by detectives James Mercurio and Thomas Lamb. Omar says it soon became clear what they wanted from him.

Omar Saunders

This is detective Mercurio and his partner Lamb telling me, "We want you to say that on the night of this crime, you was breaking into some railroad cars. You was attempting to break into some railroad cars and you heard a scream. And you began to walk towards the direction of Ashland where you heard the screams. And as you got closer, you noticed four black guys and a white--" This was their words. Four black guys and a white broad. This was their words. I'm like, "I'm not saying that."

Shane Dubow

So basically, they wanted you to say that you were a witness to seeing these other guys committing the crime?

Omar Saunders

Exactly. I would have not even been arrested for this case had I went on ahead and took the deal.

Shane Dubow

But, of course, by refusing to tell the detectives what they wanted to hear, he didn't take the deal and he, along with Larry and Calvin, got charged with the murder.

Shane Dubow

Do you think they ever, even in the very beginning, ever thought that you were really involved and then took it so far where they couldn't backtrack? They got in too deep an had to cover it up. Or do you think they never thought you were involved and it was just straight from the beginning a massive fraud?

Omar Saunders

I'm convinced, from what I went through and what I know today that they never once thought that I was guilty.

Shane Dubow

Omar, Larry, and Calvin all had separate trials and uphill legal fights. Remember, the crime's details were ugly, the case was big news, and the state's attorney, Richard Daley-- current mayor, by the way-- really, really, didn't want to lose. Omar's powerfully built with a shaved head, a huge grin, and an easy charisma. He remembers sitting at the defendant's table with the victim's family seated behind him.

Omar Saunders

If eyes could kill, I'd have been dead. I'd have turned into a pillar of salt because it was-- and it's only justifiable that people were feeling that way because they were misled. But I was sitting in that courtroom and I knew I wasn't supposed to be sitting there.

Shane Dubow

And was your family there?

Omar Saunders

No, nobody. I had one cousin. Her name was Iyo. She showed up with her son, Brandon. People, for me, didn't even want to show up in the courtroom because it was always filled with people from the victim. In fact, the day, I think, when I got sentenced. No, I was going for sentencing. And I was listening to WGCI, if I'm correct, they was talking about our case. It was early in the morning. They said, "Well, from what I've read, I understand that the Saunders kid likes it cold," meaning that I had sex with the victim when she was dead.

All these listeners listened to him say that. Any little vestige of integrity that I was trying to hold onto, man, they tore my whole character down, destroyed, obliterated it when they said that. Even some of the female associates that I had. They would come and visit me. I could look in their eyes and see they were trying to find the person that had been described over the radio.

All I had to hold on to was the truth that I'm innocent and that the truth is going to prevail. Because at that time, I was reading the Bible very, very hard. And that scripture that said the truth will set you free, I'm just recording that. Know the truth and the truth will set you free. So I'm drawing that, well, there's a God. I'm totally innocent. The jury's going to bring back a not guilty verdict. I don't care what nobody says because I read this book and that's what this book says.

Shane Dubow

At Calvin's trial, things didn't go much better. And at Larry's trial, it was more of the same.

Larry Ollins

You don't think that some rinky-dink cop that goes to some neighborhood, "Somebody saw a license plate. Let me knock on these doors, ask a few questions," got the power to just make up a story, give it to the media, and the whole world becomes involved in it. Because I saw all this stuff in Time Magazine. My lawyer had the Time Magazine right on the desk. This case, I never thought about them having this much power.

Shane Dubow

The prosecution was slightly hampered by the fact that the men they were prosecuting weren't guilty. Even at the time, the state conceded that the physical evidence was slim. At Calvin's trial, they relied on his confession, even though by then he'd taken it back. At Larry's trial, they relied on Marcellius Bradford.

Marcellius Bradford is the one defendant in the case who you won't be hearing from. The reason is that, after being released in 1992, he got rearrested on shoplifting charges in 1998 and is still locked up. He was out in the first place, of course, because he'd cut this deal with the prosecutors. They'd agreed to drop some charges. He'd agreed to testify against Larry, which meant he'd have to take the stand, stare out at his friend, tell the whole world how they'd raped and murdered Lori Roscetti, and all Larry could do was sit and listen.

