By BOB HERBERT
Source: The New York Times
The murder happened in snow-covered Rochester, N.Y., on New Year's Day in 1996. As the police and prosecutors told it, a 63-year-old activist named William Beason was stabbed to death in his home by a young sex hustler and ex-convict named Douglas Warney. The case was solid, the authorities said. They had a confession.
Not only were the authorities wrong, it was almost immediately clear that they were wrong.
I wrote in a column less than a month after the murder: ''The closer one looks at the case, the more it appears that Douglas Warney did not kill William Beason.''
Under the headline ''Slay Confession Is Full of Holes,'' Jim Dwyer, who is now at The Times but was then at The Daily News, wrote:
''[Warney's] confession is contradicted by virtually all the physical evidence made public, including a trail of blood apparently left by the killer, but which did not come from Warney.''
I wondered then, and I still wonder, why so many seemingly decent people in law enforcement are willing to participate in the evil practice of sending people to prison -- or, worse -- who are demonstrably innocent of the charges against them.
The prosecutors who went after Douglas Warney were seeking the death penalty. It didn't matter to them:
That Mr. Warney was delusional.
That Mr. Warney said that he had killed Mr. Beason in a struggle in the kitchen, when in fact the victim had been murdered in his bed.
That Mr. Warney said he had cut himself during the attack, but a medical exam showed no evidence of a cut.
That Mr. Warney claimed to have driven his brother's brown Chevrolet to the murder scene, a car that his brother had gotten rid of years earlier.
And so on and so forth.
There was no physical evidence -- none -- linking Mr. Warney to the crime. The only evidence against him was the confession, conveniently typed up by a detective.
Mr. Warney, who was retarded and suffered from AIDS-related dementia, signed the confession. That flimsy document, which bore approximately the same relationship to reality as an episode of ''Desperate Housewives,'' was enough to get Mr. Warney convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to a minimum of 25 years.
Last week, after serving 10 years, Mr. Warney was released. More than a decade after the murder, DNA testing had led to a match between blood found at the scene and an incarcerated killer named Eldred Johnson Jr. Mr. Johnson admitted to investigators that he had, indeed, killed Mr. Beason, that he had done it alone, and that he did not know Douglas Warney.
Mr. Warney's case reminded me of one recounted by Arthur Miller in his autobiography, ''Timebends.''
Back in 1973, an 18-year-old named Peter Reilly returned from church to find the bloodied body of his mother, Barbara Gibbons, on the kitchen floor of their home in rural Canaan, Conn. She had been killed in what Miller described as a ''fiendish'' attack. Under intense interrogation, Mr. Reilly confessed to the murder. Although he quickly retracted the confession, he was tried and convicted.
Miller and others, convinced of Mr. Reilly's innocence, spent years trying to help him. It was finally proved, Miller wrote, ''that Peter had been five miles from his home at the very moment his mother was murdered.''
The witnesses who vouched for the alibi were considered substantial: a local police officer and his wife.
''Their affidavit,'' Miller wrote, ''of which the state police had to have been aware, was discovered in the files of the prosecutor after he suddenly died of a heart attack.''
Peter Reilly was exonerated. An investigation determined that there had been law-enforcement misconduct in the case, and that Mr. Reilly's confession had apparently been coerced.
It was ever thus. Law-enforcement officers tend to fight to the very limits of their strength against any and all evidence that would exonerate defendants or convicts.
Most people in prison have committed crimes. But it's also true that there are many, many inmates who were wrongly convicted. And the recent record of people being released from death row as a result of DNA evidence is itself evidence of horrifying law-enforcement abuses.
Don't expect much in the way of change. Indifference to injustice in the criminal justice system is so pervasive, and so difficult to counteract, as to seem part of society's DNA.