Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne delivered a face-to-face apology Thursday to Jerry Frank Townsend, a man cleared of several murders after 22 years in prison, and called for new rules to guard against future false confessions by other mentally challenged suspects.
"We don't want this to happen again, ever, " Jenne said, speaking on the steps of the Broward County Jail after a sometimes emotional, 50-minute conversation with Townsend. "The purpose of this meeting was for me as leader of this office to look Mr. Townsend in the eye and say that we were sorry and regret what happened."
Jenne said he will ask supervisors of the Broward Sheriff's homicide division to write new procedures to govern all future dealings with mentally disabled suspects and witnesses in criminal investigations.
Among the possible safeguards: closer scrutiny of confessions and other statements coming from mentally disabled people; and having an attorney present in interviews with mentally challenged subjects.
"People who are functionally intellectually disabled are more likely to want to please people, to answer their questions in a positive way, " Jenne said. "We think that there should be stronger safeguards for those types of people."
After a series of meetings with Townsend on Wednesday and Thursday, the sheriff and Townsend's attorneys portrayed a man brimming with frustration and tears over his decades in prison.
With an IQ of about 60 and the mind of a child, Townsend understands that he sits on the verge of freedom but fails to grasp the legal intricacies that keep him behind bars.
"He was very emotional with us. He broke down and cried, " said Herb Smith, an assistant public defender in Miami-Dade who saw Townsend on Wednesday.
Experts on false confession say BSO would be among the first law enforcement agencies in the nation to write special guidelines for dealings with mentally disabled suspects.
"I'm not aware of any department that has any policies that deal with the custodial interrogation of suspects who are mentally retarded, " said Richard Leo, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who specializes in false confession.
Defense attorneys praised Jenne's move but called for broader reforms.
"It's nice that they're going to have some kind of policy. But the policy they should have is, the cops should not be extracting confessions that are not confessions, " said Todd Scher, a Fort Lauderdale Death Row attorney.
Townsend, a drifter, was convicted of murder in 1980 on the strength of purported confessions to at least nine murders in Broward and Miami-Dade. A series of DNA tests in recent months cleared him in three of those slayings.
Broward prosecutors last month cleared Townsend of all murder convictions there after finding no independent evidence to back up any of the confessions. Two remaining murder convictions and a rape conviction, all in Dade, remain under review.
Reviews of the Townsend confessions by The Herald found multiple instances of detectives feeding facts to the suspect, asking leading questions and apparently showing him crime-scene photographs while he spoke.
Jenne said Thursday that after reviewing those tapes himself, he believes detectives followed the rules.
But he allowed for the possibility that Townsend fell prey to an "intellectual leading" by detectives because of his readiness to say what they wanted to hear.
"If that happened 22 years ago, we need to change it today, " Jenne said. "What I want to guarantee is that Mr. Townsend's 22 years is not 22 years in vain."
In Miami-Dade, Townsend's remaining two murder convictions - of Wanda Virga, 44, in 1979 and Dorothy Gibson, 17, in 1977 - still stand, in addition to a 1979 rape conviction.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle has been reviewing the cases since mid-May but has reached no decision.
As part of the investigation, Assistant State Attorney David Waksman met last week with retired detectives James Boone and Bruce Roberson, who took Townsend's confession. An office spokesman said that the detectives provided "important details" about the taped confessions, details that help support the confessions.
If Dade prosecutors vacate Townsend's remaining convictions, he can walk free. If they do not, the convict's attorneys say they will ask a judge to vacate his guilty pleas and order a new trial. If those strategies fail, Townsend could still be eligible for parole. He is serving three simultaneous life sentences for crimes in Dade.
Herald staff writers Amy Driscoll and William Yardley contributed to this report.