Larry Ollins

Bradford, man, told them all of this stuff. And it was just weird because I knew everything he was saying was false. And he knew everything he was saying was false. And it was just amazing to see how that can really take place. You sit up there and say you actually did all those things that you know you didn't do, you know I didn't do. You could change this whole thing around right now. Just tell them it didn't happen. That'd change the whole complexity of the whole trial. "Wait a minute, what you doing, Bradford? Hold on, your honor, I would like to have a five-minute recess." And he would've been like, "No, let this play on out." Threw the whole jury for a loop. But that didn't take place.

Omar Saunders

The day that the jury returned the verdict--

Shane Dubow

Here's Omar.

Omar Saunders

--they had a paper and they handed to the bailiff and the bailiff handed it to the judge. The judge was looking at it. And he looked up and he said, "This is your verdict." And I was so shocked. Because there was women in the jury box that actually smiled at me one time when a certain witness was on the stand. He was caught in lies. And she was shaking her head like this is crazy. And I was just sure I had that juror on my side.

Anyway, when they all answered guilty, guilty, guilty, I just put my head down and a deep resentment and anger took over. I put one of my feet up on the table. That was my way to prevent myself from crying in front of the world. The anger. After they escorted me out of the courtroom, I went in the back, and that's when I let the tears roll. I was like, "man, they found me guilty for this."

Shane Dubow

Calvin, Omar, and Larry got life, only because they were too young for capital punishment. At Larry's sentencing, the judge said, "If any crime ever called out for the death penalty, it's this one. I want to make certain you never walk the streets of this city or any other city again." Bradford, for framing his friends, got a 12-year deal, though years later, he'd tell a reporter, "I think about this every day and I will skateboard into hell."

Omar Saunders

When you go to prison, you in a zone full of predators. Real, live predators that's looking for a weakness in some person.

Shane Dubow

When they arrived in prison, Calvin was 15, Omar 19, Larry 18. Larry felt particularly bewildered.

Larry Ollins

A lot of guys been there, in and out, in and out, in and out, before I even got there. So it's an environment that they're accustomed to. Soon as they come through the door, they know what to do, know who to get with, all that kind of stuff. I didn't know this stuff. So to me, it was almost like being a rabbit and trying to stay clear of a hawk that's way up in the sky that sees me out in the open field.

And I'm just fresh on the news. I've got a bunny tail. My ears are super long. The hawk ain't ate in a week. C'mon, man. And I ain't got no hair on my face. None of this-- I don't even have a scar on my face when I went through that. All I had was a little mole on my face. What's her name? Cindy Crawford was just becoming big. She got one, and they freaking off of her. Her poster's on people's walls in jail. This is just real. I'm telling you what's real. And guys think like that and get to lusting after you. You can become that kind of prey.

Omar Saunders

When I came to Joliet, I was automatically fearful--

Shane Dubow

This is Omar.

Omar Saunders

--and aggressive because I was angry. My logic was weak. For me to process what happened to me, I just categorize one race. White people is evil. That was my generalization. Everybody that did this to us was white. Can you imagine from my perspective? The policeman was white. The victim was white. The judge was white. The prosecuting attorney was white. Everybody was white that done this. That's the only way I can process it. They're just naturally evil. But as I got older and the time went on in prison, I began to see that evil didn't have a color.

Shane Dubow

Over time, they all found ways to cope. Omar lifted weights and read law books. Larry studied his transcripts. Calvin shot pool. But there were certain things they never got used to. For instance, here's something you never think about with prisons. You're basically locked in a teeny room with another person, a couple of beds, and a toilet.

Omar Saunders

You could really call them cells a bathroom.

Larry Ollins

And I remember nights when I was in the cell and my celly--

Shane Dubow

You know, his cellmate.

Larry Ollins

--got up and used the bathroom, I just woke up because [LAUGHTER]

Omar Saunders

That's rough.

