Hartford Courant

The Wrong Man
Interrogated for 10 hours, a dazed diabetic surrenders a confession to child molestation. Now, Jonathan Peskin is in jail. But he's the victim.

June 25, 2006
By Donald S. Connery

'I'm brain dead," Jonathan Peskin told me. "They've turned me into a piece of filth. My life is over."

Waiting to be brought to trial in Rhode Island, or to be set free any minute, the Connecticut salesman is bewildered by the process that has stamped him a menace to society. He doesn't know why innocence doesn't count. He doesn't understand the threat of a 20- to 40-year sentence. He wonders why, after 18 months, the justice system still hasn't come to its senses.

Miserable, forlorn, his weight loss severe, his health in constant peril, he cannot even bring himself to read the single book in his prison cell. It is a gift from his mother: "Why Bad Things Happen to Good People."

A bad thing happened to him on Jan. 7, 2005. While he was in the Windsor Marriott Hotel making a mid-day phone call, police appeared out of nowhere to accuse him of being a flasher. By midnight he was under arrest for a more serious crime: "child kidnap and molestation" involving a girl he had never seen in a city in another state where he had not been in years.

Known as John, he had begun that Friday in as much control of his destiny as any of us. He was a 43-year-old man who worked for a sign company. He lived in a modest condo in Vernon. He had an unblemished record as a good citizen. A psychologist has found that he fits none of the criteria of the creeps who prey on children.

Jonathan Peskin
Jonathan Peskin
His unexceptional life centered on his significant other, Audrey Curtis, an English-born psychiatric nurse, and their 6-year-old daughter, Alexa. John and Audrey had been a couple for most of a decade while prizing their independence in separate apartments. Because they were always together on weekends and several week nights, they finally were planning a wedding.

John was a cautious man. He had to pay close attention to the exercise and nutrition necessary to control his diabetes. He liked his routines, his sports pages and his simple pleasures. A brush with death after a botched dental operation during his college years had left him fearful of life's surprises. "I'm a nervous guy," he admits.

His loping gait and quirky-but-endearing personality reminded people of "Kramer" on the "Seinfeld" show. "If John ever came on a crime scene," says his older brother Steve, "he would first leave his fingerprints then hit a police car while driving away."

He was also too compliant and too unworldly for his own good. He was no match for investigators that January day. His trusting, unassertive nature was exploited as much as the diabetic crisis that robbed him of his ability to deal with or even understand his predicament.

"He was hypoglycemic and dissociating when he made his first phone call to me," Audrey recalls. "He was talking about the brooch he wanted to buy me instead of explaining why he was being accused of child abuse. He seemed to think that signing a few papers for the police meant he could go home, that everything would be all right."

Provided only coffee and pistachio nuts for sustenance, Peskin was subjected to 10 hours of intimidation and unrecorded interrogations at the Windsor and Vernon police stations. The detectives insisted he had attempted to expose himself to children at local hotels. When the cops recalled a bulletin about a Rhode Island pedophile, they phoned investigators in Newport for details they could use in further questioning.

The pretense of our justice system is that false confessions are rare. Interrogators often feed information to suspects before telling the world "he provided crime-scene details only the perpetrator would know." Truth is, false confession issues are at the heart of a quarter of the wrongful conviction exonerations now being produced in ever greater numbers by the DNA revolution.

With the old "third degree" brutality replaced by psychological battering, police trained to do high-pressure interrogations -- but not trained to recognize false confessions -- can all too easily overwhelm the innocent as well as the guilty by employing a barrage of lies, deceits, false promises and threats. Befuddled suspects often forget they have a right to stop talking and ask for an attorney. Peskin didn't forget. He says he asked for a lawyer. The police say he didn't. He recalls being told, "A lawyer won't do you any good because we know you're guilty."

It is clear that the interrogators led him to discuss such personal oddities as making sure two or three times that a door is closed or a faucet turned off, or touching the groin scar of a long-ago hernia operation. Sgt. MacGregor would testify, "He stated he has a compulsive obsession disorder and that he wanted help with it."

About Donald S. Connery

Donald S. Connery
has written about the criminal justice system for nearly 30 years, focusing largely on the phenomenon of false and coerced confessions.
He has written about Peter Reilly, the young man from northwestern Connecticut whose conviction in his mother's murder was later overturned, and about Richard Lapointe, a brain-damaged Connecticut man who is still in prison following a murder conviction. A 1982 book explored how differently individuals react to suggestion and interrogation-room pressures. A Kent resident, Connery is on the advisory boards of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law School and the National Center for Reason and Justice, a Boston-based organization of attorneys, scholars and advocates seeking justice for innocent persons accused of sexual abuse.

Jonathan Peskin gave in to demands that he admit to wrongdoing in Rhode Island as well as Connecticut. He says he did not read -- could not read -- the three statements he was shown at the Windsor and Vernon police stations. He did what he was told when the Vernon police indicated where he should initial their corrections as well as sign his name. The diabetic distress that blocked his ability to focus on the details was compounded by glaucoma, conjunctivitis and his cracked glasses.

