By April Witt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 6, 2001
Last of four articles
The killer bled.
The victim, Billy Hall, lay sprawled on the bedroom floor, a small nightstand toppled across his chest. The overturned furniture, shattered pottery, and cuts on Hall's hands, arms and legs told how hard he fought for his life before the killer broke a seven-inch butcher's knife off in Hall's neck.
The killer dripped blood from Hall's bedroom into his bathroom, across the living room rug, past the Christmas tree with its lights still on and out the front door, where he paused long enough to lock it with a key, investigative records show. Then he got away.
Four days after Hall's murder, Prince George's County homicide detectives put an illiterate janitor named Aaron Wright in an interrogation room where, according to police, he confessed to slaying Hall.
Wright spent more than seven months in jail before the FBI crime lab determined that he wasn't the person who left a trail of blood leading out of Hall's apartment, according to interviews and documents.
More than six years after Hall was slashed and stabbed 20 times, the killer has not been found.
In their determination to extract confessions, Prince George's police in some cases are leaving justice undone, according to a yearlong investigation involving dozens of interviews and the review of hundreds of documents.
The Washington Post examined four cases in which people who Prince George's homicide detectives said had confessed to murder were later cleared by DNA or other evidence. In each case, self-incriminating statements obtained after long interrogations were virtually the only evidence detectives used to charge a man with a murder he did not commit. In two of four cases, the real killer's trail grew so cold that he got away with murder.
The false confessions -- and the repeated claims of suspects that their confessions were coerced -- raise larger questions: Have innocent people who allegedly confessed been convicted and imprisoned while the real killers remain on the street? And if the police use coercive tactics that result in false confessions, why haven't the courts intervened?
"What you are looking at is the tip of the iceberg," said Fred Bennett, a veteran Prince George's lawyer who specializes in post-conviction appeals and who once served as the federal defender in Baltimore.
"I believe they are getting confessions from innocent people," he said. "There have just been too many cases with very, very fishy confessions. I've been worried about this for years. But you can only litigate it case by case."
In some cases, judges have thrown out confessions, reversed convictions or ordered new trials based on the interrogation room misconduct of Prince George's detectives -- from threatening a 17-year-old suspect with the electric chair to chaining an alleged armed robber to a wall for 24 hours of questioning.
But it is far more common for judges to admit confessions as evidence and for people to be convicted based on confessions they testified were coerced. In the last two years alone, people have been imprisoned after interrogations conducted over 32, 35, 51 and even 80 hours.
"These cases are not being thrown out," Prince George's Police Chief John S. Farrell said last week, citing his detectives's courtroom success as evidence that they are doing nothing wrong.
When the interrogation room tactics are challenged in court, it's the accused murderer's word against that of a police detective.
Unlike police in many jurisdictions -- including Montgomery County and the District of Columbia -- Prince George's homicide detectives do not videotape or record interrogations or confession statements.
"It narrows down to credibility," Prince George's Circuit Court Judge Joseph S. Casula said. "Who is the fact-finder going to believe -- someone who allegedly committed a heinous crime or an upstanding police officer? Judges usually go with the police.
"Sometimes it is very difficult to know" who is telling the truth, Casula added. "They should videotape the statements. Judges would love it."
Without an objective record of what happened in the interrogation room, judges and juries must weigh conflicting testimony like that heard in Circuit Court six weeks ago.
Lacking physical evidence or eyewitness testimony, prosecutors built their murder case against a 19-year-old Bowie man on a confession he gave during a 51-hour interrogation. Robert Angel Perez testified that homicide detectives denied him a lawyer, punched him in the chest, shook him, threw him, refused to let him sleep, threatened him and then coached him on what the confession should include.
Perez was followed to the stand by two of his interrogators -- homicide detectives Nelson W. Rhone Jr. and Joseph Hoffman -- who said that during his questioning, he answered questions willingly, never requested a lawyer and never appeared tired. They denied making threats or abusing him.
"He signed a form that said he had no problem staying past 24 hours," Hoffman told the jury. "He was very cooperative."
Perez was found guilty of two murders and is scheduled for sentencing June 14.
