Sometimes when detectives can't get a confession they'll settle for a something else
Laura Nirider and Steve Drizin explore the story of Emerson Stevens, a fisherman from Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay. When a young mother was found murdered, it seemed all the evidence pointed to Emerson, until the case fell apart. Emerson survived 31 years in prison with the help of an ally from across the bay.
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Governor Ralph E. Northam
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Richmond, VA 23218
Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson
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Laura Nirider Welcome to Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions. I'm Laura Nirider.
Steve Drizin And I'm Steve Drizin.
Laura Nirider Today, we'll tell you the story of Emerson Stevens, a fisherman from Virginia's Chesapeake Bay. When a young mother was found murdered, it seemed all the evidence pointed to Emerson, until the case fell apart. Emerson survived 31 years in prison with the help of an ally from across the bay. Now you can help him finally clear his name. Today's episode is based on interviews with Emerson Stevens and his lawyers, along with legal filings and court opinions. So, Steve, today we're going to break the mold.
Steve Drizin We're going to break the mold. This is not a case that involves a false confession. This is a case that involves a false inculpatory statement. Sometimes detectives can't get a confession, but they'll settle for a false inculpatory statement.
Laura Nirider Right. That's lawyer talk for something you say that makes you look really bad.
Steve Drizin That's exactly right. And it's false. So it's a lie. And the same tactics that are used to get false confessions are often used to get these false inculpatory statements.
Laura Nirider And they can have the same devastating consequences.
Steve Drizin So when I think about this case, I think about it in terms of a puzzle. When my family goes on vacation, we often buy a puzzle, and we spend a lot of time putting that puzzle together. And anyone who puts puzzles together knows that there are a lot of times where the piece that you think will finish a part of the puzzle doesn't quite fit. It looks like it should fit, but it's just a little bit off. And that's what happened with a lot of the evidence in Emerson Stevens' case. They manipulated the evidence to make it seem like it fit the police theory.
Laura Nirider That's what happens in wrongful conviction cases, right? Tunnel vision makes police officers force these puzzle pieces together when, in reality, they might not fit at all.
Steve Drizin It was only after the fact that you could see that the pieces never really fit in the first place.
Laura Nirider Today's story takes place in Lancaster County, Virginia, a rural community nestled between the Chesapeake Bay and the Rappahannock River. It's a place that smells like ocean salt and honest sweat. Generations there have made a living with their hands, hauling fish out of the bay and crabs and oysters out of the river. In 1985, this county was home to Mary Harding, who was Lancaster through and through. Petite and blue-eyed, Mary was homecoming queen at Lancaster High before she and her high school sweetheart tied the knot. By age 24, Mary was working as a bookkeeper at the local bank, while her husband was a fisherman. They had two young kids and a modest ranch home located just across the street from the cemetery. On Friday, August 23, 1985, that modest home became the scene of a terrible discovery. On weekdays, Mary had a routine: Before work, she'd drop off her one-year-old at the home of her husband's grandmother, Virginia Walker. But that Friday morning, Mary didn't show up. Virginia was worried, so she drove over to Mary's house. Virginia was greeted at the door by Mary's four-year-old son, who told her that he couldn't find his mom. The TV and lights were on throughout the house, some unrinsed Comet was left in the bathroom sink, and the little boy's chicken dinner from the night before was still sitting on the table. "Don't worry," the four-year-old assured his great-grandma. In his mother's absence, he was taking care of the baby. Virginia knew there's no way Mary would abandon her children. There's only one explanation for her disappearance. Mary must have been taken. Virginia calls the police and soon a state police detective by the name of David Riley arrives at the house. He finds cat litter scattered on the ground outside the backdoor, along with one of Mary's white sandals. But there's no sign of Mary. Pretty soon, word spreads and the whole community starts searching through the woods and along the shore. But they find nothing. Nothing, that is, until four days later. That's when a woman's body is found in the shallows of the Rappahannock River. The body is unclothed, badly decomposed, and hard to identify; but it's clear something horrific has happened. The woman's back is covered with deep, evenly spaced