Things I learned this week about the criminal justice system that I find very disturbing:
- If you are being questioned by the police and someone hires you a lawyer, the police do not need to let you know that, or that the lawyer is there, or that you can talk to them. Only if you ask to contact a lawyer can you get access to one.
- Actual innocence is not a constitutional basis for overturning a conviction.
- Until this week, it was legal for police in Michigan to have sex with sex workers they were busting. I have no idea if it’s still legal in other places.
None of that seems right.
The first thing on that list I learned from this book and it is very messed up. This book is about the most famous unsolved murder in the history of Austin, Texas. In 1991 two high school girls were closing up a frozen yogurt shop. One of the girls had her little sister there with her, and her sister’s friend was also there, on a sleepover. The little ones were 13 and 14 and the older girls were 17.
They were found in the early hours of the morning, when the fire department came to put out the fire in the yogurt shop.
As it turns out, the girls had been raped, murdered and then the yogurt shop was set on fire to hide the evidence.
Years passed. Detectives worked on the case to the point of burnout. New police chiefs came and went. No arrests.
Finally, 8 years later, they get a report of a boy who had been talked to at the time of the murders. He’d been seen at the mall with a .22, the same kind of gun used in the murders. They had tested the gun at the time and it was not a match but they decided to talk to him again. They spoke to him, and to the other three guys who were with him that night.
The guy with the gun and one of the other boys refused to talk at all. The other two talked to the cops for hours, one without being informed of the lawyer his dad had hired. At some point one of the policemen held a gun to the back of one of their heads to “jog his memory.”
The two guys who talked eventually confessed. Their confessions contradicted each other and the evidence, but regardless, the cases are set for trial.
At trial, they did this weird thing. I’ve seen this before in true crime books, and it ALWAYS seems weird. They do this to allow confessions to be admissible even if they implicate co-defendants or co-conspirators. What they do is, they redact the confessions to only include references to the defendant himself. The problem with this is that it creates a very different impression of the confession from the original.
In this case, one of the confessions was 8 pages long and consisted of a lot of statements like, “And then he threatened me if I didn’t, so I shot the girl.” But the redacted version just read, “I shot the girl.” That’s just an example, but it’s like that. The redacted version was less than a page. They did this at both trials.
During the appeals process the Supreme Court decided that these redacted confessions are not legal, and the convictions were overturned.
ALSO during the appeals process, better DNA testing became available and they tested the DNA found in the girls. Two male DNA donors, neither of which matches anyone associated with the case. Completely unknown profiles.
Amazingly, this does not phase the prosecutors at all. They say, well, they must have had two other accomplices. Despite the fact that this is in direct contradiction with the confessions they have, which is the only basis for their arrest and trial. There is no physical evidence connecting them to the crime.
They’ve decided not to pursue another trial, but they also have not exonerated those boys.
And to this day, 25 years later, no one knows who killed the girls in the yogurt shop that night.
It’s so sad.