3 Detectives Obtained a False Murder Confession. Was It One of Dozens?

For Huwe Burton, the breaking point came late on the night of Jan. 5, 1989, as he sat with detectives in a cramped, windowless room on the second floor of a Bronx police precinct. He had not eaten or slept much in 48 hours.

A detective leaned in and said, “Tell us again about what happened that day.”

Mr. Burton, who was 16 then, repeated his story. He had come home two days earlier after spending the day at school and then at his girlfriend’s house, to find his mother, Keziah Burton, facedown on her bed, stabbed to death. Her nightgown was pulled up to her waist. A blue telephone cord was wrapped around her wrist.

What happened next in the interrogation room would reverberate in powerful ways over the coming decades. A false confession. An innocent man imprisoned for nearly 20 years. Serious questions about the tactics used by the three detectives involved in the investigation into Ms. Burton’s killing — and many others.

And now, a wide-ranging inquiry by the Bronx district attorney into whether the detectives’ tactics had tainted guilty verdicts in 31 homicide cases that relied on confessions.

The inquiry highlights how a new generation of prosecutors in New York and elsewhere is delving deeply into whether deceptive police interrogation tactics might have warped the criminal justice system through false confessions and wrongful convictions.

The examination comes after the emergence of hundreds of cases across the country in which people were sent to prison only to be exonerated later through the use of DNA or the discovery of new evidence.

Most of the Bronx cases being reviewed date to an era when violent crime in New York was at record highs. The police were under significant pressure to make arrests, especially in high-profile cases, and prosecutors faced similar demands to win cases they brought to trial.

But in some instances, the police and prosecutors moved too fast, made mistakes and ignored or withheld evidence that suggested they had the wrong person, exoneration experts say.

In Mr. Burton’s case, a judge exonerated him in his mother’s killing in 2019 after the Innocence Project, a nonprofit that investigates wrongful convictions, unearthed evidence not only that detectives used psychologically coercive techniques to get his confession, but that the prosecution had withheld evidence suggesting someone else was the killer.

That, and questions about other cases, prompted the Bronx district attorney, Darcel D. Clark, to order her office’s Conviction Integrity Unit to review dozens of other homicide investigations handled by the same detectives.

In a federal lawsuit filed in December, Mr. Burton accused the detectives of using lies, a false promise and a threat to persuade him to admit to something he had not done. He asserts that the detectives, to protect their reputations, and the prosecutor pressed ahead with the charges even after learning he had an alibi.

“Everybody got on board and thought it was a good idea to do this to a 16-year-old child after he had just lost his mom,” Mr. Burton said. “They chose to say ‘No, this is what we’re doing — we’re just going to lock him up.’”

The National Registry of Exonerations found that official misconduct played a role in the criminal convictions of more than half of 2,400 Americans who were exonerated between 1989 and 2019. For Black men wrongly convicted of murder, the proportion was 78 percent.

New York State has the third-highest exoneration rate — behind Illinois and Texas — and it ranks second for the number of convictions overturned because of a false confession, with 44 such cases since 1992, according to the registry.

Ms. Clark’s office will not release the names of the defendants in the cases being reviewed, but records show that the detectives in Mr. Burton’s case were involved in at least three other homicide cases that have been challenged in court.

The detectives — Stanley Schiffman, Sevelie Jones and Frank Viggiano — declined to be interviewed or did not respond to messages, but in past court proceedings Mr. Jones defended their handling of Mr. Burton’s confession and claimed it was spontaneous and credible.

A lawyer for Mr. Viggiano,Kyle Watters, said his client denied wrongdoing. Asked about the review, Mr. Viggiano said, “I don’t think it’s fair at all.”

Ms. Clark, who sought to overturn Mr. Burton’s conviction, has defended the work of the detectives, two of whom later worked for the Bronx district attorney’s office as investigators.

“What they did was not necessarily wrong — that is the way things were done then,” Ms. Clark said in 2019 shortly after Mr. Burton’s exoneration. “For 1989, that was standard practice for the N.Y.P.D., but now we know better.”

Lawyers for Mr. Burton, however, likened the detectives on his case to Louis Scarcella, a Brooklyn homicide detective who has been linked to several wrongful convictions, and whose tactics led to a review of 70 murder cases. At least eight convictions have been overturned at the request of the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.

“The question that should be on everyone’s mind is how many other people were coerced into falsely confessing by these detectives and continue to languish behind bars?” said Susan Friedman, an Innocence Project lawyer who worked on Mr. Burton’s case.

With a woman dead, police turn to her teenage son

The events that led up to Mr. Burton’s confession are detailed in his lawsuit and in other court filings related to his exoneration.

Two days after Mr. Burton’s mother was killed, the detectives arrived at a house where he was staying with his godmother and asked him to come to the 47th Precinct for a polygraph, he said in his lawsuit. When he arrived, however, he realized that the request was a ruse to get him to the police station without a guardian.

