When true culprits go free

by YES! Staff

Twenty-three years after the brutal murder of 7-year-old Shalonda Poole, the Greensboro police finally found their man. Donald Preston Ferguson was even facing charges in South Carolina at the time of the crime for the 1989 rape of a 10-year-old girl, the News & Record reports.

In hindsight, it makes perfect sense, although Ferguson is innocent until proven guilty.

That’s not how the police saw it in the immediate aftermath of Poole’s murder. While Ferguson quietly returned to South Carolina, police focused on Melvin Bennett, a UNCG cafeteria worker described by the News & Record as “mentally disabled.” Bennett confessed, but was acquitted in a jury trial.

False confessions are not as rare as one might think. Douglas Starr reported in a recent issue of The New Yorker that of the 311 people exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing, more than 25 percent had given false confessions. And the phenomenon is hardly limited to mentally disabled persons such as Bennett.

Most of us cannot imagine confessing to a horrific crime that we, in fact, did not commit. But Starr’s reporting suggests that when police investigators become  convinced of their suspect’s guilt and levy repeated accusations of lying, anyone  can break down. Such was  the case with Darrel Parker, a forester in Nebraska who came home to find his wife brutally murdered in 1955. After nine hours of interrogation, Starr reports, Parker confessed. He recanted almost immediately, but a jury found him guilty and sentenced him to life in prison. In 1988, Wesley Peery confessed to the murder in a posthumously published memoir. Peery had briefly been a suspect in the Parker murder, but the police released him and he went on to commit another murder, armed robbery, rape and assault.


The conviction of Kalvin Michael Smith in the 1995 beating of Jill Marker at the Silk Plant Forest store in Winston-Salem was also based in part on Smith’s initial confession, later recanted. The police did not pursue other viable suspects, including a man who was subject to a restraining order, had appeared at the store shortly before the attack and had become irate when Marker rejected his dinner invitation. Following Smith’s confession, key witnesses recanted testimony, it was learned that crucial surveillance video vanished, and a retired FBI assistant director found that the investigation had been “tainted by procedural irregularities.”

The Winston-Salem Police Department has reportedly improved its procedures for documenting witness and subject statements, though it’s unclear if its interrogation techniques have been updated.

Has the Greensboro Police Department learned anything from the Melvin Bennett case? !

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