Tyler's stolen youth: Compensating the wrongly convicted

Tyler Edmonds was 13 years old when he confessed to a murder he didn't commit. Two decades on he still pays the price.

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    In the past 25-plus years, there have been 248 recorded exonerations involving false confessions, according to data from The National Registry of Exonerations [Jawahir al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]
    In the past 25-plus years, there have been 248 recorded exonerations involving false confessions, according to data from The National Registry of Exonerations [Jawahir al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

    Tyler Edmonds still remembers every detail of the cell he was put in almost 17 years ago - moments after confessing to a crime he didn't commit.

    "I can still remember the way that room smelled," he tells Al Jazeera, "urine and a lot of bleach."

    Following an interrogation in a Mississippi sheriff's office, Edmonds told investigators that he and his half-sister, Kristi Fulgham, who is 12 years older, had pulled the trigger together on the gun that killed Kristi's husband, Joey Fulgham.

    Edmonds was 13 years old.

    Now 30, he says he's only recently started to process the weight of the experience - what he describes as the morass of manipulation from his half-sister and police interrogators that led to his false confession, and the trauma of spending his teenage years in prison.

    "My parents split when I was a baby. I didn't see any of my father's family or him for years. My half-sister kind of showed up when I was 10 or 11," says Edmonds, recalling the years before his confession. "Both of us came from kind of a broken home, and having that in common, I suppose we bonded."

    That sibling relationship soon took a dastardly turn, he says.

    "I think it was a day or two after she killed her husband when they found his body. She told me it was her who had done it and convinced me to take the blame for it," Edmonds says. "I listened to her tell me 'you're never going to see me again', that she would be executed if I didn't take the blame."

    In 2004, they were both convicted for the crime. A jury in Oktibbeha County, Mississippi convicted then-15-year-old Edmonds of capital murder, a conclusion largely influenced by his video-recorded confession and a since debunked forensic testimony. He was sentenced to life in prison, but his initial conviction was vacated in 2007 following an appeal.

    At the retrial, a jury found Edmonds not guilty. He was free to begin a new life.

    But "not guilty" is not the same as innocent. That distinction has dogged Edmonds for more than a decade, as he walked the arduous path thousands of US citizens must take to receive monetary compensation after a wrongful conviction.

    'I just wanted to please everyone there'

    Before Edmonds can hope to receive compensation from the state of Mississippi for the hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees spent on the two trials, the 10 years of therapy, and the everyday expenses of starting a life after a youth lost, he will have to return to court. And when his trial for compensation begins in October, this time the onus will be on him to prove his innocence to a jury of his peers.

    Edmonds has trouble putting himself back into his 13-year-old mind.

    "I told her [Kristi] ... that I would take the blame, but I didn't expect to," he tells Al Jazeera. "I don't think any of this really registered that this was real. It's so easy to talk about something, especially when you're a kid, everyone has imaginations, but you don't know crap about the world or how anything works."

    During the interrogation, he was separated from his mother and made to face his sister who was brought in in handcuffs and an orange jumpsuit. "It scared the ever-living hell out of me," he recalls.

    Later, he remembers the deputies "hounding" him, saying: "You might as well tell us, we already know, she's told us everything."

    "I guess I just wanted to please everyone there … I don't want anybody to be mad at me or to be disappointed in me. I guess the only compromise I could come up with was to take half the blame," he says.

    Tyler - Feature false confessions
     At the age of 13, Edmonds confessed to a murder he says he didn't commit [courtesy Tyler Edmonds]

    In the recorded portion of his confession, Edmonds details bringing a gun to Kristi's home and eating dinner with Kristi and her husband before the murder. He says he fell asleep and was later awoken by his older sister. Together, they pulled the trigger, killing Kristi's sleeping husband.

    At the end of the recording, Edmonds mother bursts into the interrogation room. In perhaps the most damning portion of the recording, he tells his mother "I'm telling the truth ... that me and Kristi did it."

    The psychology of false confessions

    Scholars say false confessions happen for many reasons. The general acceptance in the scientific community has grown more robust in the last two decades, as evidenced by a recent scientific consensus white paper sponsored by the American Psychology-Law Society that surveyed 87 experts on the psychology of confessions.