Huwe Burton reacting to his murder conviction being thrown out in 2019 over a false confession.Credit…Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times

Mr. Burton did not know he had become the prime suspect after a teacher mistakenly told the investigators he had missed a morning class the day of the killing. (The teacher later said he had actually been in school.)

The detectives thought the killer was “an insider” who had staged the crime scene, according to court papers filed to vacate Mr. Burton’s conviction.

The contents of Ms. Burton’s purse were scattered on the floor and her car was missing, but there was no evidence of rape or of a struggle, the papers said. Ms. Burton’s husband was in Jamaica at the time.

Two hours into the roughly six-hour interrogation, Detective Viggiano started to bluff the teenager, pretending there was evidence that he was the killer, Mr. Burton and his lawyer in the federal suit, Jonathan C. Moore, said.

In an interview, Mr. Burton recalled breaking into tears and crying out: “I didn’t kill my mom.”

It is not yasa dışı in New York for the police to deceive suspects about evidence to get a confession. Although state courts have thrown out some confessions obtained through such tactics, they have not banned the practice.

Mr. Burton said in an interview and in court papers that Detective Viggiano had warned him that if he did not confess to the killing, he could still go to prison for the statutory rape of his girlfriend, who was 13, and that rapists were abused in prison.

If he confessed, the detectives said, his mother’s death would be treated as an accident in Family Court and he would be released to his father, Mr. Burton said.

“I said, ‘What do I have to say?’” Mr. Burton recalled in an interview. Then, he said, the detectives began to feed him a story, asking repeatedly: “At this point you did this?” He said he responded with “yes” and “no.”

Later, he said, they had him write down his statement and make a videotaped confession.

“The state of mind I was in,” Mr. Burton recalled, “finding my mother in that state, trying to process that — if they said, ‘We want you to say you were responsible for the assassination of J.F.K.,’ everything they told me to say, I would have.”

Instead of being taken to Family Court, Mr. Burton was paraded past a phalanx of flashing cameras and news reporters as he entered Bronx Criminal Court to be charged with murder as an adult.

Another theory of the murder

Nearly a week later, the police stopped Emanuel Green, who lived downstairs from the Burtons, for running a red light in Mount Vernon, N.Y., just north of the Bronx, according to court filings. He was driving Ms. Burton’s car.

Around the same time, Mr. Burton’s teacher came forward to say she had made a mistake by overlooking his name on the attendance record, the filings said.

Questioned by Detective Viggiano, Mr. Green denied participating in the murder, but he claimed to have helped Mr. Burton cover it up and had suggested making it look like a home invasion, according to court papers. He told the police he had been trying to sell the car for Mr. Burton.

In his lawsuit, Mr. Burton says the detectives failed to do a criminal-background check on Mr. Green, who was on parole and had been convicted of rape and attempted armed robbery.

During the rape, the lawsuit says, Mr. Green used a steak knife that he carried in his sock to threaten the victim, the same sort of knife the detectives determined had been used to kill Ms. Burton.

Mr. Green and his longtime partner, Stacey Blocker, had moved into their first-floor apartment just a month earlier and had been accused of assaulting their previous landlord, the suit says. They initially claimed they were at work at the time of the murder, but detectives later learned that was not true, according to the suit.

Mr. Green was murdered in an unrelated personal dispute before Mr. Burton’s trial and never testified.

Mr. Burton’s trial lawyer, William Kunstler, was never told about Mr. Green’s criminal record, nor was he made aware that Mr. Burton’s teacher had come forward to say he was in school that morning, the lawsuit said.

The Bronx district attorney’s office, in its motion to vacate Mr. Burton’s conviction, said there was no proof that the prosecution withheld evidence from the defense.

The prosecutor, Elisa Koenderman, who is now an acting State Supreme Court justice in Queens, did not respond to an interview request. A spokesman for the state court system said the judge could not comment because of the pending lawsuit.

Although Mr. Burton recanted his confession before trial, Justice Dominic Massaro allowed it into evidence, and a jury convicted him. He served nearly 20 years in prison before being paroled in 2009.

His father, Raphael, an interior and exterior designer, spent his money on yasal expenses fighting for his son’s release, Mr. Burton said. He died in 2005, penniless.

The detectives

The three detectives had worked together in the 47th Precinct, which covered the northern section of the Bronx, in the late 1980s and early 1990s during a crack cocaine epidemic that fueled the worst murder wave in the city’s history. Their work put dozens of people in prison.

The former president of their union, Michael J. Palladino, described them in an interview as “impeccable investigators who took pride in their work and cared about the community they served.”

Mr. Viggiano was the sergeant-in-command of the precinct’s detective squad. He evvel said colleagues called him “Father Frank” because of his uncanny ability to get tight-lipped suspects to confess.