Larry Ollins

And the toilet's right by the bed. Just imagine you going to the bathroom and I'm sleeping in the bathroom. I'm sleeping right there.

Omar Saunders

I used to sleep with the blanket over my eyes. Conditioned myself to sleep with the sheet or a blanket over my head just for that occasion. Just in case my celly get up tonight.

Shane Dubow

Maybe it's because they were innocent. Maybe it's the sort of thing lots of prisoners figure out. But Omar says that after a while, even though everyone around them claimed to be innocent, it wasn't hard to tell who actually was. They just stuck out.

Omar Saunders

I think I was able to sense it from watching guys' actions. Actions spoke louder than their words. They would act like they were free. They woud go to the law library. Always in the library fighting their case. They walk with a sense of integrity. You see it in their eyes, that same spirit that burn like your own do.

Shane Dubow

Unfortunately, even though they could see innocence in other prisoners, other prisoners couldn't always see it in them. Other prisoners thought they were rapists. And being a rapist in prison isn't good. It makes other prisoners want to attack you. Because if there's one thing prisoners miss in prison, it's women.

Larry Ollins

So guys learn this stuff when they get snatched away from women and get put in the penitentiary. So you come in there for taking what they miss and what they learned to have love and respect for, they're willing to bring all kind of harm to you at will at the blink of an eye, when your psychology least expects.

Shane Dubow

To Larry and Omar, this was a reoccurring event. They'd be in the showers, or in the yard, or just about anywhere at any time, and they'd get attacked. In one fight, maybe a dozen guys came at them with ice picks and Omar got stabbed 14 times.

A quick review. DNA testing first started making its way into criminal court cases in the late '80s. By the mid-'90s, cases of DNA testing getting innocent guys out of prison were starting to make headlines and prisoners everywhere were following the news. Larry got excited. Omar wasn't convinced. He'd become the group's unofficial lawyer by then. He'd written appeals, sent letters to journalists and civil rights groups, attacked various parts of the prosecution's testimony, and no one wrote back. Or when they did write back, they wrote things like the judge, who called Omar's last petition frivolous and patently without merit.

Larry didn't care. He kept returning to a single key point. Based on biological evidence found at the crime scene, the prosecution knew the blood type of Lori Roscetti's murderers. The murderers were a blood type called O secreter. To Larry, there'd always been something sketchy about that part of the case and the testimony of the crime lab expert, Pamela Fish. But whenever he'd try to bring this up, Omar would shake his head. Until one day, Omar says.

Omar Saunders

I think it was in '98. We was in the yard. And Larry was telling me, he said, "Man, Omar." He called me O. "Man, O, we've got to put something in court, man." And I said, "Man, I done tried everything. And there ain't nothing working. Every little thing, they're shooting it down." And Larry said, "Man, I'm telling you, it's the semen."

Shane Dubow

Among the many things that jump out at you here is just how quickly you can get used to a word like semen, especially if it's the key to your freedom and you talk about it every day.

Omar Saunders

And he was real tentative when he was stating it because he knew how I felt about this. We had separate trials, and in my trial, they said that the semen was consistent with Calvin, Larry, and Bradford.

Shane Dubow

Meaning the semen found at the crime scene was the same blood type as Calvin, Larry, and Bradford's.

Omar Saunders

And I'm like, is it a possibility I'm the only one innocent? That started to set in. I'm like, damn, you know? And Larry, this particular day, he was just insistent about the semen. "I'm telling you, it's the--" I'm like, "No, it ain't the semen. Because at my trial, the woman said it was consistent with all three of you all. I'm the only one excluded." He said, "No, that ain't what she said at my trial."

Shane Dubow

At Larry's trial, the prosecution admitted that the semen found at the scene didn't match Larry either.

Omar Saunders

And that stuck with me. Wait a minute. You sure? I'm like, "Send me your trial transcript of Pamela Fish's testimony so I can read it myself." And when he sent me her trial transcript testimony, my eyes watered up because legally, I knew what it meant. We free.

