18 Years After Wrongful Conviction, New York Man is Exonerated
Today, after almost 19 years behind bars, Frank Sterling of Rochester, New York, was exonerated through DNA evidence and another man’s confession. He was convicted in 1992 of killing Viola Manville in 1988. Sterling, an Innocence Project client, is the 253rd person exonerated through DNA testing in the U.S.
The Democrat and Chronicle reports that the conviction was vacated when prosecutors determined DNA evidence obtained from the victim’s clothing excluded Sterling as the perpetrator and linked another man to the crime and he confessed. The confession from Mark Christie, who was previously convicted of strangling a four-year-old girl in 1994, gave details that were not known to police or the public and have subsequently been corroborated by prosecutors.
Today’s announcement — Sterling’s innocence and Christie’s apparent admission to Viola Manville’s slaying — links two of the most high-profile suburban homicides in the region in the past 30 years. The murder of Manville, a sprightly woman known for her vigorous daily walks along the same path where she was slain, sent tremors through Hilton. Similarly, the 1994 abduction and murder of Kali Ann Poulton from her Pittsford townhouse complex shocked the community and triggered a nationwide search for the cherubic blond youngster.
But more than the connection between the killings, the exoneration of Sterling raises a question about the local criminal justice foundation: Namely, how could so many be so wrong for so long?
Sterling confessed in 1991 to Manville’s murder. That statement, partly videotaped, was compelling enough to sway investigators, prosecutors, a jury, and multiple local and appellate judges who for years believed in the propriety of Sterling’s conviction even when evidence arose that Christie may have been the real killer. But the videotaped portion of Sterling’s 1991 statement represents a fragment of his total interrogation, and his supporters have long maintained that Sterling, frazzled and worn down, began telling investigators what they wanted to hear.
False confessions, admissions or guilty pleas contributed to 25% wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence throughout the U.S. Researchers who study this phenomenon have determined that various reasons ranging from mental health issues to aggressive law enforcement tactics can sometimes lead innocent people to confess to crimes they did not commit. In Sterling’s case, his supposed confession came after he worked a 36-hour trucking shift followed by 12 hours in police custody for interrogation that included hypnosis. He was unable to tell police how many times the victim had been shot, and a he drew a map of the crime scene that was nowhere near where it actually happened.
Sterling said that a lot of writing and tenacity helped him through the past 18 years. “Patience is a virtue,” he said, adding that he is angry about what happened, but it didn’t change who he is. After a barbeque lunch with his Innocence Project attorneys and supporters, Sterling’s plans for his first night of freedom are to enjoy the company of his friends.
Read the full press release about Sterling’s case here
Learn about false confessions here
Read how to prevent false confessions here
Read more news coverage of today’s exoneration:
WCBS TV New York
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