(ROCHESTER, NY; May 16, 2006) – DNA tests prove that Douglas Warney did not commit a murder in Rochester for which he was convicted and has served a decade in prison, the Innocence Project said today. The DNA evidence points to another man who is already in prison and has since confessed to the crime.
In 1996, Warney was convicted of murdering William Beason in Rochester. Beason was stabbed to death in his home sometime between December 31, 1995, and January 2, 1996. Warney, who has a recorded IQ of 68 and a history of mental health issues, was convicted based almost entirely on a confession he gave police after hours of interrogation – even though the confession was riddled with inconsistencies, he had a history of making false reports to police, and the physical evidence at the time failed to link him to the crime. Warney was initially charged with capital murder, though he was ultimately sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
In papers filed in court today to vacate Warney’s conviction and release him from prison, the Innocence Project said Rochester police officers provided key details of the murder to Warney during interrogations. Once Warney repeated those details – which were not publicly available – in a confession, police and prosecutors focused on no other suspects and secured his conviction by saying nobody but the perpetrator of the crime would know such details, this Innocence Project said.
“These DNA results don’t just show that Doug Warney is innocent – they reveal criminal conduct on the part of at least two Rochester police officers, and they demonstrate tunnel vision on the part of police and prosecutors who ignored compelling evidence that the confession was bogus,” said Peter Neufeld, Co-Director of the Innocence Project. “This case should be a clarion call for every law enforcement agency in the state to begin recording police interrogations for serious crimes.”
In more than 250 jurisdictions nationwide, law enforcement agencies record interrogations at least for serious felonies. In New York, only three jurisdictions – Broome County, Delaware County, and Binghamton – record interrogations for some crimes. The Schenectady Police Department announced earlier this month that it was exploring whether to record certain interrogations. By comparison, authorities record a majority of interrogations in 38 jurisdictions in California, 22 in Florida and 20 in Texas.
In 1999, Warney wrote to the Innocence Project in New York, which is affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. “Please look my case over and let me know if you think that you can help me. I’m not guilty of this crime and I need help to prove it,” he wrote.
The Innocence Project, working with local attorney Donald M. Thompson, began trying to secure DNA testing in 2004. Earlier this year, local officials finally conducted the testing, which excluded Warney as the source of blood and biological material from several pieces of evidence at the crime scene, including blood and tissue under the victim’s fingernails. Evidence matched the DNA profile of an unknown person, and when it was run through the national DNA profile database, it matched Eldred Johnson, Jr., who was already in prison in Auburn for several other crimes. In 1998 – while Warney was in prison for Beason’s murder – Johnson assaulted two men in Rochester, slashing their throats and leaving them to die.
In court papers filed today, the Innocence Project said Warney’s case “shines a light on the Monroe County prosecutor’s inexplicable custom of opposing post-conviction DNA testing and the reluctance of trial judges to follow the intent of the law, the whole purpose of which is to give defendants an opportunity to prove, scientifically, their actual innocence.” For two years, the Monroe County District Attorney fought DNA testing in the case, saying the finality of the conviction was critical.
“Two people were nearly killed because police and prosecutors put the wrong man in prison for William Beason’s murder. A wrongful conviction – a broken system – stole a decade of Doug Warney’s life and almost cost two other people their lives,” said Vanessa Potkin, Innocence Project Staff Attorney.
Warney’s case is the latest in a string of wrongful convictions of people with cognitive limitations who are fed details of crimes by police during aggressive interrogations and eventually confess falsely. The Innocence Project has helped exonerate several people in similar situations, including:
of Virginia (with a recorded IQ of 69) who was interrogated for two days and fed details of the crime, was convicted of rape and murder, and came within nine days of being executed; he was exonerated through DNA evidence in 2000.
Jerry Frank Townsend
of Florida (with the mental capacity of an eight-year-old) who confessed to a handful of crimes and was convicted of six murders and a rape; he was exonerated through DNA evidence in 2001.
of Pennsylvania (with a recorded IQ of 70 and the capacity of a 10-year-old) who confessed to a rape and murder after police falsely told him they had found his fingerprints at the crime scene; he was exonerated through DNA evidence in 2004.
“About one-quarter of the 177 wrongful convictions that have been overturned with DNA evidence involve false confessions or admissions,” Neufeld said. “Many of them involve defendants who have cognitive limitations – and law enforcement officials who sometimes prey on those limitations with aggressive or dishonest interrogations. The only way to stop these abuses of power, and the injustice they create, is to record interrogations for serious crimes.