Shane Dubow

What they'd discovered was this. The prosecution had given conflicting testimony. Its crime lab expert, Pamela Fish, had made it seem like at least one of them matched up with the semen found at the crime scene. In fact, none of them did. To move ahead, however, to move one step closer to getting out, they needed Calvin's signature on an affidavit verifying his blood type, verifying that he was also a non-secretor just like them. It couldn't be simpler, except for one problem. Calvin wouldn't sign.

Calvin Ollins

I was sitting in my room one night and all of the sudden I got a letter from Omar, "Sign this piece of paper. " I'm like, "No, I'm not going to sign this piece of paper, man."

Shane Dubow

Calvin, tell about why you don't sign pieces of paper.

Calvin Ollins

It's how I got locked up. Last time I signed a piece of paper, I went to jail for life.

Shane Dubow

And what was that piece of paper you signed?

Calvin Ollins

Confessions that the police made up and had me sign.

Shane Dubow

He wrote them back a letter explaining his new policy on signing his name. Omar couldn't believe it.

Omar Saunders

I remember that letter. Yeah, I know man. You were saying, "I got your affidavit. I'm sorry to let you know that I can't sign y'all affidavit." He called it y'all affidavit. "Y'all affidavit. And I just want to let you all know that I accept the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior and I wish you all well." Larry cried. I'll never forget this. Larry cried when he read that letter because Calvin was putting it on, "I don't want to sign nothing. I'll put my faith totally in God. That's it."

And I was trying to find a way how can I reach him and make him understand that that ain't the way the God I believe in works. Your faith in God is good, but act on it. You can't say you believe in no God and don't believe in your own ability to think, reason, and understand because he gave you a brain to do just that with.

Shane Dubow

In the end, to make a long story short, Calvin signed. They now had the documents to prove that none of them were the same blood type as the killers. But just getting a judge to look at this new evidence was a huge long shot. And it's not as if they'd been so successful at filing their own appeals. Then, one day, Omar came across a magazine profile of a trial lawyer named Kathleen Zellner. She was in the business of getting wrongfully convicted men out of prison. She liked DNA cases in particular, and then suing the state for big bucks.

Omar Saunders

When I saw Miss Zellner in the magazine, it was like, "This is is who we need. We need her." Because you can see she's like a hawk. When she sees something, she focuses in on it. So I knew if I could get her to see what Larry caused me to see, this thing's going to be electric. And I just began to construct the letter based on the facts about us all being non-secretors and that the killer is an O secretor.

Then, with the facts that I was saying, I put in the what if. What if what I'm saying is true-- everything that I'm saying is true? What would be the repercussions? What would be the financial benefits for everybody involved? I know you're an attorney. I know you've got things that you've got to do. You don't want people taking up your time. This is a profession. This is something that you like doing. Well, here go the perfect case.

Male Reporter

We are going to interrupt [UNINTELLIGIBLE] report for just a moment to bring you this special update. Moments ago, two of those three men wrongfully imprisoned for a rape/murder in 1986 were set free.

Female Reporter

Let's go live there now.

Omar Saunders

I've prepared a statement for the press. First, I would like to thank God for returning to us our freedom and for bringing into our struggle our attorney Miss Zellner and her associates--"

Shane Dubow

On December 5 of 2001, Omar, Larry, and Calvin were finally released. 15 years after their original arrests. 18 months after Kathleen Zellner received Omar's letter. She'd logged 800 unpaid hours and spent $50,000 of her own money to get the case back in court. Along the way, she'd had an independent lab test her clients' DNA and none of it matched the DNA from the crime scene. Faced with this new evidence, the state's attorney let them out. The footage that you're hearing is from the press conference outside the prison.

Male Reporter

--police. They're intimating that you were still involved somehow.

Omar Saunders

Well, I believe that they've got to stand on their position. They know the facts about-- now you all did a great job in revealing the facts, so I think they know what's coming. I used to quote a statement, that the heavens ablaze with light and the distant thunder seem to herald forth a coming storm. And they know that the storm is coming. That's the truth about this case. So they can say what they want to say. But it'll bear out in the future proceedings in another courtroom.

