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S28.E20: Blaming Melissa 2015.02.28

Melissa Calusinski is a young Illinois woman sitting in prison for a crime she swears she didn’t commit. So why did she confess? "48 Hours"' Erin Moriarty investigates.

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I think Melissa is in good hands with Zellner.  Why are there no rules when interrogating a suspect?  We have seen time and time again that people will make a false confession if kept in a room for long hours being told you did it.  Also, she was a little slow and did not know her rights.

 

So much heartache, time and expense for not getting a good outcome.

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I almost can't watch these shows that are about a coerced confession.  They just make me sick.  I've read a little about the issue in general, and when the show started, I wondered if the girl was of average intelligence or if there was some other issue because that is often the case in these situations.  Sure enough.  I don't know if she's innocent or not, but it makes me want to make sure my children know they don't have to be grilled in a small room by intimidating police officers without water and food for hours on end.  "I want  a lawyer."  End of story.

Edited by tobeannounced.
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Any other fans of L&O:SVU in here? Because this case reminded me so much of an early episode (Season 2: "Legacy") in which a child had a head injury that was revealed to be a few days old but didn't manifest right away, therefore making it more difficult to determine who had initially caused it. Just so sad all around. (My thoughts -- Melissa didn't cause it, it happened some time earlier outside the day care, most likely.)

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I'm afraid of interrogation too.  I'd ask for a lawyer right away, and I especially hate when a cop says if a suspect demands a lawyer right away they are immediately suspicious, as if we should really just trust the police at this point.

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I especially hate when a cop says if a suspect demands a lawyer right away they are immediately suspicious...

I used to agree with them and think innocent people wouldn't go immediately for a lawyer, but no more! I've watched far too many of these shows. Do NOT go into the police department doors without first contacting or telling someone to contact a lawyer. Don't wait until you get there, even. I've seen too many times the suspect clearly asking for a lawyer during the interrogation, only to be denied for some lame reason.

I have tremendous respect for people in uniform, but these coerced confessions make me sick. There should be laws about how long an interrogation can go on. It seems like this kind of thing must violate at least a couple of Constitutional amendments!

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It reminded me of the West Memphis Three (which IIRC, Erin Moriarty also covered for 48 Hours), where the police browbeat Jessie Misskelley (who was also developmentally delayed) into giving the confession they wanted.

 

And the worst part is, that no matter what happens, Melissa's had her life ruined and the baby's still dead.

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Sure enough.  I don't know if she's innocent or not, but it makes me want to make sure my children know they don't have to be grilled in a small room by intimidating police officers without water and food for hours on end.  "I want  lawyer."  End of story.

 

Yeah, I hate to say it, but there's a difference between a perfect world and the actual world.  In the perfect world, all cops are honest, upright people (as the vast majority of them are), but then, there's the actual world.  The word "blame" was used in the title, and blame is a stronger word than I'm thinking.  However, unless I missed something. I got the impression that Melissa went to the police station alone.  All I kept thinking was "Where was her family?"  I mean, I heard multiple people say that they knew that Melissa had a low verbal IQ.  If you know that about a loved one, and that loved one is going to be questioned by the cops, that would not be someone that I'd want to lose track of in the days after an incident.  Someone should have been with her, if for no other reason, then to call a lawyer FOR Melissa if she's not out of that room fairly quickly.

 

Maybe it's because I watch so many of these shows, but I remember some attorney from some show once saying that it's a thousand times more difficult to reverse a conviction because the deck is so heavily stacked against you.  It is wrong for the cops to coerce a confession out of anyone, but I also think that people (or their loved ones) have to be more proactive.  It may not be right that Melissa's family would have had to do that, but the reality is is that she's now in prison.  If it was well known to everyone that Melissa had some sort of cognition/comprehension delay, I think the cops bear responsibility for coercing the confession, but I also think her family was asleep at the wheel.

 

I honestly don't know if she's guity or not, but I think the truth (whatever it may be) might never be known.  If Melissa is innocent, there might never be enough to overturn the conviction.  I've seen the joke tossed around in threads like this, and I understand how Melissa might not have understood, but I highly doubt that someone somewhere in her family hadn't ever watched a crime TV show.  I don't hold them responsible for knowing the law, but I think they're responsible for allowing the dominos to begin to fall against her.

Edited by Ohmo.
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Melissa's lawyer is the woman who is going through all the Chicago cases closed by the cop who also tortured people in Guantanamo.  What a hero, she is.

