TUCKER, Arkansas — There were reasons from the start to doubt Charlie Vaughn’s story that he and three other people raped and murdered a 78-year-old woman in 1988.
As Vaughn pleaded guilty in court, he stumbled over details. Without prompting, he couldn’t name all the people he had said were with him. He was confused about the charge to which he was pleading guilty.
Vaughn was 24 but couldn’t read or write. He told the judge he’d been tested to see if he was mentally competent. The judge didn’t ask for the results. He accepted Vaughn’s guilty plea and sentenced him to life in prison.
The other three people were convicted of murder a year later, largely on the basis of Vaughn’s guilty plea.
More than 20 years later, the case unraveled. One of the four admitted to committing the crime — alone. Two had their convictions overturned.
But Charlie Vaughn, now 51, remains in prison here, a man with cognitive disabilities who, in pleading guilty to a crime he did not commit, gave up nearly all his legal rights.
More than 9 of 10 convictions in the United States result from plea bargaining. The criminal justice system could not function if every defendant sought a trial, but the system has flaws. A nationwide team of journalists, in more than a year’s reporting, has identified 137 cases in which defendants pleaded guilty despite significant evidence they were innocent.
There are many reasons. But at heightened risk are defendants like Vaughn, who have mental disabilities that may make them unable to understand the nature of the proceeding, or to assist their attorneys — the standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court for any defendant to stand trial, or to plead guilty.
No one knows how often defendants with mental impairments plead guilty, and certainly not how many of those might be innocent. But more than 95 percent of cases end in pleas. About 2 of 10 prisoners and 3 of 10 jail inmates reported having a cognitive disability, according to a 2011-2012 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey.
A desire to please
In 1960 the U.S. Supreme Court first laid down guidelines for when a defendant is competent to stand trial.
The test, the court wrote, “must be whether he has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding — and whether he has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.”
In 1993, the Supreme Court established that test — a defendant’s ability to both understand and assist his lawyer — equally applies to guilty pleas.
“The whole process is supposed to be designed to make sure there is an assessment if the defendant is unfit, and then everything grinds to a stop,” said Mark Heyman, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School who specializes in mental health law.
“If a defendant is unfit, there cannot be a trial and there cannot be a guilty plea.”
That standard has limitations. Jerry Frank Townsend was 27 in 1978 when police officers picked him up in connection with a rape in Miami. He was described as having the mental capacity of an eight-year old. Nevertheless state psychiatrists ruled him competent.
Under questioning by police, Townsend did not admit to just the rape. He began admitting to six unsolved murders around Miami-Dade and Broward Counties dating back to 1973.
Townsend had a tendency to want to please those who questioned him, his lawyer, Dennis Urbano, said in a recent interview.
Townsend “could function, but he was susceptible to saying anything you wanted him to say,” Urbano said. “I got him to confess to the Lindbergh kidnapping just to prove that point.”
Experts say the desire to please is common among people with mental disabilities and makes these individuals more prone to false confessions.
The developmentally disabled “tend to have a high need for approval and thus are prone to being acquiescent,” wrote Richard A. Leo, a law professor at the University of San Francisco.
He was tried and convicted of first-degree murder for two 1973 killings for which the key evidence was his confession.
Townsend then had a choice: Plead guilty to more crimes he did not do, or risk more convictions and the death penalty.
“Jerry wouldn’t be here today if he hadn’t pleaded guilty,” Urbano said.
Townsend pleaded guilty to two murders in Miami, and pleaded no contest to two more in Broward County. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Eighteen years later, at the urging of a victim’s mother, authorities discovered that the DNA on one of the bodies belonged to a serial killer named Eddie Lee Mosley.
Four years after that, in 2000, Mosley’s DNA was found on other victims whom Townsend had confessed to killing. In 2001 Townsend was cleared of the remaining murders and released after almost 22 years in custody.
Most attorneys do not learn about mental disabilities in law school, Mark Heyman, the University of Chicago Law School expert, said, and as a result can fail to raise the issue.
