Experts cast doubts on confessions
By AMBER HUNT
The elements were there: Two of the three had signed confessions saying they shot and killed 16-year-old Justin Mello during a botched robbery in New Baltimore. Two also had past run-ins with the law. All three admitted they had drug habits.
Then the murder weapon, a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol, was found in another state in the possession of two different men.
Suddenly, the simple case had grown complex enough to start piquing the interest of coercion experts from across the country.
"This is starting to look a lot like a case out of Phoenix," said Steve Drizin of the Children and Family Justice Center at the Northwestern University Law School in Chicago.
Mr. Drizin, who started reading up on the New Baltimore homicide in February, was referring to what's been dubbed the "Phoenix Temple Four," a 1991 case in which nine Buddhist monks were slaughtered in the worst mass murder in Arizona history.
In that case, four high school boys separately confessed to the slaying, but ultimately ballistics evidence proved two other teens were the culprits.
"It happens all the time," Mr. Drizin said of false confessions. "A simple confession to a crime should never be enough to convict somebody, especially of a murder."
Jonathon Kaled, 18, and Frank Kuecken, 20, both of New Baltimore, will stand before Macomb County Circuit Judge Pat Donofrio on Tuesday for a pretrial hearing. They face first-degree murder charges in the Oct. 21 slaying.
A third suspect was freed for lack of evidence in November. He didn't confess. Mr. Kaled and Mr. Kuecken's confessions are the only evidence linking them to the crime.
The weapon used to kill Justin Mello of Chesterfield Township was found on two different men -- Dennis Bryan, 20, of Fair Haven and David Baumann, 19, of Chesterfield Township. They were arrested in Kentucky after police said they went on a three-month, 37-state crime spree that left at least two people dead.
In Macomb County, the judge is expected to decide Tuesday if the two can be released on bond, and also if the court will pay to bring in coercion experts to testify on behalf of the defense.
Mr. Kaled and Mr. Kuecken testified last month during a suppression hearing -- designed to weigh the validity of their confessions -- that police coerced them into confessing by using psychological tricks and threatening physical violence.
Both said investigators told them they had "blocked out" memories of committing the crime because it was too traumatic.
Mr. Kaled said he also was told he might be sexually violated in prison because other prisoners "don't like little kids like me in there."
Judge Donofrio ruled the testimony sounded contrived and unbelievable.
Mr. Drizin said the boys' words ring all too familiar to people who study false confessions.
"Police interrogation tactics are for the sole purpose of eliciting a confession. The truth is an afterthought," he said. "If it happens to be true, then they're doubly successful."
Mr. Drizin said though most people can't fathom being pushed into confessing something they didn't do, people confess for a lot of different reasons.
"Some are seeking attention, some are mentally imbalanced or like to be portrayed as serial killers," he said. "Some are induced to do so by police tactics."
Nonsense, said prosecuting lawyer Robert Merrelli, who said he plans to move forward with charges against Mr. Kaled and Mr. Kuecken on Tuesday.
"If I didn't think I had the right guys, I wouldn't keep going," he said Friday. "I wouldn't do that.
Police, too, maintain their interrogation techniques were legitimate, and the boys voluntarily made the incriminating statements.
Mr. Kaled's mother, Cheryl Stepnioski, isn't so sure. She and Brenda Kuecken, Mr. Kuecken's stepmother, have spent hours on the Internet researching the charges against their sons.
Mrs. Stepnioski also has started contacting groups such as Project Innocence, which began at Cardozo Law School in New York City. The group investigates possible wrongful convictions.
She also wrote to "Free the West Memphis Three," a group still working to overturn murder convictions against three men in Memphis, Ark.
The men -- Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin -- are convicted of brutally killing three 8-year-old boys in 1993. One of the three allegedly confessed to police, though an HBO documentary on the case interviewed some who believed snippets of the videotaped confession show "classic examples" of police coercion.
The group has yet to return Mrs. Stepnioski's e-mail.
Project Innocence has responded, but the group only steps in after a conviction.
The point, she said, is to get help investigating the crime to prove who really killed Justin so the Mellos can finally grieve.
"We don't have investigators of our own. I just had to pay a $1,300 phone bill for two months," she said. "Our house payment has doubled because we had to mortgage our home for a loan. We don't have the money that some people think we have."
Richard Leo, a professor of criminology and psychology at the University of California in Irvine, said it's worth questioning police and prosecutors because they sometimes can be in denial when hard evidence goes against their theories.
"They never believe they could have false confessions," he said. "You'd have to be mentally retarded or tortured to falsely confess -- that's their self-serving belief."
Mr. Drizin and Mr. Leo cited several examples of proven police coercion. For example:
Two men still struggling to sort through their emotions
By AMBER HUNT
"Sunflower seeds!" the 18-year-old exclaimed while sifting through the ribbon-adorned packages his mother refused to pack away. "I've been waiting for those."
Family members, eager to sneak a hug from the round-faced teen, got what they've been waiting for as well: a homecoming.
Mr. Kaled returned home to New Baltimore on Thursday afternoon after spending nearly six months in jail for a crime prosecutors now say he didn't commit. He and fellow suspect Frank Kuecken, 20, also of New Baltimore, still are charged with first-degree murder in the Oct. 21 shooting death of Justin Mello, 16, of Chesterfield Township.
However, the men were released Thursday on personal bond after another Anchor Bay-area man -- David Baumann, 19, of Chesterfield Township -- confessed Wednesday to the execution-style slaying.
After their release, Mr. Kaled and Mr. Kuecken spoke from their parents' homes in New Baltimore and Hazel Park, respectively, about their time in jail, the confessions that landed them there and the overwhelming emotions they felt after being freed.
Mr. Kuecken, wearing the striped dress shirt and blue slacks he had worn at every court appearance since his arrest, ducked inside his house and hid from most reporters after arriving home.
