In the spring of 2006, Rob Warden, the Center on Wrongful Convictions's co-founder, poked his head in my office and asked me for a favor. "Would you please take a look at this confession for me?" he said, handing me a dusty VHS tape, "Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter is convinced that this young man is innocent. "Sure," I replied.
Little did I know I would become part of a team dedicated to freeing that young man -- David McCallum -- a struggle that is captured in the powerful new documentary David & Me directed by Canadian-born filmmakers Marc Lamy and Ray Klonsky. Ray and his father Ken, the co-author of Rubin's latest book Eye of the Hurricane: My Path From Darkness to Freedom, have worked tirelessly on David's case for nearly a decade. David & Me proceeds on two tracks -- it documents the budding friendship between Ray and David, and details the team's investigation of David's case.
I knew who "Hurricane" Carter was when Warden came to my office. In junior high school, my friend and I wore out the grooves of Bob Dylan's Desire LP listening to Dylan's ballad of "Hurricane." I had watched Denzel Washington portray Rubin in The Hurricane and had even met Rubin briefly when he came to Northwestern Law School to speak at a conference about innocence and the death penalty in November 1998. Rubin's endorsement of McCallum was all the inspiration I needed to dig into McCallum's case.
David McCallum and his friend Willie Stuckey were convicted of a horrific crime. On October 20, 1985, the two sixteen-year-old black kids from Brooklyn, allegedly took a train to Queens. They exited the train and while walking through a nearby neighborhood, they noticed Nathan Blenner, a 20-year-old white male, working on his 1979 Black Buick Regal. According to their confessions, the boys approached Blenner, pulled out a gun, forced Blenner into the back seat, and then drove off with Blenner and his car. They then drove back to Brooklyn, parked near Aberdeen Park, and walked the young man into a remote area of the park where they shot him in the back of the head. By the time, I watched their confessions, David was 37 years old, and had fought his conviction unsuccessfully through the state and federal systems for over two decades. Willie was no longer alive; he died in prison at the age of 31 in 2001.
My first impression after viewing the taped confessions was that both boys were guilty. The main difference in their stories was that Stuckey blamed McCallum for the crime and McCallum blamed Stuckey. But first impressions can be deceiving when it comes to videotaped confessions. The false confessions of the Central Park Jogger defendants had the same pattern of fingerpointing among the defendants. Like the Jogger defendants, both Stuckey and McCallum seemed equally eager to be classified as witnesses to the crime or bit players. Both later testified that they thought (and were told) that if they just put themselves at the crime scene they would be able to go home.
The Jogger case reminds us that it is dangerous to accept videotaped confessions as the gospel truth, especially when the preceding interrogations are not recorded. Confessions are rarely blurted out spontaneously by suspects. They are often the product of police pressure filled with flattery, cajoling, persuading, deception, promises and threats. Young suspects like McCallum and Stuckey are like putty in the police's hands; they fold much more quickly under pressure.
In false confessions, however, police must also contaminate the confessions by feeding facts to the innocent suspect that "only the true perpetrator would have known." To the untrained eye, the suspect's confession, chock full of this "inside knowledge", has the ring of truth. But in reality the final result, which is rehearsed before the cameras are turned on, is more parts law enforcement than suspect. As I reviewed the police reports, tracked how the police investigation evolved, compared more closely the statements of Stuckey with those of McCallum, and read the trial transcripts, I became convinced that both Stuckey's and McCallum's confessions were highly contaminated.
Without a recording, it is difficult, to prove contamination. The best evidence of contamination is a "false fed fact." A "false fed fact" occurs when police develop a theory of the crime early in the investigation and pressure suspects to adopt that theory in their confessions. As more facts are learned through the investigation, however, the theory turns out to have been wrong. When a suspect's confessions contain facts that reflect this rejected theory, the only explanation is contamination. Stuckey's confession contained a whopper of a false fed fact.
Early in the Blenner investigation, the police spoke to a woman who had encountered two young black men on the street near where Blenner was abducted. One of the men was 5'6" and the other was 5'10". According to the woman, the men walked up to her, eyeing her red Buick Regal. One of the boys remarked about how nice her car was, and she responded by saying that she'd know who stole it if it turned up missing. She took careful note of the boys and told the police she could later identify them. In fact, her red Buick was stolen off the street just a few days after Blenner was abducted.
At the time detectives questioned Stuckey and McCallum, they believed that the boys who abducted Blenner and stole his black Buick Regal were the same boys who eyed the woman's red Buick Regal. In fact, Stuckey's initial confession states that McCallum was the one who told the woman cleaning her red car "that's a nice car." But by the time of the trial, the State no longer believed this to be true. Stuckey and McCallum did not fit the description of the men. The boys were both 5'6" tall and neither of them wore their hair in braids. The fact that Stuckey's confession references the conversation with the woman seems to prove that detectives fed Stuckey the story -- they gave him a fact that they thought only the true perpetrator would have known, but the fact turned out to be false.
David & Me also reveals the new DNA and fingerprint evidence that undermines the reliability of the boys' confessions. DNA test results on cigarette butts left in the ashtray of Blenner's car and fingerprints on papers in the backseat link two other teenagers -- whom Stuckey and McCallum did not know -- to the crime. Klonsky and a private investigator tracked down the man who as a fourteen -year-old left his DNA on the cigarette butts. The man is caught in several lies on camera. First, "Mr. DNA" denied that it was his DNA and then, when pressed, claimed that he must have flicked the cigarette butts into the car's open ashtray as he was walking past.
David & Me was a revelation to me. Prior to the film, my only mental image of David was of the sixteen-year-old boy on the confession tape. The film introduced me to the 43-year-old McCallum and to his loving and supportive family. It humanized McCallum in much the same way that Ken Burns et al's Central Park Five humanized the Jogger defendants. It confirmed for me what I had suspected from reading David's letters over the years. Under an exterior hardened by nearly three decades in prison, David comes off as a thoughtful, articulate, and compassionate adult. In fact, you might say he has a "Rubinesque" quality to him.
Rubin Carter is dying from prostate cancer. In a recent op-ed, Rubin wrote that he has one last wish -- to see David freed -- and has asked King's County DA Ken Thompson to re-open the investigation into Nathan Blenner's murder. I am hoping that Mr. Thompson, and the newly-appointed head of the Thompson's Conviction Integrity Unit -- former D.C. Public Defender and current Harvard law professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. -- will review David's case, see David & Me, and re-open an investigation into David's innocence.
I also hope that David will be paroled this year and that Rubin will be alive to see it and well-enough to meet David on the outside. That would be a fitting epitaph to the life of a principled man whose passion for justice never waned.
David & Me was produced by Markham Street Films in association with TV Ontario and will be premiering at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival on April 27, 2014.