Those statements sealed his doom. Within three days he was transported out of Connecticut. As in a dictatorship ridding itself of the troublesome, Peskin became a "disappeared" within three days. After the first few headlines, all media attention ceased. He might as well have never existed. Today, he sits in a cage in a maximum security facility near Providence. His plight is a story of everything that can go wrong will go wrong.

His original Rhode Island attorney was a disaster: out of touch, out of his depth, insisting before he was fired that he needed $110,000 on top of $25,000 to get ready for trial. Peskin's bail was denied despite his unblemished history as a law-abiding citizen. A psychiatrist's testimony about exceptional vulnerability to interrogation stress was rejected at a hearing on a motion to suppress the confessions. Endless delays and his fate as a target for prison abuse have hurled him into a spiral of depression. Assuming he likes to violate children, even the murderers and rapists among his fellow inmates see him as the lowest of the low. Yet he clings to his honor. He refuses to pretend guilt in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Recent news stories tell how James Tillman made the same plea-bargain refusal in 1989. Despite a dubious identification and no hard evidence of guilt, Connecticut won his conviction for kidnapping and raping a woman. DNA tests restored him to freedom just weeks agocq. Though he was all smiles in the Courant's front-page photo on June 7, Tillman's decision cost him 18 years.

Similarly, brain-damaged Richard Lapointe, also put behind bars in 1989 after Manchester police forced his confession to murder, would not make a deal. His rescue may come at a court hearing in the fall when newly discovered evidence is presented.

At least Lapointe is able to endure life behind bars because "everyone here, even the guards, knows I didn't do it."

Peskin is different. In my three decades of investigating miscarriages of justice in a number of states -- beginning with Connecticut's Peter Reilly case in the mid-1970s -- I have never known a wrongly accused person so totally crushed in spirit.

He knows that the typical juror thinks the way most cops and state's attorneys do: "No one could ever make me confess to something I didn't do." Historically, a confession, even if bogus, almost always trumps the absence of evidence. Peskin fears his anxieties and the memory fog of the interrogation ordeal will render him incapable of explaining what was done to him

Let me try. I have case documents, court transcripts, the results of interviews and experience with justice-system mistakes.

In Peskin's rounds as a Sign-A-Rama Inc. representative, as in his earlier job as a star salesman for the Otis Spunkmeyer Inc. baking company, he was accustomed to dropping into favorite hotels to drink coffee, go to the bathroom and use a pay phone for personal business instead of his company cell. Some hotels had been customers during his cookie-selling years.

In the early afternoon of that January day he was not feeling well, even though he had reported good news to his boss about a $40,000 sign sale. Stopping at the Marriott, he visited the men's room. As he arched his back to relieve his tired muscles, his trousers and shorts fell to his feet. He had neglected to put a belt on that morning.

The hotel's assistant general manager, Stanley Martin, entered the room at that exact moment. Startled by the sight, he soon exited. "I then began to monitor the same male," Martin says in his police statement. The man did such suspicious things as placing and removing papers "from the same envelope continuously" and wearing a single glove while using the telephone.

Family members view the odd behavior as indicators of John's Type 2 diabetes kicking in. He had skipped lunch because of an unexpected sales assignment and had not found time to check his blood-sugar level.

Martin "recalled being told by police of a male with a similar description" involved in an indecent-exposure incident at the hotel. So he called the cops. In fact, the Windsor police had listed three incidents in recent weeks at the Marriott and the neighboring Courtyard hotel.cq lowercase They were looking for a tall "white male in his 30s" with "straight blond or brown hair."

Peskin, a tall white male in his mid-40s with dark hair, said the several police officers arriving at the hotel were immediately challenging. He remembers detective Scott MacGregor saying, "You're in big trouble!"

MacGregor's testimony in court proceedings was correct in stating that Peskin was entirely cooperative when informed that his situation was more serious than helping himself to free coffee or hotel towels. The salesman was willing to ride to headquarters to answer questions and let the cops call a tow service to deliver his car.

A law professor once wrote of "the inherently coercive atmosphere of a police station interrogation room." All too frequently in Connecticut, police, to avoid reading a suspect his constitutional rights, pretend he is not a suspect, is not in custody and is free to leave at any time.

So it was with Roland Berstecher of Groton (see related story). So it was with Peskin who says "it never occurred to me that I could just walk out of there." His rights were read to him only after police got him to say that he tried to expose himself to "young white girls" at two Windsor hotels. By that time, the Connecticut cops, knowing the local cases might amount to nothing more than misdemeanors, were acting as surrogates for Newport, R.I., police who were investigating a more serious crime.

