Jessie Misskelley’s 6/3/93 confession: myths and facts

Supporters have spread many myths about Jessie Miskelley’s 6/3/93 interrogation: the police bullied a mentally retarded teenager into making a false confession in a brutal 12-hour interrogation; his family didn’t know where he was; he was denied access to a lawyer, never informed of his Miranda rights, pressured to sign a rights waiver which he couldn’t read or understand; Misskelley’s story didn’t match the facts of the crime, except for a few details which the cops fed him and had him repeat back.

None of that is true. Here are the facts.

There was no 12-hour interrogation. Misskelley first confessed at 2:20 pm, roughly 4½ hours after Sgt. Allen picked him up at his father’s workplace. That 4½ hour period included maybe 3 hours of actual interrogation.

Misskelley’s father knew he was at the police station. Jessie Sr. talked to Sgt. Mike Allen at 9:45 am and again at 11:15 am about the interview. Allen actually talked to Jessie Sr. first in the morning; Jessie Sr. then drove off and retrieved Jessie Jr.; then Allen and Jessie Jr. drove to the police station. At the 11:15 am meeting, Jessie Sr. signed a waiver allowing police to give Jessie Jr. a polygraph exam.

Police informed Misskelley of his legal rights on several occasions. Sgt. Allen read Misskelley his legal rights around 11 am, and Misskelley initialed and signed a rights form. Detective Durham advised Miskelley of his rights again at around 11:30 am before conducting the polygraph exam, and Misskelley again initialed and signed a rights form. (This second form is not available online, but it was discussed and entered into evidence as “States Exhibit Eleven” during a court hearing on 1/13/94.) At the beginning of the first tape-recorded confession, police again reminded Misskelley of his legal rights and reviewed the signed rights form with him.

That hasn’t stopped WM3 supporters from making bogus claims. For example, Henry Rollins told a radio interviewer in 2003, “what was really interesting to me was the lack of due process that the three boys incarcerated did not enjoy and the lack of Miranda rights read to Jessie Misskelley and I went ‘wow, that’s not the way Americans should be treated’”.

Misskelley was capable of understanding his legal rights. His lawyers tried claiming that Misskelley was incapable of reading or understanding his legal rights, and thus that his 6/3/93 confession should be thrown out. Prosecutors countered that Misskelley had extensive experience dealing with law enforcement officials before June 1993, and that Misskelley had been Mirandized and signed legal rights waivers on four previous occasions.

There’s no evidence that Misskelley was threatened or harmed during his interrogation. Jessie Sr. later told reporters that cops “cussed him, spit in his face, stepped on his hands.” It’s possible officers used swear words around Jessie, but there’s no evidence of any physical intimidation.

Jessie Misskelley is not mentally retarded. Not by any accepted legal or medical definition, at least. No one disputes that he has a low IQ, but that is not synonymous with “mentally retarded”.

The bogus “mentally retarded” claim serves two purposes for WM3 supporters: creating sympathy (“look at how the mean cops treated poor retarded Jessie”) and sowing doubt about Jessie’s many confessions (“you can’t believe anything Jessie says, he’s retarded”).

Misskelley’s lawyers tried to depict him as “mentally retarded” during trial. Supporters continue to call him “mentally retarded”, or “mildly retarded” or “borderline retarded” or “mentally handicapped”. Not true. Misskelley’s lawyer and WM3 defenders often make the similar claim that Misskelley functions at a five-year-old level. Again, there’s no evidence for this claim. He was 17 at the time of the crime and confession, and he functioned at the level of a street-smart but low-IQ 17-year-old.

In fall 1993, when Misskelley was awaiting trial, a psychologist hired by Misskelley’s defense lawyers gave him an IQ test (specifically, the WAIS-R). Dr. William Wilkins declared Misskelley’s IQ to be 72. Before the murders, Misskelley had taken two other IQ tests and scored 74 and 73.

The jailhouse IQ test should be taken with a grain of salt. First, Misskelley’s lawyer told him upfront that a lower test score would make the death penalty less likely. Paradise Lost actually shows this conversation (around the 13:00 mark). That’s a pretty strong incentive to get a few questions wrong.

Second, cross-examination of Dr. Wilkins brought out some discrepancies. In Misskelley’s two earlier IQ tests, his performance score (a subscore covering five of the eleven subtests in the WAIS-R) had been 84 and 88; this time around his performance score was 75. The prosecutor also grilled Wilkins about the MMPI-2 test (a personality test, not an IQ test) given to Misskelley, which showed a very high level of “malingering” or “faking bad” or, in Wilkins’ own words, “trying to present yourself as being ill when you’re not for some particular gain”. Wilkins falsely reported a “mild elevation” on the malingering scale in his report; under cross-examination he admitted, “That may have been a mistake then. I may well have mispronounced what it was supposed to be.” All very technical, but the upshot is: Misskelley may have intentionally tried to score badly on his psychological tests, and Dr. Wilkins may have been complicit in this attempt.

That IQ score of 72 should not be taken as hard fact. Consider it the low end of a range. And even 72 does not mean someone is mentally retarded.

The Wikipedia page on mental retardation lists this rough breakdown:

Profound mental retardation: Below 20
Severe mental retardation: 20–34
Moderate mental retardation: 35–49
Mild mental retardation: 50–69

(Yes, I know Wikipedia is not always a reliable source. The Wikipedia page on the West Memphis Three is a complete joke. I’m assuming that the mental retardation page is a reliable summary of mainstream thinking, but I’m not an expert.)

Mental retardation is not simply a matter of IQ; the “diagnosis is not based only on IQ scores, but must also take into consideration a person’s adaptive functioning”. Adaptive functioning covers things like: “Daily living skills, such as getting dressed, using the bathroom, and feeding oneself; Communication skills, such as understanding what is said and being able to answer; Social skills with peers, family members, spouses, adults, and others.”

Misskelley definitely falls on the non-retarded side of the scale on all these “adaptive functioning” criteria. He lived very independently, going to jobs and hanging with friends with little adult oversight. He juggled multiple relationships with women. Watch Jessie interact with his family in Paradise Lost — he holds up his end of the conversation, uses humor, responds quickly to things other people say.

There’s a broad range between “average intelligence” and “mentally retarded”. Jessie Misskelly’s cognitive level falls somewhere in the middle of that broad range.