Her Lawyers Say She Was Coerced To Plead Guilty To A Crime That Never Happened
Accused of shaking a baby to death and facing the death penalty, Amy Wilkerson says she is innocent, but pleaded guilty to spare her life.
On July 19, 2005, sheriff’s deputies arrived at Amy Wilkerson’s home. “I can remember exactly what my children were wearing,” she told The Appeal, her voice breaking. She strapped her 7-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son into her mother-in-law’s van. “I hugged them, and I kissed them.”
Wilkerson went with the deputies to the sheriff’s office. She hasn’t been home since.
The day before, Wilkerson was baby-sitting two-month-old Tristan Chinn in her Mississippi home.
“I got the bottle ready and everything and I went to wake Tristan,” she said. “I leaned over and I picked him up and when I picked him up to turn him around to like lay him in the crook of my arm, he made this terrible face like he was gasping almost for air and it was just this most horrible look on his face and he went limp.”
Wilkerson called 911. Firefighters arrived as Wilkerson was performing CPR, according to an investigator’s report. Tristan was taken to the hospital; Wilkerson followed in her car. She, her husband, and Tristan’s family waited at the hospital. That night, she went home, and her husband went to his mother’s to pick up their two children.
“You just don’t ever know that that’s going to be your last night at home,” she told The Appeal, her voice breaking. “I let my husband put my kids to bed and I went to bed.”
Wilkerson’s advocates say her case could be a study in how to obtain a wrongful conviction. The treating physician believed that Tristan had been violently shaken and investigators immediately focused on Wilkerson as a suspect. She was charged with felony child abuse the day after Tristan collapsed. After what her lawyers say was coercive questioning, Wilkerson made what the state claims was an inculpatory statement.
On July 20, Tristan was taken off life support and pronounced dead. Facing a capital murder charge, she agreed to a plea bargain that would spare her life.
Of known wrongful convictions since 1989, about 20 percent of exonerees pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. The number of innocent people who have pleaded guilty is likely much higher, as most convictions are resolved through pleas—which can make it harder to challenge convictions in the future. According to a report published by the Vera Institute of Justice, more than 90 percent of convictions result from guilty pleas. When it comes to plea bargaining in death penalty cases, according to the report, “the specter of a death penalty puts prosecutors in a uniquely strong position.”
For years, Wilkerson has petitioned the courts to intervene, but has received denial after denial—a far too common occurrence for those fighting their convictions, said her attorney Randy Papetti, who is representing her along with the Wisconsin Innocence Project and the Mississippi Innocence Project. Appellate courts can be reticent to consider evidence of innocence and undo cases marred by misconduct or debunked forensics. Countless wrongful convictions have been affirmed on appeal, sometimes with courts asserting that there is “overwhelming” evidence of guilt.
“It shouldn’t be this hard,” said Papetti. “We’re just in a cycle of garbage. Justice has almost no role in it.”
In August, arguments on Wilkerson’s request for an evidentiary hearing were held before the Mississippi Court of Appeals. A ruling is pending. If successful, an evidentiary hearing could lead to a new trial, according to her legal team.
“This is a case where, under the threat of death, a woman who had no prior experience with the criminal justice system pled guilty to a crime she didn’t commit,” Wilkerson’s attorney, Carrie Sperling, co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, told the Court of Appeals. “In fact, she pled guilty when no crime occurred at all.”
Four medical experts for Wilkerson’s appellate legal team—two forensic pathologists, a pediatric neuropathologist, and a neuroradiologist—believe that Tristan likely died from a stroke. “Tristan’s brain reflects a longstanding pathology that eventually led to collapse while in Ms. Wilkerson’s care, for reasons having nothing to do with intentional trauma,” wrote defense expert forensic pathologist Janice Ophoven in an affidavit.
The state, represented by the Mississippi attorney general’s office, has opposed Wilkerson’s appeals.
“I would have more sympathy for Ms. Wilkerson if there weren’t this mountain of evidence demonstrating that she’s guilty,” said Candice Rucker, deputy director of criminal appeals at the Mississippi AG’s office, at the August hearing.
By the time Wilkerson walked into the interrogation room, investigators likely already believed she was guilty. Interrogators are not “fact-neutral investigators,” explained Richard Leo, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law.
“Interrogation in America is guilt presumptive,” said Leo, co-author of the book, “Confessions of Guilt: From Torture to Miranda and Beyond.” “The goal of interrogation, first and foremost, is to get an incriminating statement.”