Shane Dubow

What's missing from this press conference is a review of how many things could have happened to keep these guys from getting out. Before Omar wrote to Kathleen, for example, he wrote to the nation's best known wrongful conviction expert, Barry Scheck. Barry Scheck contacted the police about reviewing the Roscetti case evidence. The police told Barry Scheck that the evidence had been destroyed. Which means that if Kathleen Zellner hadn't had an inside court contact agree to double check for the supposedly destroyed evidence, and if upon finding that evidence Kathleen's contact hadn't agreed to keep it hidden in her desk, all could have been lost.

And that's just the beginning. Omar's letter to Kathleen could have never been read. Larry could have decided not to press his seminal insight that day in the yard. Calvin's faith in the Lord might have stopped him from signing that affidavit. Any one of them could have been killed in jail. And then there's the most likely thing that could have happened. They could have just lost hope.

Male Reporter

Did you ever give up hope?

Omar Saunders

Did I ever give up hope? No, I don't think I ever actually gave up completely. But there was a time I felt like I wanted to give up. Any other questions I would like to refer to my attorney.

Shane Dubow

Around the country there are thousands of cases in which people are reexamining DNA evidence. Maybe tens of thousands. But as of December, 2001, the month Calvin, Larry, and Omar got released, only 98 people had ever been released from prison based on DNA. It's still hard to get out of prison. Nearly all of those 98 had been convicted for sex crimes, which makes sense if you think about it. Those are the crimes where it's most likely that the biological evidence is still around somewhere to be tested, as it was in Omar, Larry, and Calvin's case.

In the months since their release, Omar, Larry, and Calvin have had to enter a new world full of big and small firsts. First time writing checks. First time taking driving tests. First time for Larry getting really lost. Now they call him Compass. First time for Omar getting in a fender bender. Now they call him Crash. And Calvin, in a first of his own, tried to adopt a cat only to be screened out by an animal control clerk who denied his application because he lacked a job history.

And then there's their obsession with pictures. Almost every time I visited, they wanted to take pictures or they wanted to show me pictures of people they'd recently met. Lots of them were basically strangers, like kids they'd talked to at a high school. But after 15 years in prison, it sort of makes sense. They don't have a history, and so they're filling photo albums trying to catch up.

The last time producer Alex Blumberg and I sat down with Omar in Kathleen Zellner's suburban office, we ended up having a long chat about the Declaration of Independence. Omar had read it in prison.

Omar Saunders

When I read that document, I was like, wow, that it actually incorporates rebelling against an oppressive government. If the government becomes too oppressive, the power is actually in our hands. That's why when you talk to anybody that claims-- especially these people that speak about the American character and what we should do-- you should ask them, "Let me hear you recite the Declaration of Independence."

Shane Dubow

Omar looks over at us and recites from memory.

Omar Saunders

"We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." And you will come to find out that the average American don't even know it.

Alex Blumberg

What was that like to read that document and know in light of what had happened to you, is that-- it sounds like what you were just saying is that it actually made it seem like America's actually on your side.

Omar Saunders

America is all-- the concepts and principles on which the country is founded has always been on our side.

Alex Blumberg

You talk about what you like when you went in. And it almost sounds like you've had this horrific miscarriage of justice done against you. And here you are on the other side of it. And you have more respect for the system than maybe when you went in, in a way.

Omar Saunders

Yeah, because I understand that it's a lack of understanding the system that caused this. It's like if the police do something to me, I ain't going to go blow up the whole Chicago police force because you've got a lot of good Chicago policemen. That's why I always say that the media said that we got out and we spoke vehemently against the system. I never spoke against the system. I love America. I understand that the system don't operate itself. It's people. There ain't nothing wrong. America's got one of the greatest jurisprudence systems in the world. Some countries, when you do something, they kill you. Ain't nothing to talk about. See?

So my whole view today is I understand that if we want to make America a greater place, it's going to take people like us to understand what the nation is based on and do what the Founding Fathers did when they thought that their freedoms were being jeopardized and that their rights were being infringed. You do that by knowing the law. When you don't know something, people can take advantage. This is a beautiful democratic republic.

