Steven Phillips: One Injustice Corrected in a Broken System

Nick Braune
Mid-Valley Town Crier
by permission

Wouldn’t it be horrible to be 50 and have been in prison for the last 25 years, missing out on seeing your children mature and have children of their own?

Well, that is the story of Steven Phillips from Dallas, a new grandfather who was just freed. He had been accused of sexual assault and burglary in two different cases and convicted in two different trials. (Once the police nailed him for one, they charged him with another one.)

Phillips got 30-year sentences at both trials. While in prison he was then asked by the authorities if he would confess to nine other sexual assaults which fit the pattern, and hoping for some mercy if he cooperated, he confessed to them.

The Dallas police, 25 years ago, were so thrilled to be nailing Phillips for eleven cases of sexual assault that they didn’t pay attention to authorities in Kansas City who also had a suspect, one Sidney Goodyear. Because Phillips had been positively identified by Dallas victims, the police did not bother telling his lawyer about Goodyear and something quite important.

After the Kansas City police sent down a picture of Goodyear, the Dallas police had shown the picture to one of the victims, who said that Goodyear could be the rapist, but the police never told Phillips’ lawyer about the conflicting evidence.

Luckily, one of the cases in which Phillips was tried involved some stored material which could be DNA tested. When the tests were run a year ago, the evidence did not match Phillips’ DNA. But it did match Goodyear’s! It is now conceded by all that Goodyear was the serial rapist in Dallas and Kansas City.

Should we feel pleased that justice has finally been done and Phillips is home? Yes. Should we be pleased that the system has proven itself to work, that bad decisions of the past continue to be corrected? No. The system does not work. At least not well enough to deserve praise. There are millions in prison, but only rare cases, like Phillips’ case, have appropriate specimen material available for DNA testing. And the Steven Phillips case alone reflects three widespread and lingering problems.

First, our old nemesis: eye-witness misidentification. Some backward “red meat” prosecutors still dramatize eye-witness identification as a slam dunk. And juries fall for it. We now know that Phillips did not commit the eleven crimes, but ten witnesses identified him! The national Innocence Project which defended Phillips said in its press release, “It is impossible to know [twenty five years later] how those identification procedures were conducted or how certain the victims were in their identifications. In addition, police circulated Phillips’ name and biographical information widely in the media before most of the victims identified him — this made their identifications highly unreliable.”

Most overturned convictions in Texas have fit the Phillips pattern. Of the 32 total DNA exonerations in Texas — where there is no doubt the accused were innocent — 25 of those cases involved eyewitness identification, sometimes from multiple witnesses.

The Phillips case reflected a second pattern: overzealous prosecutors who ignore conflicting evidence. Dallas alone has had 15 DNA exonerations, and the new prosecutor there has been working with the Innocence Project to undo the damage of a ferocious and racist predecessor. (Texas Monthly, Sept. 2007)

A third pattern: plea bargainings and false confessions. The Phillips case was really bizarre: Although Phillips did not confess to the two crimes he was tried for, the prosecutor bargained him into confessing to nine other ones. Because we have the Innocence Project statistics now, we know a lot more about confessions. Of the 200 people convicted whose innocence has subsequently been completely established by DNA tests, one in four had confessed!

Why so many confessions? Well, interrogation has become a science. (Google “Reid Technique” and you will cringe.) Interrogators are taught techniques like standing too close to you, controlling your space, cutting you off anytime you start to declare your innocence. Interrogators can lie to you legally, make up evidence against you; they can yell at you, insult you, keep you a long time, and suddenly turn friendly and “understanding.” The spare interrogation room is designed scientifically to keep you off balance, while the experts — they practice the techniques and get good at them — list the things you might be charged with.

Emily Horowitz, a criminal justice professor, has a nice piece on false confessions in the latest Counterpunch; she mentions people who have become depressed, abject and “dependent” in a crisis situation. They are nervous wrecks before they are interrogated, and they are no match for scientific accusers. “Just admit you made a mistake, and maybe we can go easy on you,” can be a very enticing line at just the right moment.

Horowitz continues: “According to a raft of social science and psychology research done over the past two decades, techniques like these [check the now common “Reid Technique”] are especially likely to produce false confessions when used on juveniles, the mentally ill, the poorly schooled, immigrants, and those with impaired cognition.” (There is also some evidence that those who have been sexually abused when they were youth are quite susceptible to making false confessions, since part of their survival mechanism was to blame themselves rather than those they admired.)

Steven Phillips, now 50 years old, is fully exonerated now, and we should be joyous. But the current system of vigorous police work and prosecution is still dangerous to society, and we have a lot more work to do.

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