By Gretchen Schuldt
Alphonso James kinda sorta confessed to murder.
At least he signed a paper on which a confession, written by a police detective, appeared.
James was 17 at the time, in 1985. An evaluation done by a clinical psychologist after his arrest for allegedly killing Delbert Pascavis put James' IQ at 75, considered borderline.
A Department of Health and Human Services evaluation after his conviction said this about James: "Alphonzo's (sic) Stanford Achievement Test scores indicate the possibility of functional illiteracy....A GED (general equivalency degree) may be grandiose."
At the time he signed the paper, he had been in custody for more than seven hours and was questioned without a lawyer. James says for part of that time the police took his clothes and left him naked. Police officers at James' 1986 trial denied that.
James quickly repudiated the confession and said, as he had earlier, that he did not kill Pascavis. Trial testimony indicates that police questioning of James was, at best, of highly questionable thoroughness. More on that later.
The police interviews leading to the alleged confession were not recorded. Police in those days objected strongly to the very idea.
False confessions, especially among the young, are not unusual. Of 130 murder convictions reversed on DNA evidence as of 2018, 81, or 62 percent, involved false confessions and 40, or 31 percent, involved eyewitness misidentifications, according to the Innocence Project.
When he signed the confession, James testified, "I was dizzy because I had a headache and stuff. I just got tired and I was hungry and I was sleepy because I haven't had no rest all that day."
There is no doubt that Alphonso James signed that paper.
"They start asking me did I do it," James testified at his trial. "I said no, I don't know nothing about it....(They said) they had fingerprints of me. I said I don't think. I said I know you couldn't have no fingerprints of me."
Witnesses testified they saw a Black man get into Pascavis' red car the night of the murder, try unsuccessfully to start it, then leave.
James' prints were not in the car.
Pascavis was seen the night he died sharing a bottle of whiskey with a Black man. Police found a whiskey bottle in Pascavis' apartment; There were prints on it that did not belong to Pascavis and did not match James'.
There were, in fact, no fingerprints connecting James to the crime.
"I told them after they just kept on asking me the same questions over and over, they said they wouldn't take no for an answer; so, I said, 'Well, if ...y'all said I did it, I did it.' " – Alphonso James
Officers involved denied lying to James about finding his prints. Police testified that they offered James food and drink, but that he declined for the more than eight hours he was in custody. They said he also declined a lawyer and to make a phone call.
James denies that. He testified during his trial that he asked for a phone call and something to eat, but police told him to wait.
Eventually, there was a group of officers in the room where he was held, James testified.
"All of them was talking at the same time," he said. And so, I was like getting confused and stuff 'cause I didn't know too much what was happening. So, I was like crying. And they said, "'Well, we can tell that you guilty now 'cause you crying and stuff.' And he said 'just go get all the stress out of you now so you can tell us.'"
James kept insisting on his innocence. Until he didn't.
"I told them after they just kept on asking me the same questions over and over, they said they wouldn't take no for an answer; so, I said, 'Well, if ...y'all said I did it, I did it.'
"I was ready to leave....I was just getting tired of them telling me over and over. I just got tired of hearing it," James said.
A detective had told him earlier that he would get a year in a juvenile facility if he confessed, but "If I don't say it, that he can get me – I can get life in prison."
When he implicated himself, James testified, he merely was spitting back what a detective had told him earlier. He did not kill Pascavis, he testified. He did not read the confession before he signed it, and no one read it to him.
A small piece of the police-written statement is crossed out and there is writing that was added to the document later. James initialed that section.
"What did you put those initials there for?" Assistant District Attorney Dennis Cook asked.
"If you would have been there, you would have wrote it, too," James said.
A detective testified that the cross-out was made at James' request to correct part of the statement.
"And you wanted to change it, so he changed it," Cook said.
"I didn't see him cross anything out," James said. "It wasn't crossed out when I put my initial there....It wasn't crossed out at the time when I seen it. It wasn't crossed out. I didn't bother reading it."
Next: A few things police didn't ask
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