|Posted on Mon, Feb. 24, 2003|
More and more convictions coming undone
A 1981 Philadelphia murder is not unusual: Two pairs of men have confessed to it.
Inquirer Staff Writer
There's no way to know exactly what happened in homicide Room 104 as a detective interrogated two men in the 1981 beating and strangling of Philadelphia optometrist Clarence M. Langley.
Detective Frank Suminski said that Felix Rodriguez, then 22, confessed almost immediately after entering the room.
But Rodriguez, a ninth-grade dropout who grew up in Puerto Rico, later said he didn't understand the questions and signed a confession only because a translator said he could then go home.
Three days later, Suminski got another confession in Langley's murder: Russell Weinberger, 23, a mentally retarded man with an IQ of 60 to 65.
Convicted of murder, Weinberger and Rodriguez spent 20 years in prison before two other men admitted to the crime.
Common Pleas Judge Benjamin Lerner, who oversaw a rehearing of the Langley murder case in October, said he was convinced the new confessors killed the optometrist. "There's no doubt about the two new guys' involvement," he said. "None whatsoever."
The convictions of Rodriguez and Weinberger are among a growing number of murder cases that are unraveling across the country.
In Maryland, where seven men are to die by lethal injection this spring, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran said last month that there was an "intolerable risk" that an innocent person could be executed and urged lawmakers to abolish the death penalty.
Also last month, departing Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted 164 death sentences to life in prison, saying that "our capital system is haunted by the demon of error."
Propelling many of the case reversals is DNA evidence, which is seen as irrefutable.
As of Friday, 123 convicted felons had been exonerated nationally since 1989 based on DNA tests, according to the Innocence Project at New York's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
A fourth of them were convicted based on their confessions.
On Jan. 15, 1981, Langley, 63, was found dead on the floor at his Kensington Avenue optometry office. His pockets had been pulled inside out, and his wallet was missing.
There were no witnesses, virtually no physical evidence, and little progress for two months in the high-profile case.
Suminski found it suspicious that a man with a hand injury had gone to nearby Episcopal Hospital the day of the murder, given the battering inflicted on Langley.
Unable to find the patient, Suminski assumed he'd given a fake last name, but thought his first name, "Russell," might be a link.
The only "Russell" that Suminski interviewed was Weinberger, a Kensington furniture mover with a drinking problem who read at a third-grade level.
Suminski, who handled the case virtually alone, died in 2000, so the only police account of what happened in Room 104 comes from trial testimony.
Suminski said Weinberger first told police that he knew nothing of the murder. But then he suggested that Felix Rodriguez, also from the neighborhood, liked "to beat up on old men."
Rodriguez confessed, saying, " 'I didn't mean to kill him. I want to tell the truth,' "
And he implicated Weinberger, who said in his confession: "Me and Felix beat him. Then me and Felix took some money off him."
Weinberger eventually pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison.
A jury convicted Rodriguez of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to life.
Once the gold standard for judges and juries, confessions increasingly have proved a questionable measure of guilt.
Confronted with police interrogations that can involve lying or claiming nonexistent evidence, some suspects are more vulnerable to confessing falsely, national experts say.
They include the mentally impaired, the young, people with language problemsm, and those easily swayed.
Videotaping interrogations is seen as a way to protect suspects - a practice required in Alaska, Minnesota and a number of cities. But most police departments that use videotapes do so only for the final confession.
In New York's Central Park jogger case, the confessions of five Harlem youths were key to their convictions. They were questioned for 14 to 30 hours before confessing - but the interrogation was not videotaped.
They were exonerated in December after DNA proved that another man had raped the jogger.
Bruce Godschalk was also freed last year, after 15 years in prison, when DNA proved his confession in a Montgomery County rape case was false.
"He talked about stuff that only the police, the victim and the rapist knew," said his lawyer, David Rudovsky. "He had to have been told that information by police."
Rudovsky said Godschalk was interrogated for several hours before his confession - the only thing police recorded.
Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. said police did nothing wrong.
Rudovsky also represents Jermel Lewis of West Philadelphia, who testified that he falsely confessed in the December 2000 Lex Street killings because a detective threatened him.
"He told me he would put the lethal injection in my arm if he had to," Lewis said last May.
Lewis' false confession led to three others also being charged with murder. The charges against them were dropped last summer. Two other men have since pleaded guilty to the murders, and two others are awaiting trial.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson has defended his detectives' work.
Philadelphia has been videotaping confessions since 1998, but as in New York, police do not tape the entire interrogation.
