A Happy New Year to everyone!!
On Thursday, December 21st, I was scheduled to do a presentation for students in Teacher Lance Pettis’ Criminal Justice class at Blaine High School. As I approached the school entrance, I recalled the warm reception my trusted partner – retired crime scene expert John Johnson – and I had received from his previous year’s classes. We were delighted by their interest as we navigated through a foreboding overview of wrongful convictions.
Being on my own this year, I hoped to again achieve the same level of interest. I arrived equipped with a new PowerPoint program I put together that provided an informative pictorial presentation for them.
Johnny and me last year with image of all the men on screen in background
Prior to visiting these classes, I asked Mr. Pettis to give the students an assignment; to read the entire 2nd chapter of my book titled Tragedy in Titletown. This chapter is one of the longest, filling 16 pages. It’s a detailed summarization of events leading up to the 1992 death of mill worker Tom Monfils in a Green Bay paper mill and the convictions of six innocent men two and a half years later. Having the students read this chapter allows me to focus on other important aspects such as some of the leading causes of wrongful convictions, i.e., perjury or false accusations, false confessions, false or misleading forensic evidence, and government misconduct. I then indicate how each of them affected the outcome in the Monfils case and I disclose the new evidence that has since come to light.
It’s a lot of information to take in so at about the halfway point of the presentation, we take a short breather and have some fun. This is also when we get to the last of the main leading causes of wrongful convictions; mistaken identification. I test the student’s ability to accurately identify the true perpetrator in the example below and then I sit back and watch their reactions as I disclose the answer. This is my absolute favorite part of the presentation because what is revealed never fails to blow their minds. And I know that if they remember nothing else, they will certainly remember this exercise.
The police sketch in the center represents an actual image that was televised across the country in 1995. One of the photos on either side of the sketch is the correct match. The point of this exercise is that out of the current 350+ DNA exonerations, misidentification of a suspect through the use of a composite sketch is incorrect 27% of the time, according to the Nat. Registry of Exonerations. However, the results from this one reveal a much higher fallibility rate. At least half and in some instances, approximately two thirds of those not familiar with this case, make the wrong choice.*
As is typical in all past sessions, the time flew by with the students posing carefully thought-out questions during the 45-minute presentation. It was and always is refreshing to also hear correct answers to many of mine.
In the time remaining before the bell rang these students asked about likely motives of the authorities to convict the wrong person, compensation for exonerees, and if people’s rights are reinstated when exonerated. One thoughtful student wondered how they (as students) can be helpful in spreading the word about wrongful convictions. Another asked if I’d pose for a photo. I appreciated their positive feedback about the chapter with some of them mentioning how much they enjoyed it and how well they thought it was written.
I recently sat in my dining room with reporter, Eric Hagen, who writes for the Blaine edition of my local ‘Life’ newspaper. I expressed the need to educate students on this topic and to prepare them before they find themselves in a vulnerable situation. I explained to him that my outline also includes a discussion about the Miranda Warning because of the importance of students being proactive and knowing their rights as citizens, should they be targeted by law enforcement.
Find Eric’s article here.
An alarming statistic from the Innocence Project states that “65% of the juveniles exonerated through DNA evidence falsely confessed to crimes they didn’t commit.” Circumstances such as Brendan Dassey’s also suggest an increased risk of youth being wrongfully convicted simply because they are unaware that they should not talk to the police without an adult (attorney or parent) present. Research also yields that an overwhelming number of young people between the ages of 18-23 are targeted for crimes.
Innocent people fear that if they “lawyer up” they will appear guilty. In fact, innocent people are better served with having a lawyer present than a guilty person because for them, there’s much more at stake. And because innocent people also feel they have nothing to hide and want to be helpful by cooperating, they become absolutely vulnerable to trickery when accusations are aimed at them. They don’t understand that law enforcement can and will lie or become narrowly focused on them despite reasonable doubt. They don’t realize until it is too late that an interview can quickly become overly aggressive in order to speed up an investigation or solicit a confession. In all fairness, with officers under extreme pressure to close a case, investigations are done quickly. Mistakes get made. Rush to judgements occur. Lives are destroyed and fade into non-existence. Respect from those around them turns to loathing. The innocent are shunned…silenced…hidden away. And hope for many bright futures fades.
Which is why educating our youth becomes urgent…because they are our future.
To learn more about why people confess to crimes they did not commit, check out the Netflix Documentary The Confession Tapes.
*Answer to exercise:
The correct answer is the photo on the right. This is Timothy McVeigh; U.S. Army soldier, American terrorist, and the Oklahoma City Bomber. He detonated a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in 1995 killing 168 people and wounding over 600. He was executed in 2001 for this crime.
The photo on the left is my son, Jared Manninen. He was also in the military at the time of the bombing but was stationed in CA. Could he have been the victim of a wrongful conviction had the circumstances been different? I shudder at the thought…