The September 1985 murder of 12-year-old Raymond Fife shocked and angered residents of Warren, a small town in northeastern Ohio. He was found beaten, raped, and tortured in a field behind a supermarket. Two days after Fife died Danny Lee Hill, 18, walked into the Warren Police Department and inquired about the $5,000 reward being offered for information about the crime.
Hill, a special education student before dropping out of high school in ninth grade, had an I.Q. of 63 and was considered intellectually disabled. He made several statements to police over the next two days, including a videotaped interview in which he admitted to watching the crime happen.
At one point, Hill told investigators that the attack began when an acquaintance, Timothy Combs, 17 at the time, attacked Fife to get his bicycle as he was riding to a Boy Scout meeting.
Hill and Timothy Combs were convicted of aggravated murder, rape, kidnapping, and other charges. The convictions were based on forensic evidence: Hill’s bite marks on Fife’s penis and Hill’s videotaped interrogation.
Because he was a minor at the time of the murder, Combs avoided the death penalty and was sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole. His is at Grafton Correctional Institution and will not be eligible for parole until 2049, when he is 82.
Hill, now 48, was sentenced to death. He is currently seeking to overturn his conviction based on the 2002 Atkins v. Virginia Supreme Court ruling, which states that executing intellectually disabled individuals violates the Eighth Amendment. Because his I.Q. falls under 70, Hill is considered intellectually disabled.
Hill is also seeking a new trial based on claims that the forensic bite-mark science was flawed and that the police coerced his confession.
We asked Steven Drizin, a Clinical Professor of Law at Northwestern Law School and an expert on false confessions and wrongful conviction, to review the transcript of Hill’s videotaped interrogation.
At the beginning of the videotaped portion of the interrogation, the detectives “swear” Hill in, making him believe that he is under oath, as he would be in court. There is an implication that the stakes are raised, and if he lies, he could be subject to perjury charges.
DRIZIN: “He wasn’t under oath, I don’t think there was anybody there who had the power to swear him in, but he doesn’t know that. I think what it is meant to do more than anything is to add credibility to the statement that follows.”
The interrogators refers again to Hill being “under oath” later in the interview.
DRIZIN: “Talking about the fact that he swore to God, so in that sense it may be setting him up for a later tactic. I viewed that as more of a way to enhance and sort of make it appear as if it was voluntary.”
The detective walks Hill through his activities on the day of Fife's murder. When he asks who Hill interacted with earlier that day, Hill thinks for several seconds before the detective answers the question for him. Hill agrees.
DRIZIN: “What’s happening there is one of two things, and it’s impossible for me to know which, but it could be evidence that this story had been rehearsed, and Mr. Hill just couldn’t remember that part of the story because he was trying to parrot back what he had been told earlier. Or it could be evidence of his disability, trying to re-state events in a chronological fashion. It doesn’t really reflect coercion, but it reflects what’s called contamination.”
Contamination, Drizin said, is one of three issues experts look for when examining a possible false or coerced confession, along with coercion and misclassification errors.
Misclassification occurs when a police officer mistakenly believes an innocent person is guilty, based on a hunch, gut feeling, or other instinct. Often, there is no legal or evidentiary basis for this belief.
DRIZIN: “Officers can misclassify someone as being deceptive or guilty based upon gut instinct, judgment, and experience. It's essentially playing the odds based on experience. In this case, Mr. Hill would have been considered a suspect because he came into the police station seeking a reward and claimed to have information about the crime.”
Coercion is another indicator of false confessions. Because there is no video documenting several hours of Hill's interaction with police, it is impossible to know how much coercion, if any, occurred.
DRIZIN: “We don’t know what happened during those many hours of previous interrogation. We have some sense that there was pressure, with the uncle being involved, and we have sense that this was a relatively long period of time.”
Hill’s uncle, Morris Hill, was a detective in the Warren Police Department’s juvenile bureau and, according to Danny Lee Hill’s attorney, assaulted Danny Lee in an attempt to get him to confess prior to the videotaped statement. Morris Hill has denied assaulting his nephew.
Finally, there is the contamination error, occurs when outside sources, such as the police, help create a narrative of the crime that includes facts than an innocent person would not know. In Hill’s interrogation, Drizin noticed that the detectives introduced some key points of the case.
DRIZIN: “They bring up biting on the penis first. That’s a critical piece of information that he does not corroborate. They talk about strangling first. They use the word ‘strangle.’ He doesn’t talk about strangling previously. That’s something that should have come from the suspect first and not from the interrogator.”
Detectives continued to lead Hill’s questioning, often getting him to quickly change his story to fit their narrative.
DRIZIN: “An innocent suspect is not going to be able to provide an accurate account of how the crime was committed; he’s going to need help. That’s where police officers can go awry and where false admissions become false confessions and lead to wrongful convictions.”
Despite the contamination, Drizin said there are concerns with Hill’s story. Not all his of his statements to the police were fact-fed. He did voluntarily go to the Warren Police station and inquire about the reward, initially mentioning Combs' name.
Drizin said police have to be cautious with mentally disabled suspects, and he sees parallels between the Hill case and another noteworthy confession. Still, he does not see pure coercion in the Hill interrogation.
DRIZIN: “Tactics that may pass muster when applied to people of normal or average intelligence can be coercive when applied to mentally disabled suspects, who, by their very nature, tend to be more suggestible, more compliant, and less able to really navigate the risks of a police interrogation. This confession is very much like a confession by a man named Jesse Miskelley, one of the West Memphis Three, where there’s clear evidence of some contamination and a lot of errors. What I see here is some evidence of contamination, fact-feeding, but we just don’t know enough about his [Hill’s] previous interaction with police to see coercion.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit will hear Danny Lee Hill’s appeals later this year.