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What didn't make sense to me is that the interrogators seemed to be leading Melissa into a confession that did not match the evidence. I think even the pathologist that refuted the first pathologist's autopsy report said that. If she thew the baby down on the floor and he hit his head there should have been some sign of bruising, blood, a fracture, swelling etc. on the outside of his head. There was none. So maybe the jury that convicted her didn't get to see how she was led and bullied by the interrogators to make a confession, and there was no pathologist that testified to the confession not matching the facts.  But all of this is known now, so the fact that those in power will not give her a new trial is nothing short of a travesty and a crime in itself.

 

I read on the 48 hrs FB page in comments that the parents of the baby received 2 million dollars after his death -presumably from the daycare. So I guess that is why they are satisfied with the conviction as to retry the case would show that the baby received the injury most likely in their care, or at least in any case not on the day he died.

 

I wonder if there are different laws in different states regarding interrogation? I thought a person being questioned had to be told theat they have the right to a lawyer, and can leave any time? If it isn't the law it should be. To me that is just as important as reading someone their Miranda rights, maybe more so as interrogators would not be able to get to the point of obtaining a fasle confession if the person being questioned was properly informed.

Edited by UsernameFatigue.
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I would have also thought that a mentally challenged person would require some sort of advocate right away.

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I don't know if she's innocent or not, but it makes me want to make sure my children know they don't have to be grilled in a small room by intimidating police officers without water and food for hours on end.  "I want  a lawyer."  End of story.

 

The recent episode of Murder Comes to Town involved some teens who killed 3 people. One of the underage kids was being interrogated with his mother in the room and she sat there and let him confess. He wasn't being coerced per se, and he was guilty, but it kind of boggled me that she didn't stop him and ask for an attorney. The police didn't even have much evidence at that point. Come on, people!

 

I used to be more trusting/naive myself, but that changed after I was tangentially involved in an FBI investigation at my company. The agents were so weasily and tried to intimidate people into talking to them. I outright refused for a year, then finally relented but only with an attorney. I had nothing to hide and wasn't being charged, but I took exception to their tactics.

Edited by lordonia.
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I would have also thought that a mentally challenged person would require some sort of advocate right away.

There wouldn't be so many people with special needs on Death Row if that was the case.  The world would be a more just and fairer place.

 

What didn't make sense to me is that the interrogators seemed to be leading Melissa into a confession that did not match the evidence. I think even the pathologist that refuted the first pathologist's autopsy report said that. If she thew the baby down on the floor and he hit his head there should have been some sign of bruising, blood, a fracture, swelling etc. on the outside of his head. There was none.

There also should have been what's called a contrecoup injury on the other side of his skull from where the bleed was.  Brains are kind of squishy, so anything that's got enough force to slam it up against the skull usually results in it slamming against the other side with some force as well on the rebound.  I didn't catch how old he was, so maybe his anterior fontanelle hadn't finished closing, but that seems like it would make it more obvious, not less.

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Good for you Lordonia!  I could never be a cop and I think there are good ones out there.  Maybe their needs to be more laws for interrogating a person, like they have in Maryland.  So many states now have Innocence Projects because the police and prosecutors have railroaded people.

 

The human toll is incalculable but it also ties up our court systems and is very expensive.

 

I was very impressed with the reporter who had to change her job.

Edited by applecrisp.
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What didn't make sense to me is that the interrogators seemed to be leading Melissa into a confession that did not match the evidence. I think even the pathologist that refuted the first pathologist's autopsy report said that. If she thew the baby down on the floor and he hit his head there should have been some sign of bruising, blood, a fracture, swelling etc. on the outside of his head. There was none. So maybe the jury that convicted her didn't get to see how she was led and bullied by the interrogators to make a confession, and there was no pathologist that testified to the confession not matching the facts.  But all of this is known now, so the fact that those in power will not give her a new trial is nothing short of a travesty and a crime in itself.

 

I watched another case that Kathleen Zellner helped overturn, that of Darryl Thibidouex of Louisiana.  He also gave a false confession.  The difference is the Louisiana DA supported Zellner's efforts and she and her team (that included Barry Scheck) did tests and found evidence that proved he didn't do it.  Melissa doesn't have that, and that's why I think she may never be successful even if she is innocent.  Barry Beach can't even get out of prison in Montana after being released by a judge for 18 months and finding an eyewitness to the crime.  I think what will end up dooming Melissa is no longer a question of innocence or guilt.  It's that she's reached the point of no return with nothing concrete to save her.  All of the things you pointed out aside, none of them are strong enough to show that Melissa was not responsible.  I think Zellner's going to have it tough on this one because a bunch of "shoulda beens" aren't evidence that proves that someone other than Melissa was at fault or shows that it was an accident.