In an interrogation room, detectives typically offer two scenarios to a suspect, both presuming guilt, said Saul Kassin, a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “It’s ‘did you do it this way’ or ‘did you do it that way?’ Are you a murderer or was this an accident?” said Kassin, who has written extensively on false confessions.
Nationally, more than 300 people have falsely confessed to crimes they were later proven innocent of, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. But the true number of false confessions is unknown, said Leo.
“False confessions happen,” he said. “They happen all the time. We don’t know how frequently they happen, but they are a regular, common occurrence.”
On July 19, 2005, at about 4:15 p.m., Wilkerson entered a room at the Sheriff’s office and sat across from Sgt. Ricky Jones, according to a video of her interrogation viewed by The Appeal. Jones thanked her for being cooperative and polite. He told her she had a right to an attorney.
“If, for whatever reason, you feel like you don’t want to talk to us just—I don’t want to talk to you,” Jones said. “You ready to talk to an attorney, talk to an attorney.”
In response to his questions, Wilkerson told him she went to wake Tristan to feed him. She picked him up. The baby gasped and then collapsed. She called 911 and began CPR.
“That’s what I didn’t understand is why he just stopped breathing,” she told Jones.
“He’s showing every symptom, Amy, of a woman shaking, trying to get him to quit crying,” Jones told her.
“Amy,” he continued, “did he just upset you when he was crying that morning?”
“No,” she told him.
The only way it happened, he said, was if she shook the baby.
“No, I would never do that,” she said.
The detective raised his voice: “Stop crying, Tristan! What happened? Stop it, Tristan!” The doctor said Tristan’s brain looked like it was in a car accident, he said.
She repeatedly told Jones that she never shook him. Throughout the interrogation, she sobbed and put her head in her hands.
“There’s no outside damage,” he told her. “It’s only consistent with shaken babies.”
Again and again, he pressed her to tell him the truth. “You have to help yourself,” he said. “We have to know that you’re not just some monster.”
“A jury is going to find you guilty with just what the doctor’s saying,” he continued. “And you need somebody to believe that you’re just a nice lady that this bad thing happened to.”
As she sat crying, he gently rubbed her arm. Just after 5:00 p.m., she told Jones, “I stand by my word. I want a lawyer. That’s all I can do.”
“Amy’s asked for an attorney,” he said at 5:09 p.m. “We’re gonna end this conversation.” He turned off the audio recorder, which was on the desk. A hidden camera was still running.
Over the next approximately 30 minutes, Wilkerson told him two more times that she wanted a lawyer, according to video of the interrogation. She sobbed frequently. “I want to die,” she said.
If she didn’t want to “go any further,” Jones said, he would leave the room, but then, “I’ll be really not happy. I’ll do whatever I have to do, because then I’ll realize that you weren’t prepared to do the right thing which means you have no soul and I don’t see that in you.”
How did she know, Wilkerson asked, he wouldn’t end up “screwing me in the end?”
“You don’t have a choice,” he replied. “As I told you earlier, it’s just me and you in this little small world right now.”
Wilkerson relented and agreed to let him turn on the audio recorder. He turned it on at 5:41 p.m. He asked how she tried to wake Tristan.
“At first, I tried just talking to him, and he wouldn’t wake up,” she answered. “Until I picked him up.”
“You shook him to wake him up, is that right?” Jones replied.
“Just a little,” she said, crying.
“It was an accident,” Jones told Wilkerson. “But you shook him too hard.”
Sobbing, Wilkerson replied, “I didn’t mean to.”
According to an investigator’s report signed by Sgt. Ken McClenic, McClenic witnessed Wilkerson’s statement to Jones from an observation room. In 2014, McClenic pleaded guilty to perjury in an unrelated case.
False confessions expert Leo watched the interrogation video at The Appeal’s request. Interrogating a person after they invoke Miranda, Leo said, is “blatantly unlawful, blatantly unconstitutional.”
Jones was soft-spoken throughout most of the interrogation. But his demeanor, said Leo, “doesn’t mean that the interrogation itself wasn’t threatening and coercive.”
“He terrorized her here through the use of promises and threats and inducing hopelessness in her,” he said.
Steven Drizin, co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, also found Jones used psychologically coercive tactics to communicate that she would be treated more harshly if she did not confess, according to an affidavit Drizin submitted to Wilkerson’s appellate counsel. Continuing the interrogation after Wilkerson invoked her right to counsel, he wrote, “contributed to her sense of powerlessness and hopelessness.”
“It sent her a clear message that resistance was futile and that her only way out was to confess,” he wrote.