In those evening hours, the Rhode Island police scrambled to get a warrant signed by a judge and faxed to Connecticut. To string things out, the Windsor police let their confessed criminal drive home to Vernon (while keeping his driver's license) instead of arresting him. They followed him closely after notifying their Vernon counterparts. Seven officers from both departments then crowded into his condo for a search.

Soon he was moved on to the Vernon station for a new round of questioning. Finally the warrant arrived, and Peskin was arrested as a "fugitive from justice" soon after midnight. The out-of-state cops took him away after arrangements were made for his extradition. They claim he further incriminated himself about the Newport crime on the drive to Rhode Island and even said, as he was being led to his cell, "Please tell the little girl I'm sorry; I didn't mean to hurt her."

If said at all, it would have been captured on the videotape that monitors cell-block activity. The lead detective has testified that it was too bad the tape ran out just at that moment.

The little girl in question was a pretty, curly-haired, 6-year-old from Westchester County, N.Y. In the late morning of Sunday, Oct. 3, 2004, she was with her family at a wedding reception at the Newport Marriott. Three says later, she told her parents she had been playing with her brothers and other children in a second-floor hallway at the hotel when a man lured her away to a stairwell. He touched her once before letting her go: a "kind of light touch for a second" on her private parts. That was it.

She described the man as tall, young and blond. (The Rhode Island authorities speculate that Peskin had dyed his dark hair. "Absolutely not," says Carol Zampini, his longtime hair stylist in Middletown. "I would know.") Seeing Peskin's face in a police photo array shown to her, the girl did not pick him out. No surprise. Peskin was in Connecticut when she encountered the molester.

As he usually did on weekends, Peskin spent Saturday night with Audrey and their daughter at Audrey's Mansfield Center home. Dorothy Hayes, a retired psychiatric nurse visiting from Scotland, was at the apartment as well.

After breakfast on Sunday, Peskin telephoned his father to discuss bets on football games. Then he drove to his health club in Vernon for his customary late-morning workout. So, people I have come to know as honest and reliable can testify that Peskin was far from the scene in Rhode Island. There are telephone and health-club records showing that he was following his usual Sunday-morning routine more than 100 miles away in Connecticut.

The problem is that Peskin's alibi is not as air tight as it would be if he had made credit-card purchases or had spent less time with his family and more time in public. A prosecutor can choose to believe that people might lie for him, that someone else called his father from Audrey's place and that his health club's system for checking in members was flawed.

It seems that in preparing for trial, Rhode Island authorities have picked up on the speculation of the Connecticut cops that Peskin led a double life. A suspicious Santa Claus suit was found in his car. (He had obliged a friend by playing Santa at a pizza restaurant). Suspicious lewd slogans were found in a notebook. (He and another friend had flirted with the idea of producing T-shirts for "adult" shops.) Suspicious unopened boxes of dolls were found in his condo. (They were gifts for Peskin's daughter from her uncle Steve in Houston, a publicized purchaser of collectibles who occasionally sends extras to Peskin.)

Let me be blunt: It is all nonsense. The bottom line is that no valid evidence links Jonathan Peskin to any act of wrongdoing anywhere at any time. Everything known about his life screams the absurdity of his taking a Sunday drive to Newport to find a child to abuse. Even so, those "confessions" could still sway a jury.

I have learned that Rhode Island prosecutor Maureen Keough presently takes the view that coercion at one police department might produce a false confession, but she cannot imagine an innocent man incriminating himself to cops in one place, then another, then another.

Experts in interrogation-room dynamics -- not to mention of dissociation, "brainwashing" and the Stockholm syndrome -- know that this is entirely believable. A whole category of false confessions comes under the heading of "coerced internalized."

For a few hours, even for days or weeks, an accused innocent may lose all confidence in his memory and think he is guilty.

In 1973, 18-year-old Peter Reilly, in a state of shock and exhaustion, accepted the notion that he had "blacked out" the horrifying attack on his mother in Canaan -- a murder that had, in fact, been committed by others.

For good reason, then, I think of Jonathan Peskin as a political prisoner. In Connecticut and Rhode Island, as in most other states, law enforcement leaders have long endorsed the use of mind-control methods in the secrecy of interrogation rooms.

They have chosen to be willfully ignorant of the lessons of documented false-confession cases nationwide. Assisted by politicians who fear seeming soft on crime, they have resisted all efforts to compel police to fully record interrogations despite the massive evidence that this reform helps nail down cases against the guilty while protecting the innocent.

Yet change is coming. Rhode Island public defenders and defense attorneys will meet Friday for a day-long seminar on false-confession issues. In Connecticut, a modest pilot program for videotaping will soon begin --except it is starting on the wrong foot by limiting recording to the confession only. Chief State's Attorney Christopher Morano admitted only recently that erasing the secrecy about what happens in interrogation rooms "is the wave that is coming across this country."

Too bad it will be too late for Jonathan Peskin.

Innocent Imprisoned
How the System Works

Truth in Justice