Edited by Ohmo.
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Yeah I think that Melissa is pretty much screwed because there technically is no new evidence there is just people reaching a different conclusion so the bar for getting a new trial is probably too high. I often wonder about the juries who sit on these trials who watch these shows or documentaries about these sort of cases where they weren't aware of some of the facts (though I also do understand that some of these shows gloss over information that might have led the jury to an easy conviction to tell the narrative in an hour).

 

These shows always make me think that I should immediately talk to a lawyer even if I was just a witness to a crime before I talked to the police. The police always make it sound like if you get a lawyer you are somehow impending the process and not cooperating but just because you have a lawyer doesn't mean you cannot consent to be questioned by the police. It's also annoying because I know a few cops and they are always told if for some reason they are dragged into an investigation they should get at least their union rep before questioning.

 

This episode also reminded me of stupid confused Charles Erickson, the person who gave the false confession in the Ryan Ferguson case. Zellner was able to get Ryan released but Charles is still in prison for a crime he didn't commit. It also reminded me of something that Ryan and Keith Morrison said on the Dateline about Ryan's exoneration is that so many of these cases that are overturned rely on their case getting both attention of a zealous lawyer and tons of media exposure to put pressure on the system and that there are many others who are in the same boat but who's cases will never be heard.

Edited by biakbiak.
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It's also annoying because I know a few cops and they are always told if for some reason they are dragged into an investigation they should get at least their union rep before questioning.

 

That's so true! I worked as a clerk at a police dept. for 4 years while in college, and you bet your ass every one of those guys called their union rep at the first whiff of trouble.

 

I remember back in the day in the JonBenét case, I thought the parents must be hiding something because they got an attorney.

Edited by lordonia.
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This was one of those "how to do they sleep at night" shows. How could the prosecutors take this new evidence of which they have the intelligence and background to fully understand and feel comfortable with allowing this young woman, who might have otherwise had a positive place in this world caring for children, grow old in prison? How could the pathologist admit to his mistakes and then cave under pressure and backpedal to ensure this young woman stays behind bars? What was he threatened with? Do they ever think about Melissa and what she is going through? Do they have regrets? Is their career worth ruining someone's life? Or in death penalty cases, actually causing the death of another? For a job? For a paycheck? For clout and bragging rights? I have so many questions because I can't for the life of me understand how people like this think. Could these prosecutors be functional sociopaths who found the perfect career and lifestyle? So. many. questions.

Edited by canaanite2.
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This was one of those "how to do they sleep at night" shows. How could the prosecutors take this new evidence of which they have the intelligence and background to fully understand and feel comfortable with allowing this young woman, who might have otherwise had a positive place in this world caring for children, grow old in prison? How could the pathologist admit to his mistakes and then cave under pressure and backpedal to ensure this young woman stays behind bars? What was he threatened with? Do they ever think about Melissa and what she is going through? Do they have regrets? Is their career worth ruining someone's life? Or in death penalty cases, actually causing the death of another? For a job? For a paycheck? For clout and bragging rights? I have so many questions because I can't for the life of me understand how people like this think. Could these prosecutors be functional sociopaths who found the perfect career and lifestyle? So. many. questions.

AGEE! Caananite2.  I wish I could give you 100 likes.

 

Just a rant.  I really want to see a show that highlights these cases.  We have seen it happen over and over.  Look at all the hours that were spent on the Casey Anthony case, people protested in front of her parents home, for pete's sake.*

 

I have read that there are websites devoted to Amanda Knox, pro and con. Time and energy wasted IMO.  The Peterson case, the baby in the hot car case-sorry forgot the names-so much time spent on one case. Of course anything Nancy Grace is obsessing about.  She is too pro-prosecutor to care about these cases.

 

Even in this forum you see it.  There are always more comments about these cases than the ones where the person is clearly guilty.  We want to see justice.  We are invested because unless 48 hours misrepresented this case, our legal system is broken and innocent people are paying the price.

 

So many lives ruined and I do not think the streets are safer because Melissa is in prison.

