To promote the good character of the wrongfully convicted, I interviewed Keir Stahlsmith, who said, "you won't even believe the story I have. It's so bizarre, that it strikes me as the truth being stranger than fiction." His case is one that sheds light on how a criminal thinks, and how the innocent can be, and sometimes are even framed for a crime.
A great example of this, is how a USAF Honorably discharged combat veteran of war, with an excellent academic record, a 4.0 aerospace student who never even had as much as a detention in his life, and ended up taking a plea deal after unscrupulous interrogation techniques, and inability to obtain legal resources from inside prison walls. As he waited for answers, the system left him with not even a toothbrush or toilet paper at one point, accusing him of "trying to kill himself" as Corrections Officer Barret said, for using toilet paper to make an eyemask to help him sleep, in a cell where the light was on 24/7. His fear of "returning to such a dehumanizing environment is worse than death" was what kept him from focusing on more important things, such as obtaining legal counsel. They had taken away his toilet paper, and he said, "this was all due to my previous cellmate who had exposed himself to a child," was written up for slamming the door and shouting repeatedly, while Stahlsmith was also punished as a result of this bad company.
Keir Stahlsmith said, "I had to survive in harsh conditions that are more suitable for those already found guilty." He laughed it off, and maintained his innocence, as the system continued to let him down—from misleading him, to signing away his right to a preliminary hearing, to being denied access to resources to build a proper defense—not even having access to a working phone. He caved in saying, "I just wanted to do anything to avoid that place of unethical mistreatment of human beings. It's beyond words how bad it really is inside those walls. I understand that is where criminals go, but I'm not a criminal and never was and never will be. I just want to be a voice for all those who are ever forced to take a plea, because they think it's better than the pressures of the alternative."
Here is an example of just how corrupt the criminal justice system can be. In order for Keir Stahlsmith, resident of Erie, PA, to avoid a more severe penalty—a law-abiding and intelligent citizen with a spotless record—he was wrongfully convicted, reporting he had "no choice" but to give a false confession. This is a combination of both coercion and intimidation, just to avoid jail time. The techniques used by law enforcement and prosecutors, barely even allowed time for him to build any kind of defense, and he said "I was left sitting there with a 30 second interview before the sentencing hearing and that was it." Keir Stahlsmith asked his public defender, "can I plead no contest?"
And as the judge entered, he replied whispering, "then this deal won't work." And he reported that was the only chance he had to go over anything with the hastily appointed defense. Keir never had an opportunity to even obtain a paid attorney, or have answered phone calls from his defense, nor a chance to go over the discovery of evidence, and he wasn't sure what to do, so he just "took the deal" in fear of suffering more punitive damages. He went from prison, to rehab, to a flop house (a very poorly managed recovery house) all just to avoid more time in prison. "This..." he shook his head, stating, "seemed like the most intelligent thing to do, to just go along with it, and be cooperative. I regret it now. Being cooperative doesn't help an innocent person at all, and it's the innocent who want to cooperate!" Keir stated, "See, this is exactly what I thought I went overseas to fight for and protect, and here I am being stripped of all my rights as a human being, in the most undignified manner, and not even a clue of what else to do."
When I asked about the details surrounding his case, he sounded vexed saying, "it was just too complicated, and I've made mistakes as well. So I figured I would just accept the prosecutor's side as long as it kept me out of that hellhole. I was at a loss, and was so shell-shocked from what I had just been through. I felt nothing better could come of it, and the lie would win out in the end. So why bother fighting against such a beast?"
Keir Stahlsmith, who was accused of burning a vending machine inside his old high school, said, "Never in a million years would I do something that stupid and pointless. Besides, I loved that school! Truth is, I simply didn't have a good alibi that anyone could verify, and my situation got complicated because I was pressured into confessing to something I knew was a set up from the start. Someone had threatened to blackmail me, and was out to get revenge. They somehow did a great job of setting me up. I'm just glad it wasn't worse, since they broke in to my house while I was locked up, and they very well could have killed me."
When I investigated further, he gave his account, saying, "Look, I had enemies. I was at an all time low in my life with an unwanted dirty divorce, and I made some poor friends. I was dealing with some really violent and shady characters at that time, and a few of them said they were going to 'completely ruin me' and they almost did."
Weeks prior to the event, he reported vandalism to his home, reported to the police several attempted break-ins, then while locked up, someone successfully did break in and stole and damaged his property. "Now, that's the one who had it out for me. All because he thought my ex-fiancée had drugs stashed somewhere. This guy even tried to set me up for check fraud, after obtaining banking documents from my glove compartment."
I understood, Stahlsmith couldn't believe he was set up, and didn't have anything to do with this, and he figured it was easier to "take the deal" not knowing what else to do.
"I just caved in and took the blame. I couldn't even describe how this could happen. I just counted my loss and said I would rather live than let this escalate. It was either take the deal, or basically suicide. I was convinced that I wasn't going to be able to prove anything wild to the contrary, because it seemed too far fetched, and I didn't have time to even put all the pieces of the puzzle together. I figured it sounded more ridiculous to tell the whole truth and when under pressure, I just caved in and took the deal. It was easier for me to just take the bullet, because this guy I suspected was a criminal with a warrant already out for his arrest, for burglary, a heroin addict, and a thief, and why I was even associated with him, was beyond me. I knew that. I knew he was bad news. But my ex-fiancée had problems, too, and I think he believed he would find drugs in my house. One time while partying, this guy demanded someone give him drugs, or else, and he threw a fit. I told him to leave, before things escalated, and the next thing I know, my fiancée turns out to be cheating on me, doing heroin, and my house is broken in to, and I'm taken to jail!"
The truth is sometimes more complicated than the court system is even willing to investigate. "The guy who did that, is criminally insane. Now I'm paying the price."
He maintained his innocence and said, "I was totally framed by someone who had it out for me. And he broke in to my house while I was already a victim of his handiwork. He'll end up in prison eventually, that I'm sure. But I never had a voice. Never had a chance to even tell my side of the story. And that is what I am bothered by most in the justice system. I'm just going to do what is required of me and move on."
I asked him, would he let me publish his story, and he said, "I don't see how that will make a difference, but sure." There are two sides to every story, and this one I felt should have a voice. He thanked me after the interview, was very polite and kind, and well-mannered.
Wrongful conviction happens a lot more than people know, because it's how the justice system is designed, and making it easier for someone like Keir Stahlsmith, to "just take the plea" to avoid possible worse sentencing, and an uphill battle that costs a lot of time and even more money.