slashes. There's a rope tied around her neck with a huge cinder block attached to the other end. A heavy chain is wrapped around the woman's right leg. Soon enough, the medical examiner confirms: This is Mary Harding. She's been strangled to death. Now, here's the thing: The rope and chain or the same kind that you can find on most fishermen's boats in Lancaster. So suddenly this close-knit community was being torn apart by suspicion. Everyone was wondering: Who would have done this to the homecoming queen? Before long, the authorities settled on a suspect: 32-year-old Emerson Stevens. Like so many other Lancaster men, Emerson had worked on the water since he was a teenager. Emerson was a crabber and an oysterman, who hauled his catch in on a boat named after his wife. He'd spent his life by the shore; the kind of guy who had saltwater in his veins. It was Mary's husband who pointed police to Emerson Stevens. Emerson had gone to Mary's funeral, and Mary's husband thought Emerson seemed nervous there. Mary's husband also remembered that he'd once heard Emerson make a crude joke about female anatomy. This wasn't much to go on; but days later, a couple of people told police they had seen a light-colored pickup truck outside Mary's home on the night she disappeared. Now, Emerson Stevens happened to drive a white Dodge pickup, so he quickly became the police's number one suspect. Detective Riley asks Emerson to meet him at Mary Harding's house and the two men sit down on the front porch. According to Emerson, Riley gestures to the street and asks, "Why were you parked in front of this house the night Mary vanished?"
Steve Drizin If you question somebody on the porch, you're creating a context that is different from your standard police interrogation. You can tap into all of the emotions of: This is where this woman lived. This is where she had her children. This is where she was last seen. This is not a police interrogation room.
Laura Nirider It feels like the kind of place where you'd have a heart-to-heart conversation. And there's another thing that makes this porch interrogation even more emotional.
Steve Drizin Yeah. Not only was this the front porch of Mary's house, it was right across the street from the burial ground where her headstone was.
Laura Nirider As the two men look out at the cemetery, Riley presses Emerson for information. But Emerson is stunned. He hadn't been at Mary's house, he says. He'd been at home. Then he'd taken his kids over to the neighbors to watch TV and eat crab. They'd returned home together at about 9:30 p.m., and Emerson's wife had gotten home from work shortly after. He tells Riley to talk to his neighbor and confirm the alibi. But Riley doesn't buy Emerson's story. Instead, he orders a search of Emerson's pickup truck. After digging through the truck for hours, police discover a single strand of hair. They send the hair off to the state crime lab for forensic analysis. The next week, Riley asks Emerson to come to a nearby Virginia police station for a polygraph. As soon as the polygraph's completed, Riley tells Emerson he failed. According to Emerson, Riley says he must either have killed Mary Harding or done something else related to her murder. Those are two pretty bad options, and Emerson is terrified. But then Riley offers Emerson a third choice that seems a lot better: "Maybe you were at Mary's house that night doing something innocent. Maybe you were driving by, and you stopped on the side of the road to take a leak." The fisherman takes the bait. He's desperate to please Riley and changes his story to exactly what Riley suggested.
Steve Drizin If detectives can't get a full confession, they'll settle for a false inculpatory statement. All the detective can get from Emerson is a statement that he pulled over on the side of the road, a short distance away from Mary's house, to relieve himself at the approximate time of death. That's the admission: I was in the vicinity of her home near the time where the medical examiner believes she was killed.
Laura Nirider That was all Emerson said. He did not confess, but he'd said enough to get himself in real trouble. He'd just placed himself at the crime scene. Detective Riley was on high alert, but the case against Emerson was pretty damn thin; until test results came back from the state crime lab on that hair from Emerson's truck. The lab had put the hair under a microscope and compared it to Mary Harding's hair, and the lab said it was an exact match. The police's thin case suddenly seemed rock solid. And in late October, 1985, Emerson Stevens was arrested for the abduction and murder of Mary Harding. The trial of Emerson Stevens was one of the most dramatic events Lancaster County had ever seen. To a packed courtroom, prosecutors described how they thought the crime unfolded. Emerson kidnapped Mary, they said, then strangled her and threw her body into the river. They even suggested that Emerson slashed Mary's back with his fishing knife in order to attract crabs, so there wouldn't be anything left of her body.
Steve Drizin The worst imaginable kind of crime. It's like throwing chum over the side of a boat to entice sharks.
Laura Nirider But there were problems with the prosecution's theory. They claim that Emerson had thrown Mary's body into the river off the end of his own dock, but her body was actually found a full 10 miles upstream.
Steve Drizin How does a body that is weighed down with a cinder block travel 10 miles upstream? Upstream means against the current.
Laura Nirider That's the thing. I mean, to swim those 10 miles upstream would've been crazy, let alone somehow to float a weighted-down body that distance. It makes no sense at all.
Steve Drizin It's absurd.
Laura Nirider But prosecutors found a witness to bolster this theory, insane though it seemed. A marine scientist testified that it was possible for Mary's body to float against the current, cinder block and all, for 10 miles from Emerson's dock to where it was found. And there were other witnesses, too. Detective Riley told the jury that Emerson claimed to have been near Mary's house on the night she disappeared. And the prosecution called two people to corroborate Emerson's statement: Clyde Dunaway and Ann Dick. They both claimed they'd seen a pickup truck resembling Emerson's near the victim's house that night. And finally, the prosecution called a witness from the crime lab to testify that the hair in Emerson's truck seemed to match Mary's.
Steve Drizin So it seemed, at this point, as though all the puzzle pieces fit together, and they painted a compelling portrait of Emerson's guilt. But this is not the end of the story, not by a long shot.
Laura Nirider When the defense's turn came, Emerson's lawyers put on a strong case of their own: no fewer than four alibi witnesses. In the end, the jury hung, unable to reach a verdict. The prosecution was quick to retry Emerson. And on July 8, 1986, the second trial began. This time, the prosecution's case seemed, if anything, weaker. The marine scientist was a no-show, so the prosecutor read the jury his testimony from the previous trial. Only one witness, Clyde Dunaway, testified about seeing Emerson's pickup near Mary's house. But the crime lab technician repeated his previous testimony about the hair in the truck. And Detective Riley testified again about Emerson's statements. During the second trial, Emerson's lawyer put on his alibi witnesses again, and Emerson himself took the stand. He tried to explain that he was innocent, that he hadn't actually pulled over near Mary's house that night. He'd only said that to satisfy his interrogator. Prosecutors pounced. "You admit to us you lied?" they asked. "Yes, I told that," Emerson answered. Later, he quietly added, "I'm not a smart person." The case wasn't any stronger than at the first trial, but this time the jury reached a verdict: guilty. And Emerson Stevens was sentenced to a prison term of 164 years. Fast forward to 2002. During those 16 years behind bars, Emerson earned his GED. He worked in the dusty prison woodshop, building furniture for state institutions. He wrote letters constantly, to his family and to lawyers, begging for help with his case. When he wasn't working or writing, Emerson would dream about the smell of the shore. He wondered if he'd ever be on the water again. In April 2002, Emerson's attention was caught by a news story about a genteel Virginia lady named Beverly Monroe. Beverly was a professional chemist whose upper middle class background seemed worlds away from Emerson, at least at first. You see, 10 years earlier, 55-year-old Beverly had been dating a wealthy real estate mogul named Roger de la Burde. Roger lived on a massive estate in Virginia horse country. He claimed to be an art dealer who was descended from European nobility. But when Roger turned up dead one morning from a gunshot wound, police suspected Beverly of murder, even though she'd never had so much as a traffic ticket. The case against Beverly was absurd from day one. Beverly had a grocery store receipt proving she hadn't been at Roger's estate at the time he died. And Roger's death had been ruled a suicide. Turns out, his life was falling apart. The FBI was investigating him for art fraud, and his claims of nobility were also being exposed as phony. But Beverly ended up being wrongly convicted of Roger's murder anyway. Why? Because, in part, of Detective David Riley, the same officer who'd built the case against Emerson Stevens. When Detective Riley interrogated Beverly, she refused to admit to something she didn't do. But Riley administered a polygraph and told Beverly she failed it. And then he suggested that she must have been present when Roger shot himself. Detective Riley seems to have manipulated Beverly into placing herself at the scene of the crime, just like he seems to have done with Emerson. The similarities are unmistakable.
