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Opinion What does Mississippi owe a 13-year-old who falsely confessed to murder?

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NBC News has published a long story about Tyler Edmonds, a Mississippi man convicted in the 2003 murder of his half sister’s husband. Edmonds and his half sister Kristi Fulgham were both convicted of the crime.

The NBC News story is mostly a look at the limits of the laws states have passed to compensate the victims of wrongful convictions. Most of these laws prohibit victims who contributed to their own convictions from getting compensated, a stipulation that tends to ensnare people convicted because of false confessions. (Edmonds initially confessed, then retracted his confession a few days later.)

This sort of exception to compensation laws is really unfair. It discounts all of the coercion and manipulation that can go into a false confession. In fact, there’s some evidence that innocent people are especially likely to confess under conditions such as prolonged interrogation, sleep deprivation and threats of additional charges. This is because in the moment, they calculate that a confession will at least end the interrogation, and because they’re innocent, the evidence will eventually exonerate them.

But Mississippi’s refusal to compensate Edmonds is particularly troubling for a few reasons. First, there’s Edmonds’s age. He was 13 when he confessed. According to court records from the case, Edmonds idolized his older half sister. On the weekend of the murder, Fulgham was supposed to take Edmonds to meet their father. Instead, she took him to the home she shared with her husband, Joey Fulgham, and their children. Kristi Fulgham had told friends and relatives that Joey Fulgham was abusive. But Kristi Fulgham herself could be incredibly manipulative. She had also been seeing another man and had hoped to reap a $350,000 life insurance policy on her husband. On the night of May 9, 2003, Kristi Fulgham shot and killed her husband as he slept. She was arrested a few days later. She told the police that Edmonds had accidentally killed her husband while playing with a rifle — that the weapon accidentally discharged as Joey Fulgham slept. The police then brought in Edmonds for questioning.

When questioned alongside his mother, and while he was recorded with a video camera, Edmonds initially denied any involvement in Joey Fulgham’s death. Kristi Fulgham had asked him to wait in the car with her kids when the murder likely happened, and he didn’t learn of Joey Fulgham’s death until two days later when Kristi Fulgham confessed. She also told him then that the only way for her to avoid the death penalty would be for him to take the blame.

But then the police separated Edmonds from his mother. They told him that his sister had accused him of the murder. He told them he didn’t believe them. The police then turned off the video camera and brought Kristi Fulgham in to join Edmonds. She took her brother’s hand and told him to tell the truth — but she also slipped him a note. In the note, she again asked Edmonds to tell the police that he had shot Joey Fulgham by accident, and that if he didn’t, the authorities would “send me to the electric chair.”

It was after this meeting with his sister and after being separated from his mother that Edmonds confessed. But his confession was odd. He didn’t confess in a way that exonerated his sister, nor did he confess to killing Joey Fulgham accidentally. Instead, he claimed that he and his sister held the rifle together and simultaneously pulled the trigger. He would later say that he had hoped that this narrative would spare his sister’s life — he’d take some of the blame, but not all of it.

But from the start, his confession didn’t add up. He claimed he had already confessed to his sister’s boyfriend after the three of them fled to Biloxi. According to the boyfriend, he hadn’t. He claimed that after firing, he saw specks of blood on a white pillowcase. There was no blood on the pillowcase. At one point, he told police he didn’t even think the old rifle would actually fire. A few days later, after talking to his mother and other relatives, he retracted his confession and has maintained his innocence ever since.

The office of Mississippi District Attorney Forrest Allgood charged both Edmonds and Kristi Fulgham with murder. Despite his age, Edmonds would be tried as an adult. The NBC News article looks at just how much responsibility a 13-year-old should bear for his actions in a situation such as this, and that’s all certainly relevant. But it’s important to point out that the confession would never have happened if it weren’t for bad policies and bad decisions by state officials.

Edmonds in particular checked off a lot of boxes of the factors that can lead to false confessions. He was a minor who had been coerced by a family member whom he trusted and admired. He was also a minor who had just been separated from a parent. He was emotionally and physically immature for his age, also common among false confessors. Edmonds also quickly recanted his confession, common among the innocent. And his confession itself contained inconsistencies, included falsehoods and fell short of taking complete responsibility for the crime. These, too, are all factors common among people who falsely confess.

But there other details about this case that the NBC News article doesn’t mention — details that both make the state of Mississippi much more culpable for what happened to Edmonds and make it all the more absurd that the state is now trying to blame Edmonds for what happened to him.

