In 1975, the unthinkable happened in a small town in Virginia. An 88-year-old retired school teacher was brutally raped and strangled, and her attacker left her lying on the floor believing she was dead. Moments later, though, the woman managed to crawl to her telephone and called the police. While on the phone, in an extremely weak voice, all she managed to get out was that she’d been attacked. Minutes later, when police broke into her back door they found the gasping woman seated in a chair wearing only a torn slip. She managed to tell the two patrol officers that she’d been raped and choked by a “negro man.” The woman died at the hospital less than an hour later.

The local police, assisted by the county sheriff and his deputies, immediately initiated a manhunt. In simpler terms, in 1975, that meant round up all suspicious black men and bring them in for questioning. And that’s what the officers did, but the results were negative. Each of the men brought in were ruled out.

The search for the killer continued for several days until a sheriff’s deputy happened upon a young black man riding his bicycle near a small country store. The man appeared to be a little “odd,” and after a quick background check the deputy learned that his “suspect” had been released from a mental hospital just two days prior. So the officer hauled him in for questioning…lots of questioning.

The local sheriff decided to personally conduct the interrogation, hoping to put away the man who killed that defenseless and sweet retiree, a woman he thought highly of and checked on two or three times a week. A woman who also brought brownies and other treats to the local police on a regular basis.

During the interrogation, the suspect’s attention often wandered, and was extremely unfocused. In fact, he often starting singing, warbling theme songs from old TV westerns. The sheriff’s patience wore thin, telling the man to, “Look at me. Look at me!” Finally, tired of the suspect’s lack of interest, the sheriff said, “”You’re not half as damn nuts as you act like you are, you know that? You know what happened last week, don’t you? Huh?”

Twice, the sheriff took his suspect to the woman’s home hoping get some sort of reaction from him. Nothing.

According to transcripts, the sheriff’s continued interrogation was relentless, and at one point told the man, “Go ahead and tell us what happened so we can go home, OK?” Suddenly, out of the blue, the suspect uttered the words the sheriff wanted to hear…sort of. He said he pushed a woman down, tore her clothes, and then had sex with her. But most of what he told the sheriff was wrong according to what they knew about the crime and what they’d found at the scene. The man also said the woman, his victim, was “colored.” She was white.

Well, after hours upon hours of intense interrogation and hearing the “confession,” the suspect was finally charged with the rape and murder of the sheriff’s elderly friend. And a few weeks later he was tried and convicted for those crimes and was sentenced to life in prison. The evidence used to convict him was a single pubic hair found on the suspect’s clothing (it was not tested), his odd confession, and a single fingerprint that did not match the victim.

In 1983, lawyers for the convicted man appealed his case with success. The court ruled that the sheriff had not, in spite of hours and hours and hours of intense questioning, advised his suspect of his rights. Charges were dropped and he was released from prison after already serving five years. However, he was committed to a mental institution.

The real twist to this case came thirty-three years later, when the Virginia State Police re-opened the case as part of Governor Warner’s effort to exonerate wrongly convicted innocent people. Within a few days of submitting DNA samples for testing, state investigators received a match to items seized at the original crime scene. However, it was not the DNA of the mentally challenged man who had already served five years for raping the schoolteacher. Instead, the DNA matched another man, a man who’d recently been released from prison after serving a sentence for rape and sodomy.

The second man was arrested, tried, convicted, and sent to prison for the schoolteacher’s rape and murder (based on the recent DNA tests), and his conviction finally led to the exoneration of the wrongfully convicted mentally challenged man. Sadly, he’d passed away a few years before he was exonerated.

Experts say intense questioning tactics by the sheriff led to the suspect’s false confession, an attempt to please the top officer so they could both simply go home. Also, taking the man to the scene of the crime provided him with details he otherwise wouldn’t have known. Poor police tactics was the conclusion of many experts.

By the way, the fingerprint that was found at the scene, the one police said didn’t match the victim…it belonged to the sheriff.

  1. Shannon J.
    Shannon J. says:

    As my husband (current LE) says, “Of course, they’re guilty. You know how I know this? There’s too much paperwork and I wouldn’t do it if I thought otherwise!”

  2. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Steven, you wrote – I would love to take the Crime Writers Police Academy one day in part to know exactly how the blinders go on when a Det. zeroes in on a suspect.

    Actually, it’s Writers’ Police Academy…

    Anyway, the “blinders” don’t ALWAYS go on. I know it happens, and it could be easy to allow happen, but really good investigators don’t fall into that emotional trap.

    My approach to crime-solving was twofold (besides not rushing simply to close a case) – collecting solid evidence whether it’s against a suspect or rules him/her out (a confession alone would absolutely not suffice for me), and always search for reasons why a suspect could NOT have committed the crime. Combine the results of the two and you’ll most likely have your suspect.

    Yes, it’s good to have checks and balances, and part of that checks and balance system takes away the chance that an officer has let his emotions run the investigation. And that’s where the prosecutor comes into the picture.

    It’s up to the DA to make the final decision as to whether or not a person is prosecuted. Detectives and other officers simply present what they’ve learned about a case to the prosecutor and/or a grand jury. After that, well, it’s out of their hands. If the evidence doesn’t add up the prosecutor rejects the case and advises the detective to either start over, find more evidence, etc.

    I’d be horrified to learn that someone I’d investigated and arrested and sent to prison was indeed innocent of the crime. I can’t imagine how that would feel. Thankfully, blinders were not part of my issued equipment.

    Hey, we never argue. Instead, we have loud discussions…

  3. Coco
    Coco says:

    Lee,
    As always your posts are so informative. The discovery of DNA and genetics is remarkable. Thank you for taking time to educate us.

  4. Steven T.
    Steven T. says:

    I remember Jim Doherty, your good self, and I arguing on MWF years ago about the responsibility of the police to advise the people they arrest of their Miranda Rights. One of the points I tried to make then was that forcing a person into a false confession (and, yes, I’m using “forcing” loosely) means letting the real criminal walk as was the case here.

    I would love to take the Crime Writers Police Academy one day in part to know exactly how the blinders go on when a Det. zeroes in on a suspect. I would hope that with a partner, there comes a check and a balance. Maybe the issue here was the Sheriff taking on the interrogation himself? He didn’t have to justify his work to any superiors.