The Maddening Case of Anthony Harris

by G.D., originally published at PostBourgie

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One of the (many) reasons I oppose the death penalty is because of the shitty track record the criminal justice system has not just in the prosecution of capital offense but also for routinely botching non-capital felony cases. Why should we have faith in the system when it comes to deciding whether people should live or die?

This stance was affirmed when quadmoniker put me on to the case of Anthony Harris earlier today.

On the afternoon of June 27, 1998, Lori Duniver discovered that her five-year-old daughter, Devan, was missing from her home in New Philadelphia, Ohio. The following day, Devan’s body was found in a wooded area near her home. She had been stabbed seven times in the neck. Captain Jeffrey Urban (“Urban”) of the New Philadelphia Police Department led the investigation into Devan’s murder. Urban identified several “persons of interest” who might have killed Devan, including Devan’s mother, Lori, who had recently called a suicide hotline to report that she was depressed and considering harming herself and her children; Lori’s boyfriend, Jaimie Redmond, a drug addict and felon of whomDevan was afraid, who had previously kidnapped Devan for three days and beaten her with a belt, who may have been in the neighborhood of Devan’s house at the time of her disappearance, who was later found in possession of an unexplained pack of children’s playing cards, and whose alibi witness was later discovered to have given a false name and Social Security number to the police; Devan’s father, Richard, a violent alcoholic who had recently complained about having to pay child support for Devan and who refused to help Lori search for Devan after Devan’s disappearance, claiming to be too drunk to drive; Devan’s brother, Dylan, who was described by several individuals as violent and who had recently stabbed a cat; and Harris, a twelve-year-old, African-American neighbor of the (Caucasian) Duniver family.

Some background real quick. Both Anthony Harris and Devan Duniver lived in the same apartment complex in New Philadelphia, Ohio, which was 97% white as of the 2000 census. Anthony and Devan played together, and had once got into a scuffle when the little girl threw a brick at him.

A few days later, the police brought Anthony, who was then a slight, shy 12-year-old, in for what they called an “interview.”

After making some small talk, [Thomas Vaughn, a police chief from a nearby town] suggested to Anthony that the police had evidence linking him to Devan’s murder, such as finding Devan’s blood on his clothes and his footprints near Devan’s body. Anthony denied that he did anything wrong, but Vaughn, according to the transcript, kept pressing. “You’re sorry you did this, aren’t you? You didn’t mean to kill her, did you?”
“I didn’t kill her,” Anthony replied.Vaughn threatened that if Anthony didn’t confess, he would have to do a “voice stress test,” a technique that could tell whether he was lying, and then the child would be stuck with the results in court. “You know you did this crime,” Vaughn told the little boy, suggesting that he understood why he might be angry enough to kill Devan. “A lot of African Americans got a lot of hate built up over the years.”After Anthony repeatedly denied harming Devan, the boy finally relented.

“You stabbed her in the throat, didn’t you Anthony?” Vaughn insisted. “You did, didn’t you, Anthony?” “Yes.”

“Do you know how many times you stabbed her?”

“No.”

“More than once? Five or six times?”

“No.”

“Once or twice?”

“Probably twice.”

After 80 minutes, Vaughn asked Anthony to write down his confession, and Anthony started to cry. “Can I talk to my mom?”

Anthony’s mother who had been outside the room, walked in, and Vaughn started to tell her that Anthony had confessed. But Anthony stopped him.

“Wait. I’ll tell her that if I did it, I would have done it, but I didn’t do it, but I said I did it,” said the boy, seemingly confused by what had happened.

“You didn’t do it?” Cynthia Harris asked.

“No.”

“Then why did you tell him that you did?”

First, the police brought the boy in for a “relaxing” interview, and told his mother that it would be easier if she wasn’t in the room. But when she left, Anthony was immediately read his Miranda rights.

Second, there was no physical evidence whatsoever linking Anthony to the crime, as was suggested. Vaughn was lying.

Third, the voice stress analysis that the interrogator threatened to make Anthony take is notoriously unreliable — a federal government report found that using it to detect drug use was “no better than flipping a coin when it comes to detecting deception” — and cannot be used in court.

