The Confessions of Innocent Men

Why would two suspects caught up in a grisly murder investigation admit to a killing they didn't commit?
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Andrey_Kuzmin/Shutterstock

Any good criminal-defense attorney will tell you to say four words if you are about to be arrested for murder: I want a lawyer.

This is simple advice and should be easy to remember during an interrogation, but not everyone recalls it under the pressure of police questioning. Some people make matters worse for themselves in the face of strong evidence by providing an alibi or identifying another person as the perpetrator. Many succumb to the wiles of homicide detectives and implicate themselves to some lesser degree in the crime, heeding the admonition that a partial loss is better than going down for the whole thing. Some accused people are tricked into confessing, and some confess to crimes they did not commit. A certain percentage, worn down by conscience or questioning or the simple desire to get the interrogation over with, provide a detailed and honest explanation for what they did.

And then there's Anthony Sylvanus. He came to the attention of Philadelphia homicide detectives in March 2001 while minding his own business at the State Correctional Institution at Albion -- a stone's throw from Lake Erie, and as far away from his crime as the geography of Pennsylvania allows -- where he was serving a sentence of 10 to 20 years. While someone doing that much time can't be said to have much luck, whatever small amount he did possess was about to run out. Two events would cause this turn: the advent of the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, and a random conversation between a police captain in Philadelphia and a murder victim's granddaughter.

The Automated Fingerprint Identification System is an algorithm-driven method of comparing millions of known fingerprints to a single partial print. The process replaced the labor-intensive manual examinations required since police had begun using fingerprint identification in the late 19th century. The Philadelphia Police Department instituted the computer technology in the early 1990s and by 2000 could, without much trouble at all, plug in a print and see who came out. That was the year Ann Ruane's granddaughter, attending a piano lesson for her daughter, asked a fellow parent, Philadelphia Police Captain Alan Kurtz, if he might look into her grandmother's unsolved murder from 1980.

The phrase cold case has now entered the lexicon. DNA breakthroughs and Internet databases have made prosecutions and exonerations for old crimes more common today, and various television shows feature law-enforcement units dedicated solely to righting a wrong, no matter how frozen in time that wrong might be. Such units were less well known in 2000, and had Kurtz not been asked to look into the 20-year-old crime, Ann Ruane's murder might have remained unsolved. But a fingerprint happened to have survived from the case, and that print led to Anthony Sylvanus.

Not long after the print was identified, Sylvanus was transported across the diagonal of the state and confronted by Philadelphia homicide detectives. His initial denial of the crime was perfunctory, and after being told of the fingerprint hit, he quickly confessed to pushing his way into Ann Ruane's house, beating her to death, and ransacking her home for drug money. The Defender Association of Philadelphia was appointed to represent him -- I was one of his lawyers -- and the crime, although old, appeared headed toward a routine and typical prosecution. Given his full confession, the case seemed certain to end in conviction.

As for Sylvanus, he was no novice to the criminal-justice system -- surely he realized that his confession had sealed his doom. Perhaps this awareness is what motivated him to do what he did next, or maybe his conscience simply caught up with him. Whatever the reason, he decided that he had more to say. Much more. While his lawyers begged him to stop talking, and peppered the homicide unit and the district attorney's office with letters and faxes admonishing them to cease their questioning, Sylvanus defiantly insisted that he knew and understood his rights and wanted to share more about other killings. This offer obviously pleased the prosecutors, who informed the Defender Association that they would not seek the death penalty against Sylvanus; they simply wanted to know everything he knew. When all was said and done, Anthony Sylvanus confessed to five murders -- all senior citizens, all to get money for drugs, and all between May 1980 and January 1981. He was immediately charged with four of the murders, but a problem arose with the fifth. Two other men seemed to be serving time for that one. Long time.

***

The last murder Anthony Sylvanus confessed to was Dr. Charles Langley's beating, strangulation, and robbery. Langley, age 63, was an optometrist in the Kensington area of Philadelphia, a run-down neighborhood of crumbling storefronts in the shadow of the El. On the afternoon of January 15, 1981, the police found him in his office, choked by his own necktie; $123 and a wristwatch had been taken. Detective Frank Suminski was assigned to the case, and the murder left him with one clue: whoever had killed Langley had used his hand to "chop" him in the back of his neck.

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The Kensington section of Philadelphia, circa 1980. (Rusty Kennedy/AP)

The detective scoured the local hospitals, and soon learned that a man named Russell had been admitted to Episcopal Hospital with an injured hand the evening of the crime. Maybe it wasn't the best lead Suminski had ever had, but it was a start. The man had given the hospital a fake last name and address, but three weeks later, Russell Weinberger was escorted into police headquarters, where he told Suminski that he had broken his pinky finger helping move a refrigerator.

The detective elicited an account from Weinberger that surely gave him pause. Although Weinberger said he had injured his hand before the murder took place, he also said he did not go to the hospital until afterwards, because he "was pretty well drunk." Though 25 days had passed since the crime, Weinberger, when told of the murder, said he knew exactly where he had been -- at home -- when it was committed. But his recounting of the accident that injured his hand was not consistent. At one point, he said he had been at Front and Cumberland Streets when the refrigerator dropped. Later, he said he'd been at 2507 Kensington Avenue, only a few dozen yards from Langley's office. Still, Weinberger denied ever having seen the eye doctor or having been in his office, and identified the man who dropped the refrigerator that broke his finger as "Oscar." Weinberger said he knew Oscar from "drinking with us," and named other fellow drinkers as "Alvin" and "Felix." Asked who he thought might have committed the murder, Weinberger said Alvin and Felix because "they both like to beat up on old men." After Weinberger gave his statement, the police administered a lie-detector test, during which he again denied knowing anything about the murder. The results were "inconclusive."

Little question exists that Suminski liked Weinberger for the murder. The next day, the police went to the Kensington neighborhood and picked up Alvin Papas, which prompted Oscar Vasquez to go see the homicide detectives himself and deny whatever Papas had told them. At that point, though, the investigation looked like a bad case of Whisper Down the Lane. Papas said nothing about falling refrigerators, and had not even been asked about one; but Vasquez told a detective that Papas had accused him of delivering a refrigerator to Langley's office, and that this was untrue. A man named James Ferrares, who accompanied Vasquez to the police station, denied that the imaginary refrigerator in the doctor's office had come from his store. The investigation appeared to be going nowhere.

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Marc Bookman is the director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation. He served for 27 years as a public defender and worked in the homicide unit of the Defender Association of Philadelphia. 

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