Steve Drizin Beverly Munroe was wrongfully convicted based on inculpatory statements that placed her at the crime scene. And Riley then built his case around that statement to make it look like this wasn't a suicide at all, that this was a murder.
Laura Nirider Amazing. Just like Emerson, Beverly never confessed to anything.
Steve Drizin Same detective using the same modus operandi in order to get not a false confession but a false inculpatory statement that was used to convict them and send them away for crimes they did not commit.
Laura Nirider A federal judge later called Riley's interrogation of Beverly Monroe "deceitful and manipulative." Even so, Beverly ended up serving 10 years in prison before her conviction was thrown out and she was released in April 2002. That news story Emerson saw on TV from behind bars was about Beverly's first moments of freedom. Emerson didn't waste a minute. He immediately wrote to Beverly's lawyer, who agreed to take his case. And when Beverly herself heard about Emerson, she got involved, too.
Deirdre Enright She went to the lawyers that had just exonerated her and said, "Now you need to do it again for this other guy," which, you know, to their credit, they did. They tried to reinvestigate as much as they could. And then, when it became clear that they were sort of losing steam, Beverly turned her sights to me.
Laura Nirider That's Deirdre Enright, the director of the University of Virginia's Innocence Project Clinic. She's one of the lawyers Beverly enlisted to join Emerson's legal team.
Deirdre Enright Emerson, you know, he had been trying for years, writing to people about his case and begging for help. And if you ever meet or speak to Beverly, you will learn that you will do anything that Beverly says to do, because she's absolutely charming but also absolutely compelling. Beverly made it something of a mission to help other people who were convicted by the evidence collected by the same detective.
Laura Nirider With Beverly's help, Emerson now had a top-notch legal team. And while the lawyers got to work, Beverly and Emerson began corresponding.
Deirdre Enright Beverly is not only college educated but she's a chemist, and she lived a very extravagant life with her partner before this all happened. And Emerson is this waterman who grew up with his nine siblings in Lancaster. I mean, this is the classic thing that happens in these wrongful conviction cases, is that people who would never in a lifetime be near each other or connect do.
Laura Nirider Beverly and Emerson became friends. Beverly sensed how much this fisherman longed for the water and started sending him photographs of the place he missed most: the Chesapeake Bay.
Deirdre Enright She was hyperaware of taking care of him while he was incarcerated, so he didn't feel abandoned. Writing and calling, and making sure he had money in his commissary, and holidays and birthdays, and I remember thinking, she knows what he's feeling better than any of us. I think that Emerson, once he had Beverly, he knew that there was another person out there who was advocating for him ferociously. I mean, most people who are incarcerated don't have that person. And because she was so smart and because she'd been through it, she wasn't going to hear that it couldn't be done.
Laura Nirider While Beverly was keeping Emerson's hope alive, his legal team was systematically unwinding the case against him. And as it turned out, one piece of faulty evidence after another seemed to lead back to Detective Riley. First up was the claim that witnesses had seen a white pickup truck like Emerson's near Mary's house. A woman named Ann Dick had testified to that effect at the first trial. But her story had changed by the time of the second trial. There, she swore that the person she saw driving the truck was not Emerson Stevens. When asked why she didn't say that to the first jury, Ann answered, "Because Detective Riley told me not to." The other pickup truck witness, Clyde Dunaway, well, turns out he came forward only after police offered a $20,000 reward for information. He asked Detective Riley about the money during their very first conversation. But at Emerson's second trial, Dunaway swore he never asked anyone about the reward. Now, Detective Riley was sitting in the courtroom listening to this. He must have known Dunaway was lying, but the detective never said a word. Eventually, Dunaway paid a price for his false testimony in Emerson Stevens' case. He ended up pleading guilty to obstruction of justice.
