innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

False Confessions

Part 4 of series: Da'ron Cox
Gangland Violence
Snares Cox, But Did Police Get the Right Man?
Case Shows How A Questionable Confession Trumps Lies and Contradictions Every Time.

By Cynthia Levy
Innocence Institute of Point Park University

PITTSBURGH -- In November 1996 when Brian Roberts, known as “Little B”, pointed a gun at a cop, he was arrested with that automatic weapon and 34 rocks of crack cocaine, but walked free after telling police the gun and drugs belonged to Roland Cephas, who was busted and vowed retaliation.

Ten days later as Mr. Roberts stood in front of row houses on Homewood’s dismal Sterrett St., a man in a black coat, scull cap and blue jeans shot him twice, chased him into an alley, pumped two more bullets into him, pistol-whipped him and left him to die.

While few in the area helped police, the cop who got Mr. Roberts to snitch told homicide detectives Mr. Cephas may have been the killer. No one implicated Da’Ron Cox, 18, or even placed him at the scene.

Fourteen days later Raisheai Smith, incarcerated at Shuman Juvenile Detention Center after violating his parole, struck a deal with police. For freedom and relocation funds he said he witnessed Mr. Cox commit the murder.

In a statement riddled with inconsistencies, Mr. Smith said he watched Mr. Cox jump out of a car and shoot Mr. Roberts in the chest, fall from the force of the initial shots, get up, and run into an alley where he was shot three more times.

He knew nothing about a later report from the Allegheny County Coroner’s office reports stating Mr. Roberts was also pistol whipped.

Despite those conflicts, police used Mr. Smith’s statement to obtain a warrant for Mr. Cox’s arrest. Six days later he turned himself in and hasn’t been free since.

Unfair Interrogation?

Shackled to the ground, scared and confused, Mr. Cox claims he was interrogated from 7 p.m. until 1:30 a.m.

“I kept telling them I was with my girlfriend in Penn Hills and they kept telling me they knew I did it and that they had me red-handed,” said Cox. As it turned out, the girlfriend never fully confirmed his alibi.

He says for three hours, city detectives Robert McCabe, now deceased, and Dennis Logan, now an investigator for the Allegheny County District Attorneys Office, took turns playing good cop, bad cop.

“They started telling me they knew I wasn’t a violent person because they pulled my juvenile record and they knew I never carried a gun so (they told me) it would be real easy to get me off if I confessed,” he said.

When he refused to admit the killing, he says detectives told him they could make this into a “self-defense thing” charging him with manslaughter which carries a minimum two-year sentence. To prove it they showed him a copy of the Pennsylvania Crime Code. He decided to cut his losses.

“When you live the lifestyle that I was living you become conditioned to do time. You know you’ll eventually go to jail and I was just thinking two years and I’ll put it behind me,” he said.

Confession Conflicts

In his statement, Mr. Smith said Mr. Cox shot the victim at close range in the chest. In his confession, Mr. Cox told police he fired six shots into Mr. Robert’s chest from a distance. Mr. Roberts was shot in the back.

At the July 1997 trial, Det. McCabe denied manipulating the young man who was without representation during the interrogation. His purpose: “To obtain a confession, to find out what happened.” He could not account for the difference in Mr. Cox’s confession and Mr. Smith’s statements.

On the witness stand, Mr. Cox denied involvement, claiming he confessed after the six and a half hours of questioning out of fear for his life.

Mr. Cox testified the officers told him what kind of gun – which was never found -- was used, where the crime occurred and how many shots were fired. The police have repeatedly denied that.

After a three day trial, Mr. Cox was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

“When I heard the judge say I was guilty I was not surprised. There was a lady on the jury I made eye contact with. She nodded at me before they went to deliberate like everything would be okay, but, when she came out crying I just looked at my mom and said that’s how the cookie crumbles,” said Cox.

Post-trial Revelations and Carnage in Homewood

After trial several Homewood men provided affidavits stating they were positive Mr. Cox was not present at the murder scene.

Oronde Shelton said in a sworn affidavit he was present at the murder scene. He claims the killer was not Mr. Cox and Mr. Robert’s murder was rooted in his dispute with Mr. Cephas, who was murdered in 1997. Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Manning denied the appeal.

Another man, Ross Davis, later signed an affidavit swearing Mr. Smith, the only eyewitness against Mr. Cox, was with him in a row house at the time of the killing and did not see anything.

In his statement, Mr. Davis said he once asked Mr. Smith why he lied on Mr. Cox and Mr. Smith replied: “I don’t care anymore.” Mr. Smith was gunned down in 1999.

Since, a man named Dewayne Jackson swore in an affidavit that he saw Mr. Cephas commit the murder.

Ten years later, Mr. Cox is the sole surviving suspect in this string of retaliatory street gang killings. He says he had nothing to do with Mr. Robert’s death or any of the others.

“I just hope that one day someone will see that the whole situation was not right and lets me out,” he says.

Mr. Cox’s attorney tried filing appeals based on the new evidence, but was repeatedly denied. His attorney is currently preparing his final appeal in federal court.

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