In 1996, Daniel Gristwood was convicted of attempted murder. He had been accused of viciously beating his wife in the upstate New York town of Clay. Prosecutors had presented a signed confession and the jury needed just six hours of deliberation before declaring him guilty.
But it turned out that Gristwood did not attack his wife, as state troopers had coerced a false confession. In 2003, another man, Mastho Davis, confessed to the attack, and two years later Gristwood was exonerated. In 2011, a New York Court of Claims judge ordered the state to pay him $5.5 million, citing that the coerced confession had caused the nine-year wrongful imprisonment.
New York state, however, does not think it should have to pay. The attorney general’s office appealed the ruling in the Appellate Division of Rochester Supreme Court. The trial began on Wednesday.
Gristwood had discovered his wife’s body when he returned home from work in January 1996. She had been beaten with a hammer, but was still living. She would be brain damaged and paralyzed. She died earlier this year.
After Gristwood called 911, state troopers took him to their barracks for questioning. A neighbor had claimed to have seen Gristwood’s car parked nearby four hours before Gristwood told investigators he returned home. Gristwood then failed a lie detector test. The troopers began interrogating him in a small and hot and windowless room.
The Post-Standard, which has covered the case in depth over the years, detailed in 2011 what happened next:
Nearly three hours into the more aggressive questioning, at 6:42 p.m., [trooper Frank] Jerome started typing Gristwood’s statement. Gristwood later testified that they told him he could see his children again if he signed.
At 7:09 p.m. — after 16 hours of questioning with no food and with no sleep for 34 hours — Gristwood read aloud the statement and signed it in three places, the troopers testified later.
In 2003, Mastho Davis went to the Syracuse Police Department and claimed that he had beaten a woman with a hammer several years before. He described the Gristwoods’ apartment in detail. The statute of limitations, however, had expired. Police could not arrest him for the crime. In 2006, Davis was arrested for beating and raping a 75-year-old woman in Florida and was later convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
In the years since Gristwood’s conviction, a growing wave of exonerations has shown that, under enough physical strain and psychological pressure, people sometimes confess to crimes they did not commit. Around a quarter of DNA exonerations have involved false confessions.
But New York state has argued that those who falsely confess are ineligible for compensation because their own misconduct led to the conviction. “That limit was meant to weed out deliberate misconduct to gain some tactical advantage, say, a confession intended to conceal a loved one’s guilt,” the New York Times explained in a 2011 editorial criticizing the state’s argument. In truth, the cause of false confessions are often the “common police interrogation techniques that sometimes cause innocent people to confess.”
The state has denied liability for Gristwood’s wrongful imprisonment. It has also asked the Appellate Division’s five-judge panel to limit any liability payment to $2 million.
Because of the ongoing appeal, Gristwood has not gotten any of the money yet. If he wins the appeal, the state will have to include interest to the payment. The interest rate is more than $1,000 a day. They payment currently stands at more than $7 million.
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