Deirdre Enright Once you dangle reward money, especially in a place like Lancaster, where there's a lot of people living very much on a margin, the fact that Clyde Dunaway bit on that is hardly surprising. He repeatedly inquired about, "When am I going to get that money?" And the detective would say, "Only after you testify." The upshot of the investigation is that Clyde Dunaway got in trouble, and our dirty detective who sat on that information during both trials walked away unscathed. The little guy got it, as usual.
Laura Nirider Next up was the bizarre claim that Mary's body, cinder block and all, floated upstream 10 miles. That marine scientist who testified at the first trial, remember, he was MIA at the second trial. Prosecutors had to read the jury a transcript of his previous testimony. Why didn't he show up the second time? Well, Emerson's lawyers found a letter from the scientist to the prosecutor that provided a pretty clear explanation. After the first trial, the scientist wrote, "Lieutenant Riley applied what may be the correct term to my testimony in this case. He called it eyewash." "Eyewash" is Virginia slang for bullshit.
Steve Drizin Ugh, God, the marine scientist. It's clear that the science that he put forth at this trial wasn't real. Even Detective Riley called this theory "eyewash."
Deirdre Enright Why a marine biologist went along with that the first time, I have no idea. But by the second time, he clearly did not want to do it and thought it was dirty, right? That's what his letter suggested, is you're asking me to do something that's nonsensical.
Laura Nirider Suddenly, there was reason to believe that Detective Riley had ginned up some of the evidence against Emerson. And it seems that Riley tried to take it even further. The owner of a Lancaster convenience store gave Emerson's lawyers a sworn statement that reads as follows: "Detective Riley tried to get me to say that Emerson Stevens woke me up in the middle of the night that Mary Harding disappeared so that he could buy five gallons of gas. Detective Riley was extremely aggressive and pushy, insisting that I agree with his story even though it was not true. I was never woken up in the middle of the night by Emerson Stevens ever, for any reason."
Steve Drizin None of these pieces of the puzzle actually fit together. They were all manipulated by this detective so that they fit his theory that Emerson was guilty of this crime. Now, that's the eyewash.
Laura Nirider The rest of the case crumbled too. Remember the theory that Emerson used his knife to slash Mary's back? A new assessment by the medical examiner showed that those evenly spaced gashes were probably made by a boat propeller, not by a human with a knife. And finally, what about the hair from Emerson's truck? Back in 1985, the crime lab had put that hair under a microscope and claimed that it was an exact match to Mary. This technique, known as hair microscopy, has since been debunked. There's no way you can match hairs with that level of certainty just by looking through a microscope. In fact, more than 70 people have been exonerated after bogus hair evidence was used to convict them.
Deirdre Enright There's just nothing to the science that you can microscopically compare hairs and identify anybody. We've had cases where people say that this is a human hair belonging to this victim and it belongs to a dog. Even according to the FBI, hair microscopy is junk science.
Laura Nirider Decades later, Emerson's lawyers sought DNA testing, but it turned out the hair was too old to test. In other words, there's no way to know who it belonged to. It could have been Mary's, or Emerson's, or Emersons wife's. It could've been anybody's. Armed with this new information, Emerson's lawyers filed a post-conviction petition in 2016, asking for his conviction to be thrown out. But it hasn't been yet. This is where Emerson's legal case has stalled. Despite skilled lawyers and compelling evidence of innocence, the courts have denied his petitions at every turn. But there has been one important victory. On May 19, 2017, Emerson Stevens was paroled from prison. He'd spent 31 years behind bars.
Deirdre Enright His family filled the lobby of the correctional center, which is almost always absolutely empty. And then we came with students and people who had been working on this case for years. We all hopped into cars and we asked Emerson where he would like to have his first free meal.
Laura Nirider So what was the fisherman craving, after more than three decades of prison food?
Deirdre Enright Emerson very quickly told us that he wanted to go to Cracker Barrel, and he wanted the seafood platter at Cracker Barrel. And I don't argue with anyone who wants that.
Laura Nirider Like a tide that might never come back in, Emerson Stevens' life ebbed for 31 years as he sat behind bars. Now, his life is flowing again.
Deirdre Enright You know, he's done such a great job of getting out and just sort of sliding back into his life: moving back in, seeing family, going back to work immediately, being a great worker. So in that part of his life, he's done a really wonderful job.
