I have always been interested in wrongful convictions. There can be no fate worst than being convicted and sentenced for a crime you did not commit. The recent Dateline episode The Mystery in Rock Hill had me so outraged that I still can not shake the impact the story has had on me. If you haven’t seen the episode, do whatever you can to find it online. You can read a transcript of the story here.
In every case of wrongful conviction that I have come across, there are a number of common elements. They are, in no particular order, incompetent police work, prosecutorial misconduct, untruthful or deceptive testimony, and a jury system that assumes all defendants are guilty until proven innocent. This case has all of the above.
In far too many cases of wrongful conviction, the innocent defendant, once accused, has little chance of overcoming a flawed justice system. But this case is even more astounding because DNA evidence led to the real perpetrator of the crime, which should have cleared the defendant, Billy Wayne Cope, immediately. But to free Billy the prosecutor and Rock Hill detectives would have to admit that they were wrong. They would have to admit that they forced a false confession from an innocent man. And they were not willing to do that.
I’ve seen it happen far too many times. Even when convictions are overturned with irrefutable evidence, those who were responsible for making the original error stick by their decision. They are unwilling to accept the fact that they were wrong. They will stick to their claim that the person is guilty and no amount of evidence will convince them otherwise.
How can someone confess to a crime that they did not commit? Here’s how. First you have to get the person to talk to you without the benefit of a lawyer being present. This is easy enough to do with an innocent person. They want to help and don’t feel any need to have a lawyer present. It also helps if that person is poorly educated and unfamiliar with the legal system. You badger the person with accusatory questioning, you threaten the person, you lie to the person stating that you have irrefutable evidence pointing to their guilt, and you offer them a way out. Just confess and we won’t bother you anymore. It happens. It happened in this case.
So the police get their confession. But there are problems with the confession. The details of the confession don’t match the facts of the case. No problem, just give the person the facts and have them give another confession. In this particular case, they had four confessions including a videotaped reenactment. Case closed. But wait. DNA evidence comes back and points to another person. This person is clearly the man who committed the crime. He lived next door. He was involved in a string of similar cases around the same time of the murder. And he has a lengthy record.
You would think that that would be the end of Billy Wayne Cope’s nightmare. But no. He confessed. He didn’t act like someone who had lost a child should have acted. He has to be guilty of something. Let’s charge him with conspiracy to commit murder. Who cares that there is no evidence to support that claim. Who cares that the real perpetrator sends a letter to the prosecutor stating that he has never met Billy Wayne Cope. None of that matters because we don’t make mistakes and we’re going to prove it in court. All we need is a little help from a judge to prevent the defense from providing exculpatory evidence. Maybe we can get a physo nurse to help us by making a deal with her. What ever it takes.
The fact that the appeals court did not grant an appeal is further proof of how difficult it is to reverse a wrongful conviction despite evidence to the contrary.
Billy Wayne Cope is going to gain his freedom. The excellent job done by reporter Keith Morrison and the entire Dateline team is going to persuade an appeal judge with common sense to take another look. It’s going to take time. But sooner or later this case is going to be heard again and all of the evidence is going to be presented. When that happens, Billy Wayne Cope is going gain his freedom and hopefully a financial payout as well. And the prosecutors and detectives who were unwilling to admit that they were wrong, will continue to stick by their story. But they will pay. It’s called karma. You put an innocent man in jail. You separated a father from his children. And you did this simply because you couldn’t stand up and say we blew it.
I found a link where you can watch the episode. I also spent some time going through a number of online comments. The overwhelming majority agree that Billy was wrongfully convicted, but a handful of people are willing to ignore the truth because of the family’s lifestyle and previous problems that they had.
If you watch the episode, and I hope you will, there are two things that stood out that made me think twice about this case. One was how his children address him as sir. That seemed odd. The other was when he was on the wittness stand and he displays another side of his personality when he talks about his hate for the man who comitted the crime. I’m sure that didn’t help his case. It didn’t change my mind about his innocence, but I think it shows that this was a balanced report.
Here’s the link: The Mystery on Rock Hill