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“I Did It”

Mark Christie.  

Reid was hailed in his time as the man who made the third degree obsolete. But if his method wasn’t physically coercive, it was certainly psychologically so. The Supreme Court’s 1966 Miranda decision singled out the Reid method for creating a potentially coercive environment, citing it as one reason suspects needed to be informed of their right to remain silent. Reid and Inbau made minor modifications to the program, adding some language about Miranda to the 1967 edition of their manual, but they remained true believers. Criminal Interrogation and Confessions asserts that Reid investigators could judge truth and deception with 85 percent accuracy, a higher rate than anyone else has ever claimed to have achieved—or, as Reid once put it, “better results than a priest.”

In Elmira, Frank Sterling kept to himself, spending most of his time in what was called the college block, where inmates can study toward degrees. His family visited for a time, but his father died in 1995, and his mother stopped coming to see him after she developed heart problems and moved to Texas to live with her son Gary. Sterling had his own health issues. The dust at Elmira made it difficult for him to breathe, and some of the prisoners referred to him as Shaky because he trembled. “Each time I’d see Frank upon coming back from being at another prison, I’d see he had aged more—his face, his eyes,” says fellow inmate Jeff Deskovic.

Sterling had tried to recant his confession almost immediately after he gave it. He told his lawyer he was so worn down by the police that he didn’t even remember what had happened that night. But the authorities weren’t moved by that claim. Right after Sterling’s trial, Sterling’s lawyer filed to vacate the conviction on other grounds: He argued that the rumors surrounding Mark Christie, the man who had been heard bragging about killing Vi Manville after Sterling was convicted, provided sufficient justification to investigate whether he was the real killer. Christie, whose alibi fell apart under new scrutiny, was asked to take a polygraph and agreed. He fidgeted too much for the first test to be considered conclusive but took it again the next day and passed. On December 23, 1992, a judge refused to overturn Sterling’s conviction. Christie, the judge said, was simply a young man who liked to brag.

In 1996, four years into Sterling’s sentence, Mark Christie reentered the picture. If Sterling had been the weird kid in Hilton, Christie had a creepier reputation: He wore combat fatigues every day and took an eighteen-inch Bowie knife with him wherever he went. Now Christie had confessed to another murder, the brutal killing of a 4-year-old Rochester-area girl named Kali Ann Poulton. His confession prompted Sterling’s appeals lawyer, Don Thompson, to file a new motion to overturn Sterling’s conviction. If Christie were capable of killing Poulton, couldn’t he have killed Vi Manville? A State Supreme Court judge rejected the motion. “Only Sterling confessed to authorities,” read the decision. “Only Sterling had a motive to kill Manville. Only Sterling knew facts that had not been publicized.”

Sterling and Thompson filed a total of four motions to vacate Sterling’s conviction over the next eight years, but all of them failed. Then, in 2004, Thompson sought the help of the Innocence Project—the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law–based group led by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld that has won wide acclaim for its work in freeing the wrongly convicted. The first time Neufeld watched Sterling’s confession, even he thought he was guilty. But he soon came to see how everything pointed toward Christie. In 2005, Monroe County District Attorney Michael Green agreed to let the Innocence Project conduct DNA tests on some of Manville’s clothing from the crime scene. In the fall of 2008, after three years of testing and legal maneuvering, word came back with what seemed like a match. The samples contained so-called touch DNA—a few skin cells—instead of the more definitive evidence found in blood and semen samples. Still, Neufeld says, “the profile had a very rare type. And Christie has that type.”

In spite of the apparent match, a year passed, and the Monroe County D.A. still didn’t take action. Last fall, an Innocence Project staff attorney named Vanessa Potkin personally visited Christie in prison to try to persuade him to own up to the murder. She spent part of two days talking to Christie, and while he almost seemed to acknowledge his role, and perhaps even to taunt her a bit, he admitted nothing. “His attitude was he’s not responsible for Frank being there in prison,” Potkin says. “Frank’s the one who talked.”