Laura Nirider But on the other hand, he's still a convicted murderer, and that burden weighs on him every day.
Deirdre Enright I think he feels that, until he is cleared and other people are exposed, his life is on hold.
Laura Nirider Until that happens, at least Emerson gets to see his kids and his grandkids. He's back out on the water in his small aluminum boat, feeling the breeze on his face.
Deirdre Enright I just said to him, "The only thing you owe me is a trip to go oystering." And he will be good for that, I know it. I've been to a Stevens cookout. And, you know, what they do is go crab and fish and come back and cook it all up in the yard and have huge tables of food. And it's delicious.
Laura Nirider The case against Emerson Stevens has taken years to unwind. Sometimes fighting cases this thin can be strangely hard, almost like your shadowboxing a ghost.
Steve Drizin Emerson should be pardoned, and Emerson's innocence needs to be recognized by the governor of the state of Virginia.
Deirdre Enright In cases like this, it's just never the slam dunk that it should be. We immediately applied for an absolute pardon, which would exonerate him totally. And he pretty quickly got a letter that said, "Thanks for your petition. We probably won't be able to get to this for two years and don't bother us in the meantime." For Emerson to be pardoned would mean that he gets an absolute clean slate, and it's a gateway to maybe proving what people did to get him convicted. For people like him, you need that. You need the real story to be told.
Laura Nirider For her part, Beverly Monroe, now in her 80s, still supports Emerson, still talks to him regularly by phone, still is waiting for the day he'll be exonerated. We're waiting too, Emerson. And we stand with you all the way. Hey, is this Emerson?
Emerson Stevens Yes. Yes.
Laura Nirider Hey, Emerson, it's Laura Nirider and Steve Drizin. How are you?
Emerson Stevens I'm doing good.
Laura Nirider So tell me, Emerson, what have you been doing these days? How have you been keeping yourself busy?
Emerson Stevens Well, my oldest brother, he asked me if I would take his boat and get all his crab pots up. So I did that, you know.
Laura Nirider How was it?
Emerson Stevens Oh, it felt great...being back out on the water again. And then, he wants me to go oystering with him, you know. So, I'm thinking about it. I want to...purchase a boat of my own, you know, like my brother's got, and be able to work on the water again.
Laura Nirider What would you name your boat, Emerson?
Emerson Stevens Well, these type of boats, you don't really put names on them, but... I don't know, Misfit or something, I don't know.
Laura Nirider There's times that are enjoyable and wonderful, you're with your family, you're back out on the water, and there's times that are hard, too, I'm sure.
Emerson Stevens Oh, yeah...I lost my oldest daughter when I was in prison. She died at the age of 40, and that broke my heart. And it's not a day that don't go by that I don't think about her, you know.
Laura Nirider I'm really sorry, Emerson.
Steve Drizin Yeah.
Emerson Stevens Yeah.
Laura Nirider Well, she's looking down from somewhere, I hope, and rooting for you, just like the rest of us are. Are you still in touch with Beverly?
Emerson Stevens Oh, Beverly, she's been...my number one fan. You know, she's always believed in me and she's great. She's a great person. Every now and then, I text her or call and talk to her. But she loves to talk now. She loves to talk.
Laura Nirider To support Emerson Stevens, you can write the governor of Virginia and ask him to grant Emerson an absolute pardon. You can find the address on my Instagram page, @LauraNirider. And that's the story of Emerson Stevens. Join us next week when we tell you about a Philadelphia man named Walter Ogrod. Walter spent decades on death row until a new generation of prosecutors came to Philadelphia. They brought reform to the city and hope to Walter. Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions is a production of Lava for Good Podcasts, in association with Signal Co. No1. Special thanks to our executive producers, Jason Flom and Kevin Wortis. Our production team is headed by senior producer Anne Pope, along with producers Jaji Hammer and Jess Shane. Our show is mixed by Jeannie Montalvo. John Colbert is our intrepid intern. Our music was composed by J. Ralph. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter @LauraNirider.
Steve Drizin And you can follow me on Twitter @SDrizin.