In the case of Edgar Coker, 15, accused of raping a 14-year-old girl in Virginia, his court-appointed defense attorney never bothered to gather school records or consult with experts to establish his mental deficiencies.
Coker suffered from “very limited intellectual capabilities,” according to a teacher and special education coordinator’s affidavit submitted after his guilty plea.
But Coker’s mother said his lawyer told her the teen’s mental limitations were not relevant to defending him.
The lawyer, Denise Rafferty, told the boy and his family that the detective on the case said that Coker had confessed to breaking into the house and forcing the girl to have sexual intercourse, according to court records. She told them there was DNA evidence, according to later testimony.
It was probable, she said, that he would be convicted as an adult and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Coker pleaded guilty to avoid trial as an adult. In September 2007 he was given an indeterminate juvenile sentence. He also was listed on the state registry of sex offenders.
After the girl recanted her accusation, the courts denied Coker’s efforts to vacate his guilty plea. In 2009 he was released on parole.
Lower courts ruled they no longer had jurisdiction to even consider his petition to reverse his guilty plea until, in 2012, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Coker’s petition could be considered.
Meanwhile, his status as a sex offender loomed over his family. According to his mother’s affidavit, she once came home to find a note on her door saying, “We don’t want a rapist living in our neighborhood.”
On another occasion, Coker was arrested at a football game at his former high school for being a sex offender on school grounds.
Coker was now represented by the University of Virginia Innocence Project. His new attorneys built their case for overturning his guilty contending he received poor representation from Rafferty.
During the subsequent post-conviction proceedings, Rafferty contended that Detective Gerald Lloyd told her Coker confessed directly to him.
But Detective Lloyd testified he did not tell Rafferty that Coker had broken into the house or forced himself on the girl. Lloyd testified that Coker contended he had consensual sexual activity with her.
Coker, in a recent interview, denied he ever confessed.
Rafferty, according to testimony, never learned that the interview with Lloyd was recorded, and never listened to it.
The girl’s mother agreed in affidavits that her daughter had a history of false accusations.
In February, 2014, Virginia Judge Designate Jane Marum Roush ruled that Rafferty had failed in her representation of Coker. His conviction was overturned, and his name was removed from the Virginia sex offender registry.
Jeffrey Aaron, a psychologist, evaluated Coker following his conviction in 2007, and found that he has borderline cognitive abilities. Speaking generally, Aaron said, such deficiencies leave defendants more vulnerable to falsely confessing to police, as well as more vulnerable in court proceedings.
“They’re going to be more vulnerable in the course of the legal proceedings themselves to just sort of blindly go on and do what they’re told or not assert themselves,” he said.
In a recent interview, Coker, now 27, said he thought he had no choice but to plead guilty. “I think it was a trap game,” he said. “They wanted a conviction. It was never fair.”
A brutal crime in rural Arkansas
Police Chief Ronnie Poole found a grisly scene when he arrived at the home of Myrtle Holmes in Fordyce, Arkansas, in 1988, according to trial testimony.
Relatives had reported the 78-year-old woman missing. Her living room carpet and couch were spotted with blood. A broken knife blade was on the floor. Her bedroom was ransacked, her bed covered in blood. A trail of blood led to the garage, where her body was in the trunk of her car.
With no arrests, frustrated family members engaged a private investigator. Eventually, he later testified, two informants gave him information that men named Charlie Vaughn and Reginald Early were involved in the murder.
On March 16, 1991, the county prosecutor charged Vaughn, Early and a third man, John Brown, with murder.
Vaughn had been a special education student until he dropped out of high school. At age 24, he could neither read nor write. Authorities repeatedly questioned him, and on March 24 he confessed, naming Early, Brown and another person, Tina Jimerson, as participants in the crime.
The next day, he walked into Circuit Court Judge John M. Graves’ courtroom and pleaded guilty to murdering Holmes. In exchange, the charge against him was reduced to first-degree murder from capital murder.
Graves noted that he had granted a motion for Vaughn to take a mental examination, and asked Vaughn if he had done so. Vaughn said he had, but could not recall the doctor’s name.
The judge did not ask for the test results. Instead, he began addressing Vaughn about his plea, to assure that Vaughn understood the legal rights he was giving up by admitting guilt.
