The Kwame Wells-Jordan trial in New Haven has had it all: false confessions, recanting co-defendants, a near-fight between the state’s star witness and the prosecutor, a cop who has since retired amidst scandal and expert testimony on false confessions.
In the end, it looks like the system worked. A jury returned not guilty verdicts yesterday on all counts. Wells-Jordan was charged with being an accessory to assault, robbery in the first degree and conspiracy to commit robbery. The victim, Herbert Fields, was shot dead during this robbery by another man, who plead guilty to murder.
The recantation and coercion:
But when Johnson [the co-d] testified during the Wells-Jordan trial, he recanted his police statement. Michael Holmes, who police believed was the third person involved in the robbery but was not charged, also contradicted his taped statement.
Wells-Jordan did not testify on his own behalf, but his aunt and legal guardian, Julia Sykes, testified she and her nephew underwent lengthy, high-pressure interrogations in September 2006 and two months later, the day he was arrested.
Skyes, Johnson and Holmes said [now retired, but still embroiled in scandal police officer] Willoughby told the three teenagers a lie in an effort to get them to confess: that their handprints were on Fields’ car. That handprint really belonged to [someone else].
There were two interviews between Wells-Jordan, his aunt and the police, the latter resulting in the false confession. The circumstances surrounding the confessions involved the usual “we know what’s best for you, so if you tell us you did it, you won’t be a defendant” spiel.
Fulero said police across America, including in New Haven, regularly use psychological techniques to elicit confessions by suspects, true and false.
“The goal is to get somebody to the place where (they believe that) for them to say they did something is better for them than to say they didn’t,” Fulero testified, “even if they didn’t do it.” Fulero said police use “the evidence ploy” in which a suspect is falsely told of evidence against him. “This makes the person think his situation is hopeless and denials will be useless.”
Fulero also said studies show juveniles are more vulnerable to giving false confessions.
When Johnson came to Superior Court last Thursday as a prosecution witness, he and Assistant State’s Attorney James Clark became embroiled in increasingly tense question-and-answer exchanges.
After Johnson turned to Judge Bruce Thompson and muttered he couldn’t take much more of Clark and added, “I’m about to hit him,” Clark quickly took several steps toward Johnson and said, “Go ahead, I’m here.”
Thompson immediately asked jurors to leave the room. When they returned, Johnson’s testimony resumed without Thompson saying anything to the jury about what had occurred.
The embattled cop:
Former police Detective Clarence Willoughby’s alleged aggressive interrogation techniques were described in Superior Court testimony Tuesday, but he again won the right not to be forced to testify in the trial of Kwame Wells-Jordan.
[Judge] Thompson had previously ruled Willoughby is entitled to use Fifth Amendment protection, but Polan wanted jurors to at least see him exercise that right. The judge agreed with Willoughby’s lead attorney, Norman A. Pattis, that Willoughby’s testimony could jeopardize his own legal case. He is charged with forgery, larceny and making a false statement after allegedly stealing from a fund for confidential informants. He has pleaded not guilty.
The judge sided with Willoughby.
In the end, Attorney Polan’s argument was simple: She told jurors in her closing argument that police didn’t bother to “connect the dots” leading to the real perpetrators because they already had the teenagers’ statements. This is now becoming a familiar refrain, with New Haven Public Defender Tom Ullmann’s charge a few weeks ago.
I bet Law and Order couldn’t come up with a storyline this good.