The Innocence Project has called for full videotaping in murder cases. Last year, New Jersey's attorney general asked police departments to do that, and some have started. Pennsylvania has issued no such request. State law bars surreptitious taping, so police must get suspects' permission.
In jail, Rodriguez and Weinberger repeatedly proclaimed their innocence.
Rodriguez said he was tricked into signing a confession. "I have been incarcerated for 21 years of a crime that I did not commit," he wrote in a letter to The Inquirer last year.
"A police officer who spoke Spanish was translating what was being said, and I kept telling him I did not know anything about the killing and that I just wanted to go home. He told me that I could go after I signed some papers that were in English."
"I did not think that the papers said that I killed anyone."
Weinberger protested his innocence to his sister, Elaine Santos of Kensington.
"Since day one, from the time he was first arrested, I would be crying. I would say, 'Russell, did you do this?' He would say, 'No, I didn't do it.'
"I always believed my brother was innocent. He's very slow. He's 44 years old, but he's like a child."
A jailhouse lawyer filed Weinberger's appeal, a document filled with grammatical and spelling errors.
Weinberger also maintained his innocence at a 1997 parole board hearing. The board refused early release because of his "denial of crime, failure to take responsibility."
The case shifted dramatically in November 2000 because of a chat between two parents at their children's piano lesson.
A woman talking with Philadelphia Police Capt. Alan Kurtz asked him to solve the 1980 murder of her grandmother, Anne Ruane, who had been beaten to death in her Kensington home.
Police had lifted a fingerprint in Ruane's murder, but back then Philadelphia police could not use computers to compare fingerprints from other crimes.
When police technicians ran the 21-year-old fingerprint through the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, installed in the early 1990s, it matched that of Anthony Sylvanus, 46, who had been jailed since early 1981 for robbery.
When police asked Sylvanus about Ruane's death, he admitted killing her - and others.
Confessing to cases that had been mothballed for two decades, Sylvanus said he killed Grace Woolsey, 88, in Mount Airy in July 1980. He beat and stabbed Anna Knuttel, 55, to death in her Kensington store on Nov. 11, 1980. He killed Vicente Morelli, 87, in January 1981.
And five days after murdering Morelli, he killed Langley.
In those two killings, Sylvanus said a Kensington teenager, Ramon Ortiz, helped him.
"I hit [Langley] with a left hook, which sent him to the floor. I continued to punch him. Then I instructed Ramon to check the place out while I continued to work the old guy over," Sylvanus said in April 2001. "My way of working the old guy over was to kill him."
Ortiz, then in jail for theft, confessed to the two killings.
With his lawyer present, Ortiz told police that he and Sylvanus robbed Langley, and that Sylvanus killed him in a back room.
"I started hearing hand blows, punches, kicks," Ortiz said. "He was beating him very badly."
Ortiz described Langley's office, even recalling a neon light shaped like a pair of glasses.
"He provided details that only someone who was there would know," said his lawyer, Carlos Martir. "He's very credible."
When all four men appeared before Judge Lerner last October, a deal had been hatched.
Sylvanus and Ortiz had failed polygraph tests after giving their new confessions. So prosecutors were not willing to dismiss the convictions of Weinberger and Rodriguez. But they were willing to let them out based on the time they had already served.
Weinberger and Rodriguez pleaded guilty to reduced charges.
Ortiz and Sylvanus were not charged with killing Langley, but they pleaded guilty to other murders.
Ortiz got a five-year prison sentence in the Morelli case because he was 16 at the time.
Sylvanus got life sentences for killing his four elderly victims.
Lerner said Sylvanus wanted to plead guilty in Langley's death "because he did it."
"He was truthfully and candidly admitting to something he had done," Lerner said. "I was 100 percent convinced."
For Rodriguez and Weinberger, there is no happy ending.
Weinberger, who went into prison with a drinking problem, had been paroled in 2001 on the condition that he not drink.
With his parole lifted after the October deal, he went back to drinking and has been living on the street, Santos said.
"I would probably drink, too," she said. "Twenty years of his life - he lost a lot."
Rodriguez is still behind bars.
His lawyer said he didn't notice when the deal was struck that Rodriguez had another sentence hanging over his head.
On top of his life sentence, Rodriquez was supposed to serve 10 to 20 years more on a parole violation for a previous burglary conviction. He now must serve that sentence, unless the parole board releases him.
"Being locked up for 21 years for a crime I did not commit... the system has failed me," he wrote The Inquirer. "I want my freedom back."
Contact staff writer Mark Fazlollah at 215-854-5831 or firstname.lastname@example.org.