For those who say that government doesn’t work, I’d submit the following:
Fifty-six years after being found guilty by a jury of murdering his wife, Darrel Parker, now a hard-of-hearing senior citizen, has found some justice.
Last week, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning stood in front of the television cameras and apologized to the now 80-year-old Parker.
Bruning said it was clear that the former Lincoln city forester had been wronged in 1956 when a confession was extracted from him after seven hours of accusatory and confrontational interrogation.
The interrogation was done by John Reid of Chicago, a so-called expert who created a technique for eliciting confessions that was later ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
An expert on wrongful convictions, Steven Drizin, a Northwestern University law professor, called it one of the worst cases of false confession he’d ever studied.
“The authorities destroyed the life of a good, decent, hardworking, religious man, using psychological coercion to break down a man already in a state of prolonged grief,” Drizin said at the time. “They had the real killer, a sexual sadist, in their sights but let him get away.”
Parker’s wife was found raped, bound and strangled in the couple’s home, which still stands in Lincoln’s Antelope Park. But police questioned and released the probable real murderer, Wesley Peery, a convict who later ended up on Nebraska death row for another, similar murder.
Peery, it should be noted, had been working in the park next to the Parker home and later told his defense attorneys that he’d killed Nancy Parker.
But that didn’t add up to an exonneration for her husband. Until Friday (only a week after Parker’s attorneys, Dan and Herb Friedman of Lincoln, had pointed out that even the Attorney General’s own legal motion conceded that there was no doubt that his confession was coerced).
That’s when Bruning did the right thing. He reviewed the records and apologized, even though evidence that might have cleared Parker had been lost, and even though Peery was long dead when his second-hand confession became public.
“Under coercive circumstances (Parker) confessed to a crime he did not commit,” Bruning said. “We hope this acknowledgment of his innocence will provide some measure of closure for Mr. Parker and his loved ones.”
This is not the first time the Attorney General has righted a judicial wrong. He moved quickly to release those still imprisoned for the 1985 rape-murder of a Beatrice woman after new DNA tests linked none of the six that had been convicted to the crime scene.
Bruning gets low scores from some for his love of the television cameras and his open ambition for higher office (which took a hit with his recent defeat in the GOP primary for U.S Senate).
But it takes guts to admit it when the state’s judicial system falls short, and Bruning deserves credit for standing up and doing that, more than once.
There’s someone else who deserves credit: David Strauss, a former Lincoln resident whose father-in-law, the late Tom McManus, was one of Parker’s defense attorneys. Strauss wrote a compelling book two years ago about the case called “Barbarous Souls.”
Strauss maintained that Parker had been wronged by shoddy police work and the overzealous interrogation by Reid. Back in the 1950s, he said that juries could not believe that someone would falsely confess to such a gruesome murder.
But now we know that false confessions are not that rare.
The Innocence Project, a group that has assisted in getting nearly 300 wrongful convictions overturned via new DNA evidence, says that in 25 percent of those cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements or delivered outright false confessions.
The group blames threats, mental impairment, intoxication and the threat of harsh punishment, like the death penalty, for the false admissions.
Strauss’ book served to reopen the long forgotten case. That will lead to the state paying Parker $500,000 for wrongfully spending 13 years behind bars.
Most importantly, it also led to some peace for an aging man who has lived with the horror of his wife’s murder, and a jury’s mistaken ruling that he had done it.
“The Eagle has landed. Only in the U.S. could we have had an ending like this,” Parker said after the remarkable turn of events. “Now I can die in peace”