First, there was the decision to charge Edmonds as an adult. It was especially punitive and unnecessary. Edmonds also had no prior criminal record. His teachers, his relatives, the parents of his classmates and his school counselor all testified that he was gentle and good-natured. He got good grades, rarely got into trouble and had never been prone to violence. All of this should have cast doubt on Edmonds’s confession from the beginning. But even if prosecutors really believed that Edmonds helped Kristi Fulgham kill her husband, the most likely scenario was that he was a fragile kid who had been emotionally manipulated by a sociopathic sister he adored and saw as a maternal figure. This was no coldblooded killer.

And then there was Steven Hayne. Regular readers of The Watch will recognize that name. Hayne is the doctor who did as many as 80 percent of Mississippi’s autopsies for the better part of 20 years. By his own admission, between the late 1980s and 2009, Hayne was doing 1,500, 1,800, even more than 2,000 autopsies per year. The National Association of Medical Examiners recommends that a forensic odontologist do no more than 250 autopsies per year — 325 at the absolute most. Hayne also lied about his certification. He and his sidekick, bite-mark analyst Michael West, dominated the state’s autopsy referrals by helping Mississippi prosecutors win convictions. In the early 1990s, Hayne and West helped convict two men in the separate rapes and murders of two little girls in Noxubee County. In 2007, those men — Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks — were exonerated and freed after spending a combined 30 years in prison for those crimes. Another man, Justin Johnson, confessed to both murders. Allgood was the district attorney in those cases, too.

Hayne performed the autopsy on Joey Fulgham. At Edmonds’s trial, the prosecutor (Allgood himself didn’t prosecute Edmonds) asked Hayne whether he had viewed Edmonds’s videotaped confession. He had. She then asked whether, in light of that confession, he had considered the position of Joey Fulgham’s body. He said he had. She then asked, “based on the path of the projectile and everything that was viewed,” whether Hayne thought “the defendant’s version of the events is consistent with what you found in Mr. Fulgham?” In other words, were the wounds in Joey Fulgham’s body consistent with Edmonds’s videotaped confession — the one in which he said he and his sister held and fired the gun simultaneously?

It was a preposterous question. No medical examiner can tell by the bullet wounds in the body if the gun that fired those bullets was being held by one person or two. Edmonds’s attorney objected.

This brings up another issue we’ve explored often here at The Watch — the inability of the courts to keep bad science out of criminal trials. Edmonds’s defense team likely knew that Hayne would be getting this question — the prosecutor said as much in her opening statement:

“You’re going to hear how Kristi stood behind him and held him and you’re going to hear how they both put their finger on the trigger and you’re going to hear how they both shot and killed Joey Fulgham.”

The defense requested a Daubert hearing on the matter. A Daubert hearing is named for the trio of Supreme Court cases in which justices laid out how federal courts should assess the credibility of expert testimony. In the hearing, the trial court judge listens to evidence from both sides about whether proposed testimony from an expert witness is reliable and supported by scientific research. In Edmonds’s case, the defense wanted to argue that there’s no scientific research to suggest that a medical examiner can give an opinion on how many people were holding a gun based on the bullet wounds inflicted by that gun. Incredibly, the judge denied the hearing. Just to be clear: The judge didn’t hold a hearing and then rule against the defense. The judge refused to hold a hearing at all. He didn’t think the “two hands on the gun” theory was even controversial enough to merit discussion.

The prosecutor then asked the question again. Did Hayne find the crime scene evidence, his autopsy and the other forensic evidence to be consistent with Edmonds’s videotaped confession (as opposed to his recantation story, which suggested that his sister acted alone)? At this point, a conscientious medical examiner might have answered something like, “You’re asking me to speculate on something that’s not only outside my area of expertise but that really couldn’t be determined by anyone.” Instead, Hayne answered, “Within a reasonable medical certainty, it’s consistent with the scenario provided to me and would be in compliance with the facts I saw.”

On cross-examination, the defense pushed a bit more, likely in order to be sure that what Hayne was implying to the jury was explicit in the trial record.

Q. Dr. Hayne, You testified earlier that the defendant’s statement that you saw was consistent with how the gunshot wound occurred?
A. It would be consistent with the physical findings that I observed and the information provided to me by opposite side counsel.
Q. And do you understand that the evidence is that two people fired that shot?
A. That was essentially the summary of the information given to me and seen on the video.
Q. And let’s suppose if one person fired that shot. Would your opinion be the same?
A. I could not exclude that; however, I would favor that a second party be involved in that positioning of the weapon … [After a follow-up question] … If you are talking about the relative position of the weapon, then I would indicate that the weapon was placed much more towards the bed and that would be consistent with one person assisting another person to achieve that trajectory, the aiming of the weapon . . . it would be consistent with two people involved. I can’t exclude one, but I think that would be less likely.