 

*Just wanted to add, where do people have the time and energy to make posters and stand out in front of someone's yard.  Who has the energy to devote a website to one person??  This will forever baffle me.  Off topic, I feel the same about people who take time out of their day to tweet a celebrity to say "I think you are ugly."

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where do people have the time and energy to make posters and stand out in front of someone's yard.  Who has the energy to devote a website to one person??

 

People like to feel superior to someone else and judge them, it's something everyone is guilty of doing on occasion. But there are some people who literally need to feel this sense of superiority. When they find someone they can legitimately feel superior to because, you know, that person killed a child and they didn't, they feel empowered.  That's where the energy and devotion comes from. (I'm not a psychologist, I just play one on the internet).

Edited by canaanite2.
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I've been meaning to ask this for a long time.  Why does one need a lawyer to tell the cops to take a flying fuck?  Am I within my rights to not talk to the po po, ever (now that I'm retired & don't have to deal with them on a daily basis)?  Why does an attorney have more authority than a citizen?

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Good question, walnutqueen.  I don't know the answer to that. I wonder if you can just say, "Either arrest me or let me go on my way."

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Good question, walnutqueen.  I don't know the answer to that. I wonder if you can just say, "Either arrest me or let me go on my way."

 

Well, if they ever come for me I will try that line if you will help post my bail!

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You do have the right to remain silent.  I guess I would want someone with me.  But what about the bill.

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I'm pretty sure Melissa could have left at any time, and wasn't under any obligation top talk to the police-whether Melissa realized that is another story. I think she was a person with a strong respect for authority and was responding to the unspoken cues from the cops that they wanted her to stay. I don't think she was under arrest until she gave her confession - that was the point at which she couldn't leave.

I might be wrong, but once you assert your right to a lawyer, the cops have to stop questioning you, and they make you aware of those rights when they read you the Miranda rights after arrest. But before then, they can just say it's a voluntary interview, she could leave at any time, etc.

This was a real nightmare scenario. I wonder how those cops feel now. At the time, they'd been told that the medical evidence showed that the baby had been injured immediately prior to death, and I can see how they would have fallen back on that and used it to justify pulling that confession out of Melissa. Really a tragic story.

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[Quote

I might be wrong, but once you assert your right to a lawyer, the cops have to stop questioning you, and they make you aware of those rights when they read you the Miranda rights after arrest. But before then, they can just say it's a voluntary interview, she could leave at any time, etc.

You aren't wrong the problem is that even if you are smart and know your rights and have a cognitive IQ higher than Melissa's it's just that a lot of people believe the best thing to do is stay as long as the police are questioning you because the police "are the law" and what could they possibly do if you are innocent. This is also why unless they have evidence cops will try as long as they can to just "question" and not put people in custody so it seems friendlier and they don't have to read Miranda and remind people that they have a rights. I am not suggesting that this is what all cops do or that legitimate confessions don't routinely occur during questioning without being in custody but it us the period of time that most false confessions occur. It is also the reason that cops (not necessarily wrongly) try to down play that people are in custody if they have cause for arrest. They routinely make Miranda seem like it is no big deal and just routine.

Say this as someone who has never been arrested or committed a crime.

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I think you and I are in agreement,biakbiak. I believe most police officers are good people in pursuit of justice, but I think it's important that people realize the second they're asking you questions, they're no longer your friends (no matter how friendly they might act). That said, I definitely understand how these false confessions happen and don't blame the people who give them, they are under tremendous psychological pressure and we are all more vulnerable to that than we might think. I'm glad the phenomenon of false confessions is being discussed more, hopefully it will lead to fewer miscarriage of justice and maybe the correction of cases like Melissa's. We can only hope.

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I used to be more trusting/naive myself, but that changed after I was tangentially involved in an FBI investigation at my company. The agents were so weasily and tried to intimidate people into talking to them. I outright refused for a year, then finally relented but only with an attorney. I had nothing to hide and wasn't being charged, but I took exception to their tactics.

 

I was involved in an HR investigation into someone at my job.  The HR rep fully tried to manipulate me into giving her names of people I'd heard tell a joke she felt was inappropriate.  HELL NO!  I said absolutely not, but the fear that I was going to lose my job was very real.  And she definitely knew I was fearful and used it.  "You won't be in any trouble if you tell me the names.  You'll be helping!"  I refused and quit talking.  She kept me in the room for another 10-20 minutes, still trying to get me to give up names.  And she finally gave up.  I marched upstairs to my Director and told him what happened.  I also said that if this HR rep ever came near me again I'd make a complaint against her.   I can't imagine what it must be like to be in that situation for hours....after 20 minutes I wanted to cry and felt like throwing up. 

