innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

False Confessions

Part 12 of Series: John Miller
When Confessions
Fall on Deaf Ears
Philadelphia Man Remains Imprisoned
Despite Snitch Who Claims Responsibility
For Murder


By Bridget DiCosmo
The Innocence Institute of Point Park University

David Williams had information only the killer would know when he told police his childhood pal John Miller confessed to the 1996 murder of a Philadelphia parking lot attendant.

At trial, a guilt-ridden Mr. Williams recanted his entire story, testifying his friend knew nothing about the killing, but prosecutors successfully persuaded the jury to stick with his original statement, convicted Mr. Miller and sentenced him to life behind bars.

Years later at an appeals hearing, Mr. Williams – also incarcerated for unrelated crimes –confessed to the killing, calling it a case of self defense.

Despite the fact Mr. Miller’s conviction stems from a confession that never occurred, his appeals have been denied because the judge said he only believed Mr. Williams first statement, charging him with perjury even though he implicated himself in a murder.

The confessor persisted from prison.

“John Miller knows nothing about the death of Anthony Mullen. Nothing,” Mr. Williams said in a letter and an interview with the Innocence Institute of Point Park University, a partnership with the Post-Gazette where students learn investigative reporting by probing into allegations of wrongful convictions and systematic abuses.

One Bite of the Apple System

The image of criminals escaping on minor legal technicalities is ubiquitous, but the reality is, few cases are actually overturned despite years of costly appeals – even when someone else confesses.

Last year, of the 4,500 cases appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, only 14.6 percent were reversed. Of those denied, less than 400 continued on to plead their case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that reversed only a fraction of that number.

“It’s approaching the point of impossibility,” said John Packel, former Chief of Appeals for the Philadelphia Public Defender’s Office.

Mr. Packel said hurdles of waivers, time constraints, and the court’s reluctance to overrule a judge’s decision on appeal combine to present “a grim picture for criminal defendants.”

Friend Ends Up With Life

Mr. Miller and Mr. Williams grew up 50 yards away from one another in the same drug riddled South Philadelphia neighborhood.

Mr. Miller says he never met Mr. Mullen, a 49-year-old parking attendant, but Mr. Williams says he knew him in the world of buying and selling drugs.

At the time Mr. Mullen was felled by a single shot to the chest, Mr. Miller says he was three miles away arguing with his now ex-fiancé.

Five months later, Mr. Williams, facing a slew of robbery charges, pointed the finger at Mr. Miller in the hopes of getting a deal.

Mr. Williams said Mr. Miller told him he killed Mr. Mullen with a gun he’d gotten from another neighborhood teen. He said Mr. Miller showed him a cut on his hand that he suffered during a fight with Mr. Mullen before he shot him.

When they picked up Mr. Miller based on Mr. William’s statements, he had a scar on his hand. The gun was never found.

By Mr. Miller’s preliminary hearing in October1997, Mr. William’s story collapsed.

Having already been sentenced to eight to 16 years on the armed robberies, which is a fraction of the time he could have served, Mr. Williams said the man he implicated never confessed to him. He said he made the original statement – with information he watched on television – with hopes of achieving a reduction of his sentence.

Despite the recantation, Mr. Miller was held for trial on the strength of Mr. Williams’ initial incriminating statements.

At Mr. Miller’s jury trial a year later, Mr. Williams repeated his recantation and also said police fed information about the murder to him during a threatening and intimidating interrogation that was not recorded. He denied knowing anything about Mr. Miller’s involvement in the killing. Philadelphia Police did not respond to written questions.

“That conversation never happened. I can’t explain it no better than that. It never happened,” Mr. Williams said years later in a prison interview.

In addition to Mr. William’s early statement, prosecutors pushed circumstantial evidence like the scar on Mr. Miller’s hand, and testimony to place the gun that was never found in his possession; even though no fingerprints or physical evidence tied him to the crime.

After a three-day trial, Mr. Miller was convicted of 2nd degree murder and related crimes and sentenced to life in prison.

The Truth Doesn’t Set Him Free

In the aftermath of her son’s conviction, Velma Miller and others said word swirled through their neighborhood it was Mr. Williams who did the killing.

In 2002, two childhood friends of both men signed sworn statements stating shortly after the murder, a “fidgety” Mr. Williams was trying to sell a black handgun because he’d “shot somebody down at 30th Street,” said one of them.

Then Mrs. Miller received a letter from Mr. Williams in which he confessed to the killing for the first time.

In a prison interview, Mr. Williams said he was trying to collect a $100 drug debt from Mr. Mullen the night of his death.

He said an intoxicated Mr. Mullen, angry at being accosted at work; pulled a gun and fired at Mr. Williams three times before the weapon appeared to jam.

As he was fleeing the barrage, Mr. Williams said he fired one parting shot at Mr. Mullen from his own weapon.

“I didn’t even stay to see if or where he was hit,” Mr. Williams said.

A gun and three spent shells found at the scene partially corroborate Mr. Williams’ story, as do toxicology reports showing Mr. Mullen was heavily intoxicated at the time of his death.

At the time, Mr. Williams said he was embroiled in a dispute with Mr. Miller because he had stolen from him. During a scuffle, Mr. Miller cut his hand, giving him the scar that Mr. Williams would use against him in the murder probe. Knowing police did not have the murder weapon because he sold it, he made up a story putting it in Mr. Miller’s hands.

At a post-conviction hearing, Mr. Williams repeated his recantation under oath, but not only misidentified the dead man’s race, but the dead man’s clothing the night he died. He said his mistakes were a result of his confusion during cross examination.

After listening to Mr. Williams and two others corroborating his confession, Philadelphia County Common Pleas Judge John J. Poserina Jr. declared all testimony unbelievable and denied the appeal.

No One Listens

Mr. Williams was convicted of perjury and sentenced to one and a half to three years on top of his other terms. He will be released soon and plans to enroll at Lockhaven University.

“I’m terribly sorry [that this happened.] And justice should be served, but the wrong person shouldn’t have to serve it,” said Mr. Williams, a slim, soft-spoken 28-year-old during an interview last summer at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview.

Mrs. Miller remains angry no one will listen to Mr. Williams, especially since he is now implicating himself.

She refuses to give up: “I’m gonna keep fighting till somebody hears me.”

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