Finally, the police chief had been trained in a style of manipulative interrogation designed to extract confessions, and the group that trains people to use these methods warned that it could compel children to make false confessions.

But as soon as the boy confessed, Amanda Spies, the prosecutor, told the police to arrest him.

Anthony was formally arrested and charged with Devan’s murder, and the trial gripped the town. The principal evidence against Anthony was the dodgy confession. Tarin Hale, the public defender who was representing the boy, found that the only time he could have killed the little girl was a 15-minute window between 1:45 and 2 p.m on June 27. But at 2 p.m. on the day of the killing, Anthony was with Devan’s mom, who gave him $5 to help her look for Devan. The prosecutor’s own notes said that given the nature of Devan’s injuries, there should have been”blood spurting like crazy.” There was no blood on him when Duniver’s mother saw him that day. The prosecution pressed ahead anyway, and in her courtroom arguments Spies maintained that Devan wouldn’t have bled much. She was knowingly withholding exculpatory evidence. Anthony was convicted by Judge Linda Kate for the maximum sentence: incarceration until he was 21.

It would take the next few years and the yeoman pro bono efforts from attorneys from a prominent Cleveland law firm to have the judge’s decision overturned by an appeals court. (They called bullshit on the prosecution’s claim that there was info in the confession that only the killer would know.) Anthony went on to graduate from high school, and applied for the Marines. But when the Marine recruiter went to pick up his juvenile record from the courthouse, a livid Spies told him that Anthony would remain a suspect in the murder. Anthony’s application to the Marines was rejected.

Anthony’s laywers pressed ahead with a wrongful prosecution suit. The prosecutors and cops were now the defendants, and they moved to have the case dismissed.

When Judge Adams issued his decision in August 2004 rejecting the defendants’ motions to dismiss, his words conveyed barely contained outrage: “Despite the lack of any physical evidence to link Anthony to Devan’s murder, the police defendants consciously elected to pursue a confession from 12-year-old Anthony through unconstitutional means. . . . Chief Vaughn resorted to tactics that would compel a 12-year-old boy’s confession, regardless of his guilt or innocence.” As for Spies, her absolute immunity would not protect her against claims arising from her role in the investigation, including her instructions to arrest Anthony.

That fall the Baker & Hostetler lawyers sparred with the defendants in depositions. Anthony, when he was deposed, reluctantly talked about the toll the prosecution and imprisonment had taken on him, saddling him with serious emotional issues. “They ripped my family and [me] apart,” he testified. “It’s like they just stomped a hole in my life.”

A few months after the depositions, which lay bare deficiencies in the police investigation, the Baker & Hostetler team reached a settlement with officers Urban, Vaughn, and Staggers, and the cities of New Philadelphia and Millersburg. In February 2005 their insurers agreed to pay $1.5 million. For Warren and Mearns, the money wasn’t enough. They wanted an apology. The three officers signed a letter to Anthony stating: “We regret that you were wrongfully convicted of this crime. We apologize to you and your family for the events that led to your conviction.” Spies refused to settle.

Anthony reapplied to the military in the spring of 2005. This time Judge Kate resisted clearing his name. Responding to a letter from an Army recruiter seeking information, she stressed in a June 2005 letter that the appeals court never acquitted Anthony. She characterized the reversal as a technicality, and noted, “Mr. Harris remains eligible for prosecution.” Anthony never joined the Army.

The county eventually settled the case in 2008, which means it took 10 years to correct a series of egregious mistakes that should have stopped the prosecution of Anthony Harris cold. But the prosecutors and the town wanted their pound of flesh, and none of them wanted to admit that there was even a possibility that they erred. (Urban even dodged a question about the sincerity of the police apology.)

Said one of Anthony’s pro bono lawyers:

You could say the system worked ultimately–criminally, civilly, politically. But it took ten years and an incredibly compelling set of circumstances and an extraordinary effort. And still it seems the system worked just by the skin of its teeth. . . . It’s scary how little it takes for people in power to screw things up, and how much it takes to correct it. I don’t mean to sound immodest, but not everyone gets to hire us. Not everyone gets our effort.

His public defender saw it differently. “The system works? That’s a joke. When a 12-year-old serves two years in prison for something he didn’t do?”

Saving Anthony Harris
[The American Lawyer]