Maryland rules of criminal procedure require police to take people they arrest before a judicial officer "without unnecessary delay and in no event later than 24 hours."
When Hoffman and Rhone took the stand in April to rebut Perez's account of his marathon interrogation, they testified that they didn't know of the 24-hour requirement.
"You're a homicide detective for five years, and you don't understand that or know that?" Perez's defense attorney, Ronald H. Cooper, asked Hoffman. The prosecutor successfully intervened with an objection before Hoffman could respond.
Lt. Michael McQuillan, commander of the Prince George's homicide unit, said his detectives don't coerce confessions.
More than six years after Billy Hall's murder, the homicide unit's cold case squad is reinvestigating the case, McQuillan said.
"We aren't going to quit," he said. "We are going to pursue every avenue until we find the person or persons responsible." No one -- including Wright -- has been ruled out as a suspect, McQuillan said.
But yesterday, Prince George's State's Attorney Jack B. Johnson said, "The case against Aaron Wright is closed."
Johnson said he instituted new policies in his office this week to prevent closed cases from being opened out of "revenge" after he learned that police were reinvestigating Hall's murder.
When the charges against Wright were dropped in 1995, the maintenance worker left jail so devastated that his lawyer and relatives worried that he'd kill himself. His family and lawyers wanted him to sue police, prosecutors and Prince George's County for violating his rights, but he was too afraid to fight back, they said. Wright was terrified that if he sued, police would try to frame him and send him back to jail, relatives said.
Wright, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is still terrified, his family said.
"It's changed him a lot," said Kim Grimes, 34, Wright's wife and the mother of his two children. "He's scared of the police. He's paranoid. He don't talk about it. He don't want to think about it. You can't ever bring it up. He's just scared. You be locked up for something you didn't do, you be scared, too."
How Wright came to sign a murder confession that is at odds with irrefutable DNA evidence remains something of a mystery.
'They Scared Him to Death'
Wright met Hall when he was hired to clean buses at night for a Forestville company.
Wright, who had once been arrested for drunken driving, didn't own a car at the time. So Hall, a supervisor, regularly gave Wright rides to or from work.
He grew up sporadically homeless, shuttling with his troubled mother between shelters, relatives' sofas and apartments with rent due. He left school young and is able to read and write only a few simple words. As an adult, he managed to get by because he was a hard worker -- the kind who mops the floor even if it doesn't look dirty -- and had Grimes to read for him, she said. Whenever a boss left him written instructions, he slipped the note home for Grimes to tell him what it said.
On the last day of Hall's life, a few weeks before Christmas 1994, he and Wright left the company Christmas party together, records show.
That fact led homicide detectives to pick up Wright for questioning early on the morning of Dec. 13, just as he was ending an overnight shift.
Sitting in a cramped interrogation room, Wright told police that after the Christmas party, Hall drove him to see relatives in the District, left him briefly, then dropped him at a bar. Wright said he never saw Hall again. Another man drove Wright to the home of Grimes's mother, where he stayed late visiting with several of her relatives, Wright told police.
Wright told police that he had never been to Hall's apartment, and police evidence technicians did not find Wright's fingerprints anywhere in Hall's apartment, records show.
Wright couldn't read the police form asking if he wanted to invoke his constitutional right to remain silent or talk to a lawyer. A detective read the form to him, according to police records.
He couldn't write a statement or read the ones detectives took down for him. But he signed his name in a shaky hand and initialed every paragraph just as the detectives asked.
"He kept asking for me," Grimes said. "When you don't know how to read and write and people are saying, 'Sign here,' you want somebody to help you. They scared him to death."
Grimes believes, based on comments Wright made to her at the time, that the detectives somehow made him wonder if he'd actually killed Hall but was too drunk to remember.
"They were trying to convince him that he had a blackout and he did it," Grimes said. "They put stuff on his mind. I think he even asked me if he'd ever had a blackout, and I told him no."
After Wright had been in the interrogation room about 9 hours, his story changed dramatically, according to a detective's notes.
