innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Thursday, January 04, 2007

False Confession and Court Errors May Result in Appeal

Appeal hinges on shaky confession
COURT ERRORS DECRIED IN 25-TO-LIFE SENTENCE

By Fredric N. Tulsky
Mercury News

It was no surprise that a jury convicted Richard Kolacki of first-degree murder.
After all, he provided the gun and a getaway car to the killer who shot an Alviso grocer in February 1993. He confessed to police that he knew the killer, William Harley, planned to commit a robbery when Kolacki drove him to the store. And that knowledge made him legally responsible for murder.

But Kolacki's case, which seemed open and shut, has become one more controversial Santa Clara County jury trial, marred by trial judge errors and compounded by a faulty appellate review.
In a federal court petition, Kolacki says jurors never learned that his confession was false, given under duress. And he says the judge's errors, coupled with new evidence, caused an injustice.
Bolstering his contention, three jurors now say they would never have convicted him had they known then what they know now.

In its series ``Tainted Trials, Stolen Justice,'' the Mercury News documented that a sizable percentage of Santa Clara County jury trials have been marred by questionable conduct of prosecutors, judges and defense lawyers, or appellate justices in their review. Such errors increase the small but significant chance of wrongful conviction.

The danger is heightened when a prosecution is based on certain kinds of evidence, such as eyewitness identification or a jailhouse informant. And earlier this year, the state Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice identified false confessions as another significant source of wrongful convictions.

``Most people do not believe that an innocent person would confess to a crime,'' said Richard A. Leo, a University of San Francisco law professor. But Leo, a false-confessions expert, said the pressures of police interrogations can cause some suspects, worn down by the process, to tell police what they want to hear -- even if it is false.

Kolacki's interview with two detectives was recorded on three cassettes. Superior Court Judge Paul R. Teilh permitted jurors to hear the tapes of Kolacki confessing that he knew Harley intended to commit a robbery. But Teilh did not allow jurors to hear the lengthy first cassette, in which Kolacki insisted he did not know Harley was planning to do anything but collect some money. Higher courts later found Teilh's ruling wrong.

Only after jurors voted to convict both men in 1996 did Harley tell them that Kolacki had no idea Harley intended to commit robbery. Kolacki has passed a polygraph supporting that contention.

But lawyers in the state Attorney General's Office say Harley's statements and the jurors' reaction have been considered and rejected by the state courts.

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