In 2005, an infant died in Amy Wilkerson’s care. She picked him up to feed him a bottle, and he made a terrible face, almost gasping for air, she says. Then he went limp. She called 911 and performed CPR. The baby was taken to a hospital, but he was taken off of life support the next day.
The treating physician concluded that the baby had been shaken violently. The signs were consistent with “shaken baby syndrome,” he said, although such a syndrome has never been validated scientifically.
Four medical experts on Wilkerson’s appeals team contend that the baby probably died of a stroke.
Nevertheless, a prosecution pathologist reported that the baby’s cause of death was shaken baby syndrome and the death was a homicide. The state of Mississippi has since accused that pathologist of providing unreliable testimony for years and removed him from its list of authorized medical examiners.
Wilkerson was charged with murder and told she would get the death penalty. During an hour and a half of interrogation, she repeatedly denied ever shaking the baby. She asked more than once for a lawyer, but the police drew her back into the interrogation without providing one.
That interrogation was coercive, according to experts. Continuing the questioning once she had asked for a lawyer was probably unconstitutional, and that was just the beginning. The police used lies, threats, promises and psychologically coercive tactics to convince her to admit she had shaken the baby.
She did not, despite all their efforts. It wasn’t until a lawyer was brought in and presented her with a stark choice that she gave in. He told her she would get the death penalty if convicted at trial. If she pled guilty, she would save her own life.
She pled guilty to depraved heart murder and was sentenced to life in prison. In court, she admitted shaking the baby. She now says that she lied out of fear for her life.
How common are false confessions?
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, as many as 20% of all exonerees pled guilty to crimes they knew they hadn’t committed. The real number of false guilty pleas is unknown, but more than 90% of all convictions in the U.S. are the result of guilty pleas.
Far too often, defendants are threatened with catastrophic sentences if they insist on a trial. Interrogations are guilt-presumptive, geared toward getting an incriminating statement at any cost. Add on a questionable diagnosis like shaken baby syndrome and defendants simply feel hopeless. They take a bad plea bargain out of desperation.
It can even happen, as in this case, where a crime may not even have occurred.