In a vaguely worded second statement written by a detective and signed by Wright -- the purported confession -- Wright said he went to Hall's apartment with him and got drunk. Then Hall, who was gay, made an aggressive pass at Wright, pulled a knife on him, and the two men struggled violently.
Detective Richard Fulginiti's written account of Wright's confession includes the following questions:
Did you go to Billy's house on Friday night?
"It had to be Friday night," Wright reportedly answered.
Did Billy pick you up in his car in D.C?
"He had to," Wright said.
How did you get the knife?
"We were wrestling, that's how I ended up with it," Wright answered, according to police records. "I stabbed him at least once, but I don't remember where on his body."
Did you get injured?
"The next day when I woke up I was sore," Wright said, according to police documents.
Police records show that Wright was uninjured. Investigative records indicate that Hall struggled violently with his killer, who left a bloody trail as he fled.
Despite that contradiction, police charged Wright with first-degree murder.
Soon after his arrest, Wright told a private investigator who worked for his defense attorney that he confessed because he was afraid that detectives would beat him.
McQuillan said his detectives don't abuse suspects.
To Grimes, what happened to the father of her children in the interrogation room is no mystery.
"When they find out the man is illiterate, they didn't care about looking for nobody else. Shoot, this is easy, they think they have found them a dummy they could put it on. That's one case closed."
A Killer Slips Away
The list of possible killers was thicker than Hall's black address books.
Hall, 30, an open and outgoing person, had a private life so adventurous that friends warned him to be careful. He had liaisons with more than one co-worker, including a married man, friends told police. About the time of his death, he was embroiled in a sexual harassment complaint at work, records indicate. One man believed to be Hall's paramour was fired just before Hall's murder, records show.
According to the medical examiner's report, Hall had sexual relations shortly before his murder.
After Hall's murder, detectives took his address books, along with other potential evidence, according to police documents.
One of Hall's closest friends, Delores Owens, who lived in the apartment above his, offered to look through the address books to help police identify a possible suspect, according to the written statement she provided to police at the time.
Police never took her up on her offer, she said.
"What's so sad about it is they acted like they didn't give a [darn]," said Owens, who visits Hall's grave regularly to place a new bunch of red silk roses. "I miss him a lot."
Homicide detectives questioned just two men, who both worked and socialized with Hall: Wright and the man who had recently been fired, according to police documents released to Wright's defense attorney.
The man who had been fired told police he spent the night of Hall's murder Christmas shopping with his girlfriend. Police let him go.
Police did not take anyone's written statements to try to verify or refute Wright's alibi, according to documents and interviews.
Wright told police that his brother-in-law, Alonzo Grimes, was one of the people who could vouch that he was with the family, not at Hall's apartment in Bladensburg, police records show.
The house of family matriarch Lucille Grimes was filled with friends and relatives that Friday night, as it traditionally is on Friday.
"Some guy dropped him off around back of the house," Alonzo Grimes recalled in a recent interview. "Right in back, a half-block away at the Naylor Road shopping center. Me and him walked here together. We stayed to the house all night.
"Me and him were sitting at this table," Grimes added, tapping his mother's worn kitchen table. "About 2:30, 3 a.m., me and him went up the street to break up a fight."
Grimes, and other relatives and friends, would have told police the same thing, he said. But detectives did not ask.
Two detectives stopped by the house looking for Wright before they questioned and arrested him. But after hearing his alibi, they never returned to ask anyone in the family if Wright had been with them on Friday night, according to interviews and documents.
"They never . . . ask any of us one question about that night," Lucille Grimes, now 72, said.
Wright spent Christmas in jail -- and New Year's, Easter and the Fourth of July -- before the Prince George's prosecutor asked a judge to drop the murder changes against him.
DNA test results had come back from the FBI laboratory. Blood on the knife and elsewhere at the murder scene was not Wright's.
The tests found blood from only two people, Hall and an "unidentified" person: the killer, who struck Hall so hard he knocked teeth loose; who stabbed Hall again and again; and who slipped out of the apartment leaving behind his DNA fingerprint for Prince George's homicide detectives.
They have yet to find him.