Confession of error 

Vidale McDowell received great news last week.

McDowell’s attorney filed a brief with the Michigan Court of Appeals contending that, among other things, an erroneous decision by Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Ulysses W. Boykin resulted in McDowell being wrongfully convicted of murdering Janice Williams. The appeal relied in large part on a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that reaffirms the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to be confronted with the witnesses against them.”

In McDowell’s case, which was the subject of a Metro Times exposé (“Confessions & recantations,” Jan. 21, 2004), the prosecution’s case hinged on a confession provided by McDowell’s 13-year-old friend, Antoine Morris, son of the murdered woman. Morris initially denied having any knowledge of the crime. But after intense and repeated interrogation by Detroit police, he implicated both McDowell and himself. Morris almost immediately recanted his statement, saying he said what he’d said because the cops told him if he didn’t cooperate they would send him to jail, where he would become someone’s “girlfriend.” Judge Boykin allowed prosecutors to admit the confession without ever calling Morris to testify at trial. The confession was read to the jurors, who convicted the then 18-year-old McDowell. He was sent to prison for life. Morris received probation.

Morris told MT that, had he taken the stand, he would have testified that his statement was false and given under duress.

Wayne County prosecutors filed what is called a “confession of error” with the Michigan Court of Appeals last week, admitting that Morris’ statement should not have been introduced.

Timothy A. Baughman, chief of research for the Prosecutor’s Office, says the U.S. Supreme Court ruling should have prohibited the admission of
the confession.

“The only way it could have been admitted is if it was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt and we couldn’t argue that with a straight face,” explains Baughman, who says prosecutors must now decide whether there is enough evidence to warrant a new trial.

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