Last Friday’s day-long symposium on the phenomenon of false confessions brought the leading experts in the field to speak to lawyers and law students at a forum sponsored by the Temple Law Review and the Temple-based Pennsylvania Innocence Project.
The statistics were sobering: 25 percent of 300 people set free through DNA testing done by the Innocence Project at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City had been convicted in part by their own confessions to crimes they didn’t commit.
One of the most compelling experts earned his expertise the hard way: serving 22 years of a life term, most of it in solitary confinement in New Jersey prisons, for a double murder he did not do.
In November 1985, Byron Halsey was living in a Plainfield rooming house with his girlfriend, Margaret Urquhart, and her two young children, Tyrone, 8, and Tina Urquhart, 7, who he was raising as his own. On the night of Nov. 14, while Halsey and his girlfriend were out, the children disappeared from the apartment. Another resident, Clifton Hall, found the children’s bodies in the basement. They had been raped and murdered.
Halsey, then 24, was brought in for questioning by police and held for 40 hours, 30 of them spent undergoing intense interrogation during which detectives lied, telling him that he had failed a lie-detector test.
Halsey said he maintained his innocence but ultimately “I just got tired. They weren’t listening to what I had to say. I said, ‘Just give me the paper and I’ll sign it.’”
What Halsey did not know at the time, he said, was that the paper was a confession to the murders that detectives drafted for him as a Union County prosecutor watched from behind a surveillance mirror.
“I just wanted to get out of there,” Halsey said. “I feared for my life. After so many hours, I signed.”
What Halsey learned was the power of a confession – true or false -- to drive the verdict in a criminal case. Union County prosecutors and detectives had their man and did not consider Halsey’s quick insistence that he was coerced into signing a statement he did not even write.
“They didn’t care,” Halsey said. “It was about getting a conviction because society wanted a conviction.”
His own defense attorney, Halsey said, told him she had more pressing concerns than his confession: “I’m trying to save your life.”
It turned out that she had a point. Halsey said that at trial the vote of one juror prevented him from getting a death sentence.
“One juror, that’s why I’m here,” Halsey told the audience.
Halsey said he would have lost his mind in solitary confinement had it not been for his decision to prove his innocence.
“No one will fight for you if you don’t fight for yourself,” Halsey said. “I wrote thousands of letters. But then, what else did I have to do?”
His letters eventually caught the attention of the Innocence Project in New York, which finally convinced a New Jersey judge to let Halsey undergo a DNA test.
The test against semen from the crime scene proved Halsey was not the killer of the two children. When the crime scene DNA was compared against a federal database taken from criminal defendants, the test showed the semen belonged to Clifton Hall – the Plainfield neighbor who discovered the children’s bodies and who was a prosecution witness against Halsey.
Halsey’s conviction was expunged and he was freed in 2007. Hall, who had been in prison on unrelated sex crimes, died in prison in 2009 before he could be tried for the murders of the Urquhart children.
Today, at age 51, Halsey said he sees his five children and 11 grandchildren and stills works at the job he was offered shortly after he was freed from prison: security guard, snow-plow driver and aircraft de-icer at Newark International Airport. He also has a federal civil rights suit pending in New Jersey against the Plainfield and Union County officials involved in his arrest and prosecution.
Despite what he calls “22 missing years of my life,” Halsey does not seem bitter. Though quiet and serious in speaking, Halsey showed flashes of deadpan, sarcastic humor. He says he still has faith in the criminal justice system.
“Play the game right,” Halsey told the audience. “The system is beautiful. It’s just the people in the system. If you want to be a prosecutor, a judge, a police officer, just play the game right.”