Shane Dubow

One day a few weeks ago I went to court with Larry, Calvin, and Omar. The real killers had some early hearing to show up for. This would be a first chance to see them face to face. But for some reason, the hearing got postponed. Walking out in the hallway of this giant, stone building, Larry, Calvin, and Omar suddenly froze. They stared as a stooped, older man shuffled toward us. Calvin blurted out, "It's Patrick O'Brien."

This was the man who'd prosecuted their case, the man who'd called them rapists and murderers, the man who they held most responsible for stealing half their lives. He looked up at them and seemed to experience the same momentary shock. You could see him almost start to turn around, but then it was too late and we were passing by him and he was nodding his head. What he said was, "Gentlemen."

Ira Glass

Shane DuBow in Chicago. Coming up, how to make a 14-year-old suburban kid confess to the murder of his own sister when he did not do it. In a minute from Public Radio International and Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two. Snitch.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, Perfect Evidence. We look at the world that has been revealed to us now thanks to the most perfect evidence in the history of criminology, DNA evidence.

We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, Snitch. One of the biggest changes that's come about in this era of overturned convictions and DNA evidence is that we've learned that one kind of evidence that most of us would think it's irrefutable and that historically has been the strongest possible evidence, a person's own confession, might not mean anything. In many wrongful conviction cases, the person who was mistakenly thrown in prison actually was on record confessing the crime. How does this happen?

Well, consider this case. On January 20, 1998, 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe was stabbed to death in her bedroom. There were no signs of forced entry into the house. Nobody heard a burglar. So the police suspected that it was an inside job done by a family member. And at some point, they brought in her 14-year-old brother, Michael. After 11 hours of interrogation, he confessed to the crime, though later, he was cleared when a DNA test found that Stephanie's blood was on a vagrant who'd been wandering around the neighborhood the night of the murder.

So how did the police get Michael to confess? Well, for one thing, his parents were not there. They believed that he was in protective custody getting grief counseling. His sister had just died.

Richard Leo is a criminologist who has studied false confessions. He reviewed the videotape of the confession with me.

Richard Leo

Virtually every interrogation that I've ever seen of a juvenile, the police try to figure out how to keep parent out of the room. They might tell them that it's not necessary or that they're not allowed to be there or they simply, as in this case, might tell them something false so they have no idea their child is being interrogated.

Ira Glass

At the very beginning of the interrogation, there are two officers. And one comes in and he's a little tougher and he's presenting the evidence and the accusations. And then there's another cop who's acting like the good cop. They're doing a classic good cop, bad cop. And the good cop is saying, "Well, we're trying to believe what you say."

Cop

I'm here to verify what you're saying, OK? We're going to work through this together, OK?

Michael Crowe

OK.

Cop

I can tell you this instrument here is what they call a computer voice stress analyzer. Now you will appreciate this, being into computers.

Ira Glass

The computer voice stress analyzer. Just explain what this is.

Richard Leo

Well, the computer voice stress analyzer is an offshoot of the polygraph, or so-called lie detector. It's a recently-invented a device by law enforcement that purports to be able to tell whether somebody is lying or telling the truth based on analyzing the microtremors of their voice. The problem is the computer voice stress analyzer is a fraud. There's no evidence that it even measures anything like microtremors in the voice.

And even if it did, there aren't microtremors that go off when you're lying and microtremors that go off when you're telling the truth. So the real purpose-- and police know this-- the real purpose of the computer voice stress analyzer is not to verify whether somebody is telling the truth. When they interrogated Michael Crowe, they believed he was guilty and their goal was to get a confession.

Cop

Are you sitting down?

Michael Crowe

Yes.

Cop

Do you know who took Stephanie's life?

Michael Crowe

No.

Cop

Is today Thursday?

Michael Crowe

Yes.

Cop

Did you take Stephanie's life?

Michael Crowe

No.

Richard Leo

The real goal of the computer voice stress analyzer is to intimidate somebody who is naive or ignorant into thinking that science-- irrefutable, error-free, high-technology science has just proven that you did this and now there's no way you can deny it. It's a gimmick.