He left the Police Department in 1992 and then worked as an investigator for the Bronx district attorney’s office until he retired in 2009.

Mr. Viggiano, 74, has no regrets about Mr. Burton’s conviction, his lawyer, Mr. Watters, said.

Mr. Viggiano also disputes Mr. Burton’s recollection of the interrogation. The former detective denies that he was present or that detectives lied to Mr. Burton or threatened to arrest him for rape, Mr. Watters said. (The interrogation was not recorded.)

Mr. Schiffman, now in his 80s, joined the department in 1962, and was known as a standup interrogator, a grandfatherly detective who used lighthearted banter and jokes to get confessions.

“I’ve always played ‘the good cop,’” Mr. Schiffman told the Daily News in 2000, the year he quit the force. “You make friends with a guy, you tell him jokes, you try to give him some out, some excuse as to why he did it — I call it the ‘Schiffman Shuffle.’”

He later went to work for the district attorney’s office, eventually taking a leave of absence in 2019 when the review of his cases started.

The third detective, Mr. Jones, now in his 70s, was a seasoned officer on the same squad who spent time as an undercover officer arresting street-level drug dealers. He retired in 1992.

‘I just wanted it to be over’

“I just wanted it to be over,” Dennis Coss said about why he confessed after hours of interrogation to a crime he did not commit. Credit…Elias Williams for The New York Times

A review of another case that unfolded around the same time casts further doubt on the three detectives’ conduct.

According to court papers, the Conviction Integrity Unit found that three months before Mr. Burton’s arrest, the detectives had used similar techniques to persuade Dennis Coss and Kelvin Parker to confess to taking part in a murder they later said they had nothing to do with.

In an interview, Mr. Coss said he was 19 and high on crack when was arrested in a stolen van in October 1988 and detectives interrogated him about the murder of a grocery store security guard five months earlier.

The detectives had a theory, court records showed: Mr. Coss, Mr. Parker and a third man, Robert Amonte, had killed the guard while they were burglarizing the store for money to buy crack. The police had found a woman who identified Mr. Amonte in a lineup — incorrectly, it turned out — as a man she had seen on the store’s roof just before the burglary, according to transcripts of pretrial testimony.

During the interrogation, Mr. Coss said, the detectives suggested to him that he had waited in the van while Mr. Amonte, with Mr. Parker’s help, entered the store through a roof vent. Mr. Amonte had then allegedly killed the guard with a crowbar. They also said, falsely, that Mr. Amonte’s fingerprints were on the murder weapon.

After hours of interrogation, Mr. Coss was hungry, scared and desperate to see his family, he said. Mr. Viggiano promised to help him with his drug addiction and said he could go free if he would say that Mr. Amonte killed the guard. Mr. Coss broke down and agreed.

“I thought I had nothing to do with this and I am going to sign this and I’m going to walk out of here,” Mr. Coss, now 51, said. “I just wanted it to be over.”

The detectives also lied to Mr. Parker, telling him that Mr. Coss and Mr. Amonte had implicated him and promising that he could go home if he cooperated, according to a pretrial hearing transcript.

“I was under the impression that I had no choice but to go along with the police because I was going to get blamed for the crime,” Mr. Parker testified.

Later, the detectives learned that Mr. Amonte had been in a Westchester County, N.Y., jail when the killing occurred. The charges against him were dropped. Mr. Coss and Mr. Parker also said that they had not met each other until two months after the murder.

Bronx prosecutors took the case to trial anyway on the theory that Mr. Coss and Mr. Parker knew the killer’s true identity.

A jury acquitted them in an hour.

By then, however, the two had spent nearly three years at Rikers Island, the city’s jail complex. Mr. Coss had been in fights with armed inmates, had been held in solitary confinement for a month and had contemplated suicide. “The system — it’s not working for us,” he said.

Mr. Parker also struggled to cope with what happened, his family said. He died of cardiac arrest in 2009.

Over the years, other men whom the detectives put in prison have challenged their convictions unsuccessfully.

Jose Felton, who was convicted of murder in 1982, claimed that Mr. Viggiano gave him wine and beer during his interrogation; a judge upheld his conviction.

Shane Watson, who was convicted of murder in 1993, said in court papers that detectives, including Mr. Jones, had coerced eyewitnesses into identifying him as a gunman who shot and killed a man two years earlier on Schieffelin Avenue in the Bronx. One witness later recanted; others later said they had never seen the gunman’s face.

Mr. Watson’s conviction is being reviewed by the district attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit.

Gina Mignola, the deputy general counsel who oversees the unit, said her team faced a difficult task.

“These cases are older cases, they’re decades old,” Ms. Mignola said, “Finding the cases, finding the people — it’s going to be a challenge.”

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