Updated: Oct 9
Imagine that a horrendous crime occurs not far from where you live where several members of a family are murdered in cold blood on New Year’s Eve and their house burned. The bodies of a mother, a father, and a four-year-old boy will be discovered inside. Imagine being 21 and poor with a minor criminal record knowing you had nothing to do with this crime. All of a sudden, you are taken into custody and you’re held without charges for eleven days. Imagine that on each of those eleven days you are subjected either to silence or to beatings and torture including questions presuming your guilt and encouragement to confess.
Then your captors move you from a jail cell in one county to a jail cell in another county; more inquisitors come to question you and beat a confession out of you all while forcing you to hold the contents of a pan full of bones and teeth they are telling you come from the family you killed. One of the men conducting this torture-interrogation is an investigator from the Governor’s office and a self-proclaimed, “expert of many years’ experience in securing confessions from parties who were accused of committing crimes.” You have been told that if you do not confess, the beatings will continue. Finally, you confess to the crime – if only to stop the brutality. Then they take you to a penitentiary. You have not been charged with a crime. But, you have also been in custody for nearly two weeks. Members of your family, your young wife and your sister, have visited you and they have seen the bruises.
Then, the warden of the penitentiary tells you it is time to get that confession in writing. He brings in someone who will take down every word that you say and you begin,
“I, W. D. Lyons, a negro, at 8:15 o’clock p.m., on this the 23rd day of January, 1940, in the office of Warden J. F. Dunn at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary at McAlester, in the presence of J. F. Dunn, Warden of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, Mr. Van Raulston, Deputy Sheriff of Choctaw County, Oklahoma, Mr. Roy Marshall, a citizen of Choctaw County, Oklahoma, and a stenographer, do of my own free will and accord, without threat of punishment, duress, fraud, coercion, promise of leniency or of any consideration whatsoever, or reward, do hereby and hereon make the following statement and confession, which statement and confession I swear to be the whole truth, without reservation…
The confession that "voluntarily" follows these harrowing days involved Mr. Lyons stating that an acquaintance named Vanzell told him if he had a gun, they could make some money. So, Lyons borrowed a 12-gauge shotgun and met Vanzell to go make some money. They watched a white family through the window of their home for at least 20 minutes; a man, a woman, and a small baby were all inside. When the man readied himself for bed, Lyons shot him through the window. The woman came outside. He shot her from 12 feet away. Then he reloaded the shotgun. She did not die so Vanzell got an axe from the woodpile and cut her three time with the axe. Then, they entered the home and searched the man’s clothes for money – he was supposed to have a hundred dollars from gambling. Then they spread coal oil all inside the house and set it on fire. Lyons then went home and went to bed. It was about 8:30 p.m. The next day he took the gun hunting. About a week later the "special police" picked him up. He saw Vanzell in the jail and they promised each other not to tell the authorities about the triple homicide and arson.
That confession was recorded in a question and answer format. The stenographer had taken it down in shorthand and then typed it. Then, it was placed in front of Mr. Lyons to sign. The one thing young Mr. Lyons knew was that he needed a very good lawyer. He got one.
At trial about a year later, the prosecutor did not seek to enter the first confession, the oral one that followed 11 days of torture and led to the transfer from one jail to another. All agree that it would have been excluded if they tried. The trial court did allow the second confession - the one that was typed up, signed, and notarized - to enter in evidence. Over objection, the entire transcript was read to the jury at Mr. Lyons’ murder trial.
Despite exemplary counsel, Mr. Lyons was convicted. He appealed.
The Criminal Court of Appeals of Oklahoma chastised the state for the beatings Mr. Lyons suffered. They said, in essence, we are shocked, SHOCKED, that this kind of behavior continues to go on. I mean, come on cops and prosecutors and sheriffs and wardens (and other “special policemen” – whatever that means) – how many times do we have to tell you not to beat the suspects and inmates? Apparently at least once more. Now, cut it out! After that wrist slap, the court also determined that the second, official looking confession – that was okay. Twelve hours had passed since the confession borne of beating - heck it was not even in the same location - and surely that is plenty of time and distance to take away the taint.