At times, the transcript indicates, Vaughn was confused. When the judge read the charge against him, he appeared not to understand.
When Vaughn then described the murder, he again seemed confused.
He said Tina Jimerson drove him, Brown and Early to Myrtle Holmes’ house, intending a robbery. While Jimerson waited in the car, the two men broke in through a window. When Holmes woke up, Brown started beating her. The intruders then raped her. Brown then stabbed and killed her, and he and Vaughn put the body in the trunk of her car.
Vaughn said he had written a statement for the police with the same information.
But he was unsure of details. Where Holmes lived. What weapon was used to beat her.
Graves accepted Vaughn’s plea and sentenced him to life in prison for first-degree murder.
Both Graves and Vaughn’s defense lawyer, Robert Remet, died years ago. The prosecutor, Robin Wynne, now a justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court, did not respond to a request for comment.
A year later, Brown, Early and Jimerson went on trial for capital murder. The state presented DNA evidence that excluded Brown and Vaughn as suspects in Holmes’ rape, and the trial ended in a hung jury.
At a retrial, no DNA evidence was presented. The main evidence was testimony from witnesses who claimed to have seen the three together on the night of the murder, and Vaughn’s confession from his plea hearing.
On the stand, though, Vaughn said he could not recall the victim’s name. Nor could he remember having seen Brown, Jimerson or Early anywhere except in the courtroom.
Asked about his plea agreement, Vaughn responded, “I was just going by what y’all said.” He added, “Y’all put words in my mouth.”
Vaughn said he had been confused and feared the death penalty. He added that he could not write, so he couldn’t have written a statement for the police.
Nonetheless, the jury convicted all three of first-degree murder. Each received a life sentence.
A murder case unravels
Decades later, pro bono attorneys began digging into the convictions. In 2015, Karen Thompson, an attorney for the Innocence Project, filed a motion seeking DNA testing on Early’s behalf.
But Early told her the DNA was likely to incriminate him: he had committed the robbery, assault and murder of Holmes by himself. Vaughn, Jimerson and Brown had had nothing to do with the crime, he said.
The post-conviction attorneys also discovered a recorded confession that defense lawyers were never told about. An inmate in jail with Vaughn said the sheriff offered him leniency if he would “get the guy to talk about the murder” and record him.
Armed with Early’s confession and the withheld evidence, Jimerson and Brown were given hearings to argue they had been wrongly convicted.
At Jimerson’s hearing in June 2016, a defense lawyer testified that he had never been told about the recording, which is believed lost or destroyed. The prosecution is required to turn over any evidence that may be exculpatory.
Vaughn also took the stand, and again insisted he had nothing to do with the murder.
Brown had his hearing in September 2017. In August 2018, U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson overturned his conviction, finding that Early’s confession, the withheld evidence and doubts about Vaughn’s original testimony left strong doubts about Brown’s guilt.
“The only direct evidence against him,” Wilson wrote, “was the enticed, recanted confession of a mentally deficient co-defendant that was the result of a glaring Brady violation.”
A month later, U.S. District Judge Brian S. Miller overturned Jimerson’s conviction. He also expressed doubt about relying on Vaughn as a witness.
Both Brown and Jimerson are free while the state appeals. Vaughn has not been so lucky.
After Vaughn testified at Jimerson’s hearing, Stuart Chanen, a lawyer at the Valorem Law Group in Chicago who does pro bono work, took on his case. Years earlier, Vaughn had filed a habeas corpus petition without the help of an attorney. To file a second petition now, Chanen needed permission from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
To Chanen’s shock, an appellate panel summarily denied his motion in January 2018.
Chanen is preparing a new motion asking the Eighth Circuit to reconsider, based on the rulings since then in favor of Brown and Jimerson.
Vaughn, meanwhile, remains in the state’s maximum security unit in Tucker, Arkansas. This month he greeted Chanen, with a reporter present, by saying he was “ready to go home.” He had no clear understanding of his legal predicament.
By Mari Cohen, Rosie Kean and Abigail Blachman