By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Confessing to a murder or rape you did not commit is unthinkable.
But as DNA testing continues to exonerate convicted murderers and rapists, new research shows that nearly 20 percent of those innocent inmates falsely confessed to the crimes that sent them to prison.
More than 250 convicts nationwide have been cleared by DNA testing. University of Virginia law school Professor Brandon L. Garrett’s study found that more than 40 of them confessed falsely, and seeks to explain why.
How this happens is a question that haunts the state of Florida.
According to the Innocence Project, a dozen Florida men in prison for years have been exonerated since 2000. Three of them – Jerry Frank Townsend, Larry Bostic, and Anthony Caravella—were Broward residents who gave false confessions or admissions to police.
Those cases led the state Supreme Court to create the 23-member Florida Innocence Commission, which held its first meeting Sept. 10 in Tallahassee. Its job: to “reduce or eliminate the possibility of the wrongful conviction of an innocent person.”
Garrett wanted to know how an innocent person could convincingly confess to a crime. He found that innocent people not only confessed, but gave “surprisingly rich, detailed and accurate information” about crimes they did not commit. The details, he concluded, “must have been disclosed to them, most likely during the interrogation process.”
He said police have long been trained to avoid contaminating a confession by feeding or leaking crucial facts.
Nonetheless, that’s what appears to have happened to Townsend, according to court records reviewed by Broward Bulldog.
Police were under pressure to solve a string of brutal rapes and murders that had terrorized a northwest Fort Lauderdale neighborhood. The fear was so bad that a man with cuts on his face from a fight with his girlfriend was chased down by a crowd who wanted to lynch him. Police saved him.
Townsend, a grown man with the mental capacity of a child, confessed to nearly two dozen sex murders in Miami-Dade and Broward. He was convicted of six murders and a rape in 1980, and sent to prison for life. He stayed there for 22 years, until DNA tests cleared him in 2001.
Miami police and the Broward Sheriff’s Office later paid a combined $4.2 million in settlements. Defense lawyers for the police cost taxpayers another $1 million. But the detectives whose testimony sent Townsend to prison were never investigated, according to Townsend’s Fort Lauderdale attorney, Barbara Heyer.
Public court records, including the lawsuit and original court proceedings, lay out in chilling detail how multiple murder charges were apparently trumped up against Townsend using perjury and the falsification of police reports. The DNA evidence that exonerated him now implicates police.
The lawsuit accuses BSO detectives Mark Schlein and Anthony Fantigrassi of pinning the murders on the weak-minded Townsend to advance their careers.
Fantigrassi retired as head of BSO’s Criminal Investigations Unit in 2005. Schlein, an attorney, is a lieutenant colonel in charge of insurance fraud investigations for the state.
At trial in 1980, both detectives testified Townsend led them to the scene of four Broward murders, and provided them with details only the killer would have known.
But Townsend wasn’t the killer, so the detectives’ damning testimony takes on new meaning.
Townsend allegedly walked detectives to the spot by the Dillard High School athletic field where 13-year-old Sonia Marion was raped and murdered. Schlein said Townsend identified the weapon he used to kill her.
“The words he used – I’m not absolutely positive – but [Townsend] hit her in the head with a brick,” Schlein testified.
At a pre-trial hearing, detectives offered graphic testimony about Townsend’s alleged confession to the murder of Terry Cummings.
“He indicated, number one, that when he initially struck her in the vicinity of the shack her wig had fallen off. That wig was in fact recovered immediately outside the shack,” said Schlein. “When she threatened to scream or began to scream he removed a very large – like a knee sock, which was red and white in color, and stuck it deep into her throat. This is consistent with the way the body was originally found.”
Fantigrassi testified about the sock and other details. “He drew a diagram in the sand for us,” he said. “He pinpointed which direction the head was, which way the legs were, how the legs were. He made mention of a hand he had placed up on – the left hand, that he had place up on her pants.”
Schlein’s reports contain many of those same statements. A Sept. 12, 1979 report said, “Townsend stated that he placed her left hand on her hip, “to make her look like she pulled down her pants.’”
Townsend, of course, could not have known any of those crime scene details. DNA tests prove conclusively he did not kill Marion or Cummings, and identify the real killer as insane asylum inmate Eddie Lee Mosley.
Schlein declined to be interviewed about his testimony. Fantigrassi said he never lied to convict Townsend.
“I still vividly remember standing in that crowd with the Miami detectives and Mark and listening to [Townsend’s] story and him making the comment about the color of the sock in the mouth,” Fantigrassi said. “How did he get that specific information? I don’t know…But he didn’t get it from me, and he didn’t get it from Mark. We are both cut from the same cloth. We don’t play around like that.”