We will put aside the fact that Lyons did not ever get that hundred dollars, he did not know the family or have anything against them, he did not own a firearm, could not produce the shotgun, had a record of chicken stealing and not one of violence, and that the "confession" was basically just agreeing with the warden’s very leading questions. Let's also put aside that newspapers had reported that several of the people incarcerated at a nearby prison camp were suspects of this murder. The warden who had been involved in procuring Mr. Lyons' “confession” was also in charge of the prison camp. It would look pretty bad for him if they were the ones liable for the triple homicide and arson on his watch. The warden made some swift personnel changes after this publicity and promptly beat the confession out of Mr. Lyons who was not connected in any way to any of the original suspects.
We will put aside the near impossibility that Mr. Lyons - who was not known to be violent and who bore no ill will toward this family could be capable of somehow murdering them in cold blood as an accomplice to a man he barely knew all for some money that he never received. In other words, we will put aside the fact that it is highly unlikely that Mr. Lyons was involved in the New Year’s Eve murders at all.
Nonetheless, he was sentenced to life in prison. After the conviction was affirmed, Lyons v. State, 77 Okla. Crim. 197 (1943), the appellant moved for rehearing. One lone judge, Thomas H. Doyle, would have reversed the conviction stating,
It is respectfully urged that this Court grant a rehearing in this matter, in order that the State of Oklahoma may not be guilty of failure to take the necessary corrective steps to prevent the denial of due process of law to plaintiff in error.
The law of the land guarantees to every person charged with crime, whether guilty or innocent, regardless of race or color, whether of high or low degree, whether rich or poor, a fair and impartial trial according to the due and orderly course of the law, and it is a duty resting upon the courts to see that the guaranty of such a trial shall be upheld and sustained.
Yeah - that's what I learned, too. Sadly, Judge Doyle was screaming into the void. Good news, though. Turns out, Mr. Lyons' lawyer was intimately familiar with involuntary confessions – he had argued and won Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227 (1940) just a few years earlier. So, despite the loss in the state court, he petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States for certiorari on the question of whether the confession that was admitted at trial was involuntary and therefore should have been excluded under the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court accepted cert, heard the case, and affirmed the conviction.
The fiery dissent declared,
Even though approximately twelve hours intervened between the two confessions and even assuming that there was no violence surrounding the second confession, it is inconceivable under these circumstances that the second confession was free from the coercive atmosphere that admittedly impregnated the first one. The whole confession technique used here constituted one single, continuing transaction. To conclude that the brutality inflicted at the time of the first confession suddenly lost all of its effect in the short space of twelve hours is to close one’s eyes to the realities of human nature. An individual does not that easily forget the type of torture that accompanied petitioner’s previous refusal to confess, nor does a person like petitioner so quickly recover from the gruesome effects of having had a pan of human bones placed on his knees in order to force incriminating testimony from him.
Lyons v. State of Oklahoma, 322 U.S. 596, 606 (1944)(Murphy, J. dissenting).
False confessions and coerced confessions were not new then; they continue to vex the criminal justice system. Despite the data illustrating how often false confessions occur, the Court has not fully accepted this reality. Rather than establishing that the admission of a coerced confession requires reversal of a conviction, the Court has ruled that coerced confessions are subject to “harmless error” review. Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279 (1991). That decision was a tight 5-4 call in which four of the Justices, one with a ton of experience in this area, averred that the harmless-error rule is inapplicable to erroneously admitted coerced confessions. Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279, 288 (1991).
Mr. Lyons would end up serving 20 years of his life sentence. He was actually paroled in 1961 and pardoned in 1965 by Governor Bellmon. By that time, his lawyer had continued a storied career, arguing multiple cases before the Supreme Court. He won quite a few of them, too. He was so impressive that on October 2, 1967, he was sworn in as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States. In his very last year on the bench, he would be one of the four dissenting justices in Fulminante. While he did not win every case as a lawyer and many of his opinions would be some of the Court's great dissents rather than rules of law, his was a powerful voice.
Often described as a jurist who was pragmatic and of the real world, Thurgood Marshall was also a man of enormous intellect with a broad and deep knowledge of the law. He was in his mid-30's when he represented W.D. Lyons with a passion and zeal for equality and fairness. Nearly half a century later, he continued to carry that commitment to justice, often on the same issues that persist and persist. What he said then is just as salient today:
Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on. - Thurgood Marshall