Cop

What did you think? What were your thoughts through the whole thing?

Michael Crowe

That it might be wrong.

Cop

OK, in what way?

Michael Crowe

That it might say I killed Stephanie.

Cop

And I can understand your feelings there, OK? You're 14 and you've been through a lot, OK? But this instrument doesn't know you, does it? Science is in our favor, OK? Technology's on our side.

Ira Glass

One of the most fascinating things about watching the videotape of this happening is how the police officer involves him in the process of working with this machine. For a long time, they sit down and they make up the questions together. Michael helps make up the questions. And he gets completely caught up in it. And then they give him the questions and the police officer leaves the room and comes back with the results and talked to him about the results and then finally reveals to him that on one of the questions, question number 12 in the little questionnaire they made up, he failed. The question, "Do you know who took Stephanie's life? Do you know who took you sister's life?"

Richard Leo

This is common. And there's a reason why they're doing this. They know he's going to fail it. They're setting him up for failure and manipulate him and intimidate him into confessing.

Ira Glass

At some point very early on, they start lying to him about what evidence they have. They just say straight up, "We found her blood in your room." And it freaks him out.

Cop

I'm sure you know--

Michael Crowe

What? God, I don't-- no. I don't know. I didn't do it. [UNINTELLIGIBLE]

Cop

Does that mean you can't tell me about tonight?

Michael Crowe

I don't know what you're talking about.

Cop

OK.

Ira Glass

It had become one lie after another about what they have pointing to him. Is that legal?

Richard Leo

Yes. I think it's highly controversial in lay circles, but there's no controversy in the law. It's perfectly legal for police to lie about evidence so long as their lies don't imply promises of police or prosecutorial leniency or threats of harsher punishment. So they can make up any evidence from DNA to hairs to blood to video surveillance cameras, witnesses. This happens all the time. And it can turn their whole perspective upside down. Because once you think that that evidence must exist because the police say it exists, you come to doubt your memory. And we see this occur later in the Michael Crowe interrogation.

Michael Crowe

Oh, God. God. Why?

Cop

You tell me.

Michael Crowe

Why are you doing this to me? If I did this, I don't remember it. I don't remember a thing.

Cop

And you know what? That's [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

Ira Glass

Now, in many forced confessions, the suspect doesn't ever come to actually believe the story that they're confessing to. But they're in a situation where the police are lying to them about all this evidence they have and the person thinks, "All right, they're going to pin something on me. I might as well confess to something and get a better deal." But in Michael's case, it's really amazing. He really comes to believe that he might have done it.

Cop

You didn't mean for this to turn out the way it did, did you?

Michael Crowe

I don't even know what I did. I can't even believe myself anymore.

Good Cop

You really didn't mean for this to turn out this way, did you?

Michael Crowe

I don't even know what I did. Now I've been told I did this awful thing that I don't remember.

Ira Glass

And, in fact, if they're telling the truth, there is no other logical possibility. He must have done it.

Richard Leo

If they were telling the truth, that's right.

Ira Glass

At one point, right around this point where they're pressing him about the notion, well, maybe he did and he blacked out, they just leave the room. They leave him alone. The camera stays on him. And he just puts his head in his arms and just sobs. He just sobs and sobs. It's heart wrenching.

Michael Crowe

[CRYING] Why? Why?

Ira Glass

If I'm being interrogated by the police and if they're roughing me up and they're playing with what I'm thinking about myself and what I'm thinking about a crime, if I think to myself, "All right, I'm pretty sure I'm innocent here. I don't remember committing this crime. And these guys are just nuts. I'm not going to get out of here until I sign a paper." Let's say I sign the paper. I think to myself, "All right, I'm going to sign a confession." Because eventually, I'm be in front of a judge and I could just tell the judge, "Look, those guys were playing with my mind. We were in this tiny room. But here I am with you. I'm telling you this is the actual truth. I was just saying that stuff there to get out of that room." Do I have a shot?

Richard Leo

I don't think so, usually. I've seen that happen before. People have said, "Look, I told them what they wanted to hear, but they said there was blood at the scene. I assumed once they tested my blood, I'd go home. I didn't know that I would get convicted." Oftentimes I've see this happen. Prosecutors will suggest that every aspect of the confession is false except for the admission.