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    According to a database maintained by legal non-profit the Innocence Project, false confessions played a role in 28 percent of the first 347 DNA exonerations in the US.

    In the 2,410 cases recorded by the National Registry of Exonerations, which includes non-DNA based exonerations, false confessions have contributed to 12 percent of the cases.

    During Edmonds' initial trial, his defence had attempted to have a juvenile false confession expert, Dr Allison Redlich, testify that his "behaviour was consistent with a false confession," the court documents show.

    "Youth and heightened suggestibility are traits that contribute to the likelihood of false confessions, many false confessions result from pressure placed on a vulnerable person by a family member or friend, and police interrogation procedures such as separating a child from his parents during interrogation can lead to false confessions," the documents continue. But a judge ruled to exclude the testimony.

    "My testimony would not have changed over the last 15 years," Redlich, now a professor at George Mason University, tells Al Jazeera. "The science then and the science now still says that juveniles are at an increased risk for false confessions, especially 13-year-olds, there is no question."

    Placing the blame on the wrongfully convicted

    Richard Leo is a law professor at the University of San Francisco and an expert in false confessions.
    "I still think the public finds the idea of false confessions counter-intuitive," he says, even though the science looking into the trend has "grown exponentially" in the last 15 years.

    "The research has gotten stronger, so expert testimony is needed to educate them [juries] and help them keep an open mind when they're trying to assess innocence or guilt based on the weight of a confession."

    Scepticism surrounding false confessions also extends to who is at fault. When it comes to compensation claims, as in Edmonds's case, states sometimes use these confessions to place the blame of the wrongful conviction on the wrongfully convicted, says Peter Neufeld, a civil rights lawyer and founder and co-director of the Innocence Project, which led the DNA exoneration movement of the 1990s.

    Richardson, one of the wrongly convicted
    Kevin Richardson, one of the wrongly convicted 'Central Park Five', gets emotional during a news conference to announce the payout for the case at City Hall in New York on June 27, 2014 [Carlo Allegri /Reuters]

    Despite the increased understanding of the phenomenon, some states - at least four according to the Innocence Project - have language in their wrongful compensation laws that can be interpreted to prohibit those who falsely confessed from receiving that compensation.

    "There's historically a gap in institutions between the science and the law," says Neufeld. "Science can change pretty quickly. There's no question that the wheels of justice turn more slowly."

    Official misconduct or proving innocence

    Edmonds's stark confession did more than just lead to his conviction, it also later threatened to prohibit him from receiving wrongful conviction compensation after he was freed.

    In 2009, Mississippi passed a state law allowing the wrongfully convicted to seek $50,000 for every year imprisoned. But in 2015, a judge ruled that Edmonds's confessions amounted to fabricating evidence "to bring about his own conviction" - a provision that prohibits compensation.

    The science ... says that juveniles are at an increased risk for false confessions, especially 13-year-olds, there is no question.

    Dr Allison Redlich, false confession expert

    In 2017, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that Edmonds's confession did not preclude him from seeking compensation and he could move forward with his claim.

    His decade-long journey towards reparation illustrates that in seeking compensation for wrongful conviction, jurisdiction is destiny.

    Floyd Bledsoe
    Floyd Bledsoe, right, successfully advocated for Kansas to become the 33rd state to pass a wrongful conviction compensation statute in 2018. He had served 15 years for murder before being exonerated [File: Earl Richardson/The Associated Press]

    Currently, 35 states have passed laws that allow a wrongfully convicted person to seek compensation from the government. In the states that haven't, the only option is a federal civil rights lawsuit against the state. Every US citizen is able to file such a suit but to win, the claimant must prove their constitutional rights were violated - a high bar for many to meet.

    "You have to prove two things: one that there was official misconduct and two, that that official misconduct led to a constitutional violation," Rebecca Brown, the director of policy at the Innocence Project tells Al Jazeera. "And that is incredibly difficult to prove."

    Edmonds and his lawyers attempted a civil rights lawsuit against Oktibbeha County. In 2012, a judge ruled that the law enforcement officer's actions did not violate Edmonds constitutional rights.

    'Near impossible to be compensated'

    In pursuing this type of case, no financial support is offered to the claimant during what can be a lengthy court process.