The criminal legal system, said Kassin, often fails to recognize a coercive interrogation, mistakenly believing that it will involve “yelling, pounding the table, threats.”
“The vast majority of false confessions that I’m aware of, that I’ve worked on, were not brought about by yelling and screaming,” continued Kassin. “They were brought about by subtle, gentle forms of trickery and deceit.”
Few rules dictate an interrogator’s actions in the interrogation room. Police are allowed to lie to suspects, for example, by claiming to have an identification from an eyewitness who doesn’t exist.
“They can say they got fingerprints or you failed the polygraph or there was surveillance video outside of the crime scene—even when none of it’s true,” said Leo. Presenting a suspect with false evidence, he said, “induces hopelessness and fear.”
False evidence would also include a misdiagnosis, such as shaken baby syndrome, said Kassin. Even if the interrogator believes the evidence, the impact on the suspect is the same. False evidence, he said, “is the single most devastating tactic that an interrogator can use against an innocent person.”
“You’re coming to realize he’s setting me up,” he said. “You don’t know how, you don’t know why, but you’re already feeling the heat to cooperate because they have this mountain of evidence they’re going to throw at me.”
The state said in its appellate filings that video of the interrogation was turned over to Wilkerson’s trial counsel before she pleaded guilty. But Keith Miller, one of her two trial attorneys, claimed in an affidavit that he does not recall receiving a video recording. If he had, he most likely would have tried to suppress her statement and not advised her to plead guilty, according to his affidavit. Miller said he had received transcripts of the audio recording.
In 2014, the Wisconsin Innocence Project received the video recording after the sheriff’s department turned it over in response to a public records request. In a statement emailed to The Appeal, Jackson County Sheriff Mike Ezell said, “In the best interest of the court proceedings, it’s not appropriate for me to say anything at this time. We will abide by what the court rules.” Ezell was not sheriff at the time of Wilkerson’s interrogation; he was elected in 2014. Jones has since retired, according to the sheriff’s department.
In addition to what the police considered an incriminating statement, Wilkerson also had to contend with a diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome. Once accepted as gospel, scientific advances and exonerations have undermined the SBS hypothesis.
Traumas such as strokes, childbirth injuries, or accidental falls can mimic the symptoms associated with SBS, which, its critics say, has never been scientifically validated.
Before Wilkerson’s trial began, her attorneys consulted with a pathologist, Dr. Steven Hayne, who typically testified for the prosecution. Less than a week before her trial was set to begin, in a letter dated May 23, 2007, Hayne reported that the cause of death was shaken/thrown baby syndrome. The manner of death, he said, was homicide.
Like SBS, Hayne would be discredited in subsequent years. Investigations by journalists and innocence projects have uncovered years of Hayne’s unreliable testimony, which led to several known wrongful convictions. In 2008, the Mississippi public safety commissioner removed Hayne from the state’s list of authorized medical examiners.
Tucker Carrington, who is one of Wilkerson’s attorneys and the founding director of the Mississippi Innocence Project, wrote a book on Hayne with Washington Post columnist Radley Balko, called “The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South,” detailing the wrongful convictions of Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks.
On the same day Wilkerson’s trial attorney, Keith Miller, received Hayne’s damning report, he presented her with a plea offer. According to an affidavit from the jail’s then-assistant nurse, Miller met with Wilkerson in the jail’s medical office and told her if she did not take the plea, she would be executed.
“Ms. Wilkerson appeared very worried and scared,” according to the assistant nurses’s affidavit. “She did not know what to do.”
The next day, May 24, Wilkerson pled guilty to depraved-heart murder and was sentenced to life. She would be eligible for parole when she’s 65, the judge told her. She was 31.
“Did you shake this baby,” the judge asked.
“Yes, sir,” she replied.
Her voice breaking, Wilkerson told The Appeal she did not let her family come to her plea hearing.
“I didn’t want them to watch me get up on the stand, to stand up and swear on a Bible, and then lie,” she said.
The Mississippi legal system was quick to accuse, charge, convict, and sentence Wilkerson. She was interrogated a day after Chinn’s collapse. Her interrogation lasted about 1.5 hours. The transcript of her plea hearing is just 18 pages. But overturning her conviction has been a Sisyphean struggle, according to Sperling of the Wisconsin Innocence Project.
“You’ve got to have so much luck in these cases,” she said. “People get out because they’re innocent and they’re lucky. Shouldn’t have to depend on that.”
Disclosure: Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg worked in the Intake Department at the Innocence Project based in New York from 2007 to 2015. In 2009, Hayne sued the Innocence Project for defamation. The case was settled for $100,000.