So yeah, "He said he left his fingerprints at the crime scene. It wasn't there. Yes, he said he stabbed the person. The person was shot. Yes, he said he buried the body or threw the gun in this location and it's not there. He's just trying to minimize his evil deeds and a lot of what's in the confession is false. But he said he did it and that's true. Why would somebody say they did it if they didn't do it?"

Ira Glass

Does that usually work?

Richard Leo

I think it does. I think it resonates with how culturally and psychologically we think about confessions. Think about all the times when you read in the paper that somebody confessed. And most of them are true confessions. You don't stop and think, "Well, I wonder if it's a false confession or a true confession."

Ira Glass

So in the end, Michael Crowe, 14 years old, confesses to the murder of his own sister and even sort of believes that he did it. And one of the most disturbing things about watching this it is the police officers who do this, they don't seem like they're corrupt cops. Do you know? They don't seem like the guys who are out to pin a murder on an innocent kid. They seem like they actually believe they're doing their jobs and doing a good job of it and they believe he did it.

Richard Leo

I think that's absolutely right. There's no indication from watching that interrogation that they are corrupt. In fact, if they had been corrupt, they probably wouldn't have tape recorded it. And I think they genuinely believe that he's an evil person who did this. But the police, in this case, are just sloppy and they're stupid. It's not that they're corrupt or evil. They should have investigated more before they started interrogating anybody. That's one of the fundamental precepts of all police interrogation training. You never start interrogating until you've completed your investigation.

Ira Glass

I have to say, I can't figure out which I find more disturbing, the thought that some police are corrupt and forcing confessions out of people or this thought that basically, this is just the institutional way that we get a confession in our country. Do you know what I mean? "This the way we do it. We lie to them about the evidence we've got." You know what I mean? That seems, in a way, more disturbing. Or I can't even tell which is more disturbing.

Richard Leo

When I teach this subject to undergraduates, they're often split about that as well. I think myself, personally, I am more distressed by the idea of corrupt cops because I think many corrupt cops, whatever area of police work it is, have crossed a moral line and there's really a point of no return and they just get dirtier and dirtier and dirtier.

Ira Glass

Does the threat of civil litigation, of people suing, as in this case with Michael Crowe's family suing the city of Escondido, as in the case that we're looking at elsewhere in today's radio show, this Roscetti case where these guys who went away for 15 years are suing the City of Chicago and the police officers. Does the fear of being sued and having to pay out millions of dollars to falsely accuse people actually cause police departments to change in any cases that you've seen?

Richard Leo

I haven't seen that cause any police departments to change. That perplexes me. It's like many of these police brutality lawsuits. The City of Los Angeles, for example, pays out millions of dollars-- millions of taxpayer dollars every year. Tens of millions to resolve civil lawsuits brought against police officers who rough suspects up. And you'd think with so much money at stake that police departments would take the initiative and try to build some protections into the system so that they would save money.

In Chicago, it's interesting you mention the Roscetti case. As you probably know, for several years, there's been a bill to mandate audio or video recording of interrogations in homicide cases and the police and prosecutors have resisted that and defeated that bill. It's a very simple reform, that given all the errors that the police have made, all the false confessions in Chicago, all the people walking off death row as a result of this, a simple reform like that has been resisted at every turn by the Chicago police and prosecutors. And that's highly regrettable.

Ira Glass

Richard Leo, author of Inside the Interrogation Room. Not long ago, The Chicago Tribune looked at 400 homicide cases from across the country, cases that were overturned for the most egregious kinds of prosecutorial misconduct. Misconduct of a type that the Supreme Court has said deserves punishment. Of 400 cases, not one prosecutor received any public sanction or reprimand. Nobody lost their license. Nobody lost their job. Nobody went to prison.

Credits.

Ira Glass

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who says that what we say about him at the end of each show has hurt his love life.

Omar Saunders

The female associates that I had, they were trying to find that person that had been described over the radio.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.