    "[The wrongfully convicted] have lost decades of work history, and the mental health issues when you come out of prison for that length of time can be very severe," says Elizabeth Wang, a lawyer focused on wrongful convictions. "To then require those people to go through a full separate lawsuit, a very onerous one that can have high burdens of proof, just in order to get compensated, to get some money to live on, it seems like a lot to require of somebody."

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    Even states with compensation laws have their challenges, including varying standards of innocence a person seeking restitution must prove.

    For instance, in New York, if a conviction is vacated and the accused is found not guilty in a subsequent trial, or prosecutors decide not to retry the case, the wrongfully convicted person is eligible for a compensation claim.

    In Mississippi, where Edmonds's case was tried, a not guilty ruling at a retrial is not enough. There the burden of proof is on the defendant to prove innocence by a "preponderance of evidence", or that innocence is more likely than not.

    "The pinnacle of our judicial system is that it operates under the presumption of innocence," Edmonds says. "So you are presumed innocent until proven guilty. But the way Mississippi is approaching this, it makes it sound like I'm presumed guilty and I have to prove my innocence."

    While the laws are often written to assure that the guilty cannot cash in, "the unfortunate and perverse outcome of those types of provisions is that they often bar people who are actually innocent from receiving compensation," says Brown of the Innocence Project.

    "What ultimately many states have done is to make the compensation or restitution process so onerous or difficult that it's near impossible to be compensated."

    The long road to compensation

    The hope of receiving some kind of compensation from the state of Mississippi has remained in the background of Edmonds life for the last 11 years.

    But on the day-to-day, he says he focuses on his continued process of healing.

    Tyler Edmonds shortly before he was arrested in the spring of 2003 [Handout]

    He has moved a couple of times since his release, finally settling in Florida, where he enjoys not being regularly connected to the crime he is forever associated with in his home state.

    And, while he says part of him "is dreading" reliving the details of his case, he sees his upcoming trial as part of that healing.

    "My mom lost everything during this. She'll be in debt until the day she dies from legal fees," Edmonds says. "And then therapy's not cheap, and it's been going on now for 10 years since I've been out. A couple hundred bucks an hour, you do that once a week for 10 years, it adds up."

    Edmonds's upcoming trial is also unique. It may be the first of its kind in the US to be decided by a jury, several experts in the field told Al Jazeera. That is significant as the trial is set to take place in Edmonds's home county of Oktibbeha, which has a population of just under 50,000 from which the jury will be selected.

    "This case was very controversial down here back in the time when this was going on," says Jim Waide, Edmonds's lawyer since his first criminal trial. "He was 13 years old at the time, he had a spotless record, he was a good student, non-violent. It's hard to believe it could happen with him. At the same time, most people believe if you confess you're guilty."

    Waide's priority will be trying to achieve what he could not in the original criminal trial - convincing the judge to allow a false confession expert to testify, he says.

    "If the judge does not let in a false confession expert, it will be a difficult case," Waide says. "If the judge allows a false confession expert to testify, I think our chances will be much better."

    People need to understand that you can't just go screwing people over and getting away with it. I've heard people argue that it was kind of my fault. I take blame for saying that I did something that I didn't do, but only to the extent that a child can.

    Tyler Edmonds

    For his part, Edmonds hopes to have a jury of his peers uphold his innocence, something he feels will resonate beyond his case, also sending a message to authorities that convicted him.

    The former District Attorney of Oktibbeha County, Forrest Allgood, has repeatedly stood by his office's prosecution of Edmonds.

    "Two of my assistants tried [Edmonds case], and I am still close friends with both. They both believed Edmonds to be guilty," Allgood wrote for the local Mississippi news site The Dispatch in 2015. "I had complete confidence in their decision at the time, particularly after I viewed his confession. I still do."

    Allgood could not be reached for comment for this story. The Oktibbeha County Sheriff's Office and the current District Attorney of Oktibbeha County declined to comment on the upcoming case. The Mississippi Attorney General's office, which will defend against Edmonds's claim, said as a policy they do not comment on ongoing litigation.

    "People need to understand that you can't just go screwing people over and getting away with it. I've heard people argue that it was kind of my fault. I take blame for saying that I did something that I didn't do, but only to the extent that a child can," says Edmonds.

    "The system failed in so many ways."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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