His eyes heavy and voice soft, he seemed tired while sitting and catching up with his family.
"I don't know what to say about it all. I'm in shock from it still," he said.
Mr. Kuecken didn't learn until Wednesday evening what news reporters already were in a rush to confirm: that Mr. Baumann, spared from Virginia's death penalty by pleading guilty to fatally stabbing a gun shop clerk, told Michigan investigators he and cohort Dennis Bryan, 20, of Fair Haven killed Justin.
In a polygraph test conducted Wednesday, Mr. Baumann said he and Mr. Bryan acted alone. He also told investigators he does not know Mr. Kuecken or Mr. Kaled.
Macomb County Prosecutor Carl Marlinga, though leery about confessions already obtained from Mr. Kaled and Mr. Kuecken, said he believes Mr. Baumann is the one who fired the fatal shot into Justin's head Oct. 21 as the teen worked in a New Baltimore pizzeria.
In light of that confession, Mr. Marlinga filed an emergency motion to have Mr. Kaled and Mr. Kuecken released on personal bond. Charges haven't been dismissed, but the prosecutor said they could be soon.
Both Mr. Kaled and Mr. Kuecken said they have mixed feelings about the latest twist involving Mr. Baumann's confession.
"It's about damn time," Mr. Kuecken said. "I mean, what the hell was he thinking?
"I'm grateful, but I'm annoyed at the same time."
Outside the Macomb County Jail on Thursday afternoon, Mr. Kaled and Mr. Kuecken were greeted by a wall of cameras. Reporters looking for comment chased Mr. Kaled to his car.
At home, he was met with balloons and "welcome home" signs plastered in his front yard.
Mr. Kuecken was released about an hour after his friend, temporarily detained because paperwork wasn't properly filed regarding a yearlong jail sentence he'd received for possession of marijuana. A district judge had thrown out the sentence because Mr. Kuecken's lawyer wasn't notified of the sentencing. That charge will be addressed in court at a later date.
Once home, Mr. Kaled said he considers it "the beginning of the end" to a journey that began days after Justin's slaying.
Police brought Mr. Kaled, Mr. Kuecken and former suspect Matt Daniels, 17, of New Baltimore to the Chesterfield Township Police Department on Oct. 26 for questioning.
After several hours of interrogation, Mr. Kuecken and Mr. Kaled confessed both orally and in writing to the slaying.
Matt never confessed. Charges against him were dismissed in November for lack of evidence.
Mr. Kaled and Mr. Kuecken initially were held in a "detox room," a tiny room often used to confine drug addicts.
They weren't allowed to make a phone call for about a week, they both said.
For about four months, Mr. Kaled said, he was in lockdown, confined to his cell for 23 hours a day.
He said he spent most of his days sleeping, then read books at night.
"I didn't want to stay awake during the day and see the sun and the other inmates allowed to go outside," Mr. Kaled said.
Mr. Kuecken, too, said treatment in the jail was rough.
"You've got them stripes on and that's all you are -- a piece of s- - - ," he said. "Our opinion doesn't mean anything to them. No matter what we say, they're never going to believe it, so what's the point of even talking to those people?"
Both men know it was their own confessions that landed them in jail, regardless of whether the confessions were coerced.
"That was my own stupidity," Mr. Kaled said. "I should've asked for a lawyer."
With no lawyer present -- and without the benefit of the confessions being audio- or videotaped -- the two men separately said they played a role in Justin's death.
Mr. Kaled wrote that he shot the teen, but it was an accident. Mr. Kuecken admitted to driving the getaway truck.
The million-dollar question, both men know, is why they confessed if they didn't commit the crime.
"When you have government officials, state officials, local officials telling you you blocked something out, what can you do but believe them?" Mr. Kuecken said. "Basically, they were telling us they know we're guilty. They said they know I did it, and they kept telling me the other guys are talking, and I'd better start talking, or otherwise I'm going to get the short end of the stick."
Without those confessions, prosecutors would not have had evidence strong enough to bind the men over for trial. There were no eyewitnesses; evidence that slowly started surfacing pointed instead to Mr. Baumann and Mr. Bryan.
The gun used to kill Justin was recovered from Mr. Bryan's car.
With the homicide investigation seemingly near a conclusion, both men said they're looking forward to moving on with their lives.
Both said they plan to go to school -- Mr. Kaled to a technical institute, while Mr. Kuecken is undecided -- if charges are dismissed in the slaying. Neither has graduated from high school yet.
Mr. Kaled also said he's trying to take a positive lesson from the experience. The teen had multiple run-ins with the law before his arrest for marijuana and alcohol possession. He said his time in jail was a "rude awakening to get my act together."
And, he said, his eyes welling up with tears, the ordeal taught him to appreciate his mother much more than before.
"I had a good relationship with my mom, but I argued with her, like every teen," he said, referring to Cheryl Stepnioski, one of the men's most vocal supporters during their time in jail.
"Now I know I have the best mom."
Man Once Accused Of Pizza Murder Is Killed
Stabbing May Have Been Drug-Related
POSTED: 2:41 p.m. EST October 29, 2001
Frank Kuecken died after what authorities said was a drug-related attack in Warren.
The suspect in the stabbing death is expected to be charged today.
Kuecken, who was accused in the death of 16-year-old Justin Mello of New Baltimore, was later released along with another man, Jonathon Kaled.
Kuecken, 19, also of New Baltimore, and Kaled, 18, were arrested five days after Mello's murder last October at Mancino's Pizza, where he worked. A third suspect, Matthew Daniels, was also arrested, but charges against him were later dropped.
Both men confessed to killing Mello, but later changed their stories and said that they had been pressured to confess.Two other men now are facing charges in Mello's murder.