 

This was one of those "how to do they sleep at night" shows. How could the prosecutors take this new evidence of which they have the intelligence and background to fully understand and feel comfortable with allowing this young woman, who might have otherwise had a positive place in this world caring for children, grow old in prison? How could the pathologist admit to his mistakes and then cave under pressure and backpedal to ensure this young woman stays behind bars? What was he threatened with? Do they ever think about Melissa and what she is going through? Do they have regrets? Is their career worth ruining someone's life? Or in death penalty cases, actually causing the death of another? For a job? For a paycheck? For clout and bragging rights? I have so many questions because I can't for the life of me understand how people like this think. Could these prosecutors be functional sociopaths who found the perfect career and lifestyle? So. many. questions.

 

I had the same thought.  There's a special place in hell reserved for that medical examiner who still wouldn't reverse his findings.  That's a man who knows he's a piece of shit but won't admit he's wrong because it will look bad on his resume.  I think to a lot of these people, they don't see Melissa as a human being.  She killed a child, so she doesn't deserve to be treated with respect or basic human decency.  

I feel the same about every individual who was involved with putting the West Memphis 3 in jail.  They should all lose their jobs or at the very least be made to answer for their decisions.  The judge especially.  He kept those boys in prison for years because of his egomaniac bullshit.  

Edited by CaughtOnTape.
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This story enraged me.  I've seen enough TV to realize that law enforcement and prosecutors will go to great lengths to convict when they are pressured to close a case, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but it was completely appalling to me that absolutely no one was willing to consider an alternative theory at all, when most of the evidence was inconsistent.  I am convinced detectives and prosecutors knew they were barking up the wrong tree and didn't give a damn all for the sake of getting a conviction.  They didn't care about the girl's life or even the baby's.  All they wanted was to close the case and protect their reputations.  Bastards! 

 

I feel for people who don't understand their rights, and I wish they would be extensively taught them in school.  Once even one accusatory statement is made against you, consult an attorney immediately (preferably a criminal attorney).

Edited by Fable.
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Erin Moriarity appeared on today's CBS This Morning.  She was talking about this case.  Since it has already appeared on 48 Hours, I'm thinking there's an update in our future. 

 

Saturday 7/18.  I think CBS is running a double 48 Hours tomorrow night, so this episode could be on at either 9 EDT or 10 EDT.

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I wonder if there are different laws in different states regarding interrogation? I thought a person being questioned had to be told they have the right to a lawyer, and can leave any time?

I didn't watch this story about Melissa, but do enjoy reading the comments. As for your question, this is what I found. Not sure if this answers your question:

 

The duty to warn only arises when police officers conduct custodial interrogations. The Constitution does not require that a defendant be advised of the Miranda rights as part of the arrest procedure, or once officer has probable cause to arrest, or if the defendant has become a suspect of the focus of an investigation. Custody and interrogation are the events that trigger the duty to warn.

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I really want to know who the anonymous tipster was who called in about the xrays.  I also want to take that first ME and smack him upside the head for hiding the xray evidence (if that is what happened...and it totally sounds like it did).  The current ME seems like a competent fellow, but I also want to know why he didn't find the xrays until the tipster called in a few months ago.  At least the prosecutor is now looking at the case and the new evidence, and why it was not turned over to the defense. 

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 At least the prosecutor is now looking at the case and the new evidence, and why it was not turned over to the defense. 

Except that it's his office that has a responsibility to turn evidence over to the defense, especially if it's exculpatory.  There's a "fox guarding the henhouse" in there somewhere.

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I didn't watch this story about Melissa, but do enjoy reading the comments. As for your question, this is what I found. Not sure if this answers your question:

 

The duty to warn only arises when police officers conduct custodial interrogations. The Constitution does not require that a defendant be advised of the Miranda rights as part of the arrest procedure, or once officer has probable cause to arrest, or if the defendant has become a suspect of the focus of an investigation. Custody and interrogation are the events that trigger the duty to warn.

And I could be way off base with this but my understanding is that the police cannot hold you for interrogation/questioning unless you have been Mirandized. Until they bring Miranda out you are free to leave. Until then you are only helping the police. But I would imagine there are many many people who assume no such right and/or are misled by the police to believe they need to stay. It could take a pretty strong disposition to get up and leave while being questioned.

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