In 10 years writing about Hayne, I haven’t found a single medical examiner willing to defend that testimony.

But the state’s transgressions against Edmonds didn’t end there. Later in the trial, his attorneys attempted to call their own expert witness, Allison Redlich, an experimental psychologist who has done extensive research into false confessions. Redlich was prepared to testify what this post has already discussed — that Edmonds exhibited many characteristics often found in people who falsely confess. The prosecution objected and requested its own Daubert hearing. The judge not only granted the request but also set aside an entire day to hold the hearing.

After a day of testimony, the trial judge ruled that Redlich’s testimony wasn’t scientifically reliable. The jury would hear no expert testimony about false confessions. The judge’s Daubert analysis is really a case study in how inept courts can be at assessing the validity of scientific evidence. One of his criteria, for example, was how often other courts had permitted expert testimony about false confessions. The judge did some of his own research and concluded that about half of them had allowed it and half had not. This, he determined, meant that Redlich’s opinions hadn’t yet been accepted in the scientific community. It was a revealing bit of analysis. Whether or not other judges had allowed a particular field of research into evidence says almost nothing about whether the field has been accepted in the scientific community. There’s no better example of this than bite-mark evidence, which has been roundly rejected by scientists but has yet to be rejected by a single court in the United States.

The judge next argued that Redlich’s testimony was scientifically suspect because it couldn’t be tested empirically. But this is true of testimony by any psychiatrist or psychologist, including the thousands whom Mississippi courts had appointed to evaluate defendants’ fitness for trial in cases where there’s a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, or in death penalty cases.

Finally, the judge claimed that the population of researchers in the field of false confessions was too small to be considered scientifically accepted. He claimed only six were doing work similar to Redlich’s. But as former Mississippi Supreme Court justice Oliver Diaz would later point out in an opinion, the number was actually around 60. One review of the research on false confessions published in 1992 — more than a decade before Edmonds’s trial — found 800 peer-reviewed studies. The judge argued that, on the other hand, there were many researchers who had doubted that false confessions were common. But to support this contention he cited only three names. One had never published a peer-reviewed study on the topic. Another was Paul Cassell, a former federal judge, advocate for victims’ rights and the death penalty, and a conservative legal commentator. Cassell wasn’t a trained psychiatrist or social scientist.

Today, it’s well accepted in the scientific community that false confessions occur and that they’re especially likely among children. Today, it’s also well accepted in the scientific community that you can’t look at bullet wounds and draw opinions about how many people were holding the gun. Yet for Edmonds’s trial, the state of Mississippi argued that the former was scientifically dubious and that the latter didn’t even deserve a hearing. And the trial judge agreed.

Edmonds was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Kristi Fulgham was also convicted. She was sentenced to death, which was later reduced to a life sentence. Four years later, the Mississippi Supreme Court threw out Edmonds’s conviction, finding that Hayne’s testimony about the gun wasn’t scientifically reliable. Edmonds was retried in 2008, this time without that testimony. The jury acquitted.

Today, Mississippi argues that because Edmonds confessed to the crime, he contributed to his own conviction and, therefore, is ineligible for compensation. The state is also arguing that an acquittal is not an exoneration and that, therefore, Edmonds hasn’t really been proved innocent; he has only been found “not guilty” by a jury.

Both arguments ignore the great lengths to which the state of Mississippi went to put a 13-year-old boy in prison for a crime it now seems highly unlikely that he committed. The state interrogated him away from his mother. The police used his sister to coerce him. The state then brought in its long-favored expert to offer quack testimony wholly outside the realm of science, not to mention common sense, all while successfully suppressing testimony from an expert who planned to cite documented research showing that someone like Edmonds was a prime candidate for a false confession. As demonstrated in the subsequent trial, had Hayne not been permitted to give that testimony, the jury probably wouldn’t have convicted. Had the judge ruled correctly with respect to both experts, acquittal seems a near-certainty.

Mississippi state officials not only have refused to conduct a thorough review of the cases in which Hayne has testified to see whether there might be other wrongful convictions but also still defend Hayne and the convictions won in part or primarily due to his testimony.

In short, as the state of Mississippi steadfastly refuses to take responsibility for mistakes made by its public officials that sent who knows how many innocent people to prison (we don’t know the number, because the state won’t conduct a review), the same state of Mississippi is demanding that Edmonds be held accountable for the mistaken confession he made … as a 13-year-old boy.