Jason Strong Proven Innocent: Talking False Confessions, Time and Brendan Dassey
"I’m very happy to finally go home, I’m extremely grateful to the people who made that possible…”
On the 28 May 2015, Arizona native Jason Strong’s wrongful conviction was vacated after 15 years of wrongful incarceration.
Jane Doe and the Green Belt Forest Preserve
December 9th, 1999 had been a frigid day in Waukegan Illinois. Unbeknown to a community concerned with the approach of Christmas, the lonely artic cold blanketed the badly beaten and tortured body of a Jane Doe discovered in the Green Belt Forest Preserve located near the border of Chicago and Waukegan. This revelation would irrevocably alter the trajectory of 24-year old Jason Strong’s life.
Illinois has long held a pervasive and checkered history of police misconduct, with documented and systemic police brutality, corruption and criminal activity. From the disgraced Commander of the Chicago Police Department Jon Graham Burge to the malfeasant folklore that is the ‘Summerland Scandal’ of ’58, a lack of meaningful discipline and police accountability has contributed to Chicago’s odious title as “the false confession capital of the US”. Waukegan situated 35 miles north of downtown Chicago ten days after Jane Doe was discovered would contribute to that reputation with the false confession and wrongful conviction of Jason Strong.
The Anatomy of a Wrongful Conviction
Brought in for questioning, unknown to Strong his future co-defendants Jason Johnson and Jeremy Tweedy were already in custody. Taken at gun point, Strong who had been with his girlfriend and friend at the time of his arrest also harboured great concern for his girlfriend who the investigators had threatened to charge. Strong was eventually charged with 2 counts of 1st degree murder, and 1 count of concealment of a homicide. The concealment charge was dropped right before trial. Jason Johnson was charged with concealment of a homicide and given 3 years. Tweedy charged with concealment of a homicide found his sentence reduced to obstruction of justice for his testifying against Strong and got 2 years. Johnson and Tweedy served half their sentences. On 18 October 2000 Jason Strong an innocent man was sentenced to 46 years imprisonment.
As a false confessor (he would immediately recant), Strong’s conviction and the case against him rested fundamentally on the connection the State drew between the false confession and assumptive testimony made by the state’s forensic pathologist who executed the autopsy on the victim. An egregious conviction, false statements by multiple coerced witnesses would help to secure the conviction. Tweedy relayed numerous and conflicting versions of the story though remained the state's star witness. Tweedy would later recant. A previous girlfriend was coerced to lie and would also later recant. Strong's girlfriend and a neighbour were also coerced. There was evidence to prove coercion, but Strong's public defender's didn't contest or investigate. Law enforcement lied which could have been proven, but with no assistance from his lawyers and the condition of evidence deteriorating, Strong's conviction was certain.
Time stands still for 7 years
Having exhausted the appellate process with his privately funded attorney, Jason continued to litigate his case pro se. The timely appointment of Tom Geraghty from Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions to his case would alter the arc of Strong’s solitary 7-year fight.
A tragedy compounded, the victim was positively identified in the January of 2006 via dental records, almost 7 years after Jason's conviction. This new information opened up all kinds of new information for Jason's team, including alternative suspects.
Having disappeared from Carpentersville Illinois on 4 September 1999, Mary Kate Sunderlin had been subjected to repeated beatings and torture and left to the twining undergrowth of the Green Belt Forest Reserve.
Jason Strong in Conversation
I caught up with Jason visiting family in Wisconsin. His story as a false confessor resonates with that of Brendan Dassey’s, albeit differing spheres and states (almost), a commonality of process evades the darkest corners of the lived experiences of the wrongfully convicted. Yet, the hope inherent in his ultimate exoneration can only invigorate those of us who support Brendan.
Thank you so much for doing this, I do appreciate it.
Jason: Absolutely, no problem, always happy to help.
Thank you, let's get started. For many the idea of a false confession is counter-intuitive, why would someone confess to a crime they did not commit? Is there a pivotal moment you recall during your interrogation that took you from claiming your innocence to giving a false confession?
Jason: It was kind of a long process, I mean they hounded me all through the night showing me photos, lied to me about evidence, showing me statements from my co-defendants and everything else. But I think probably the straw that broke the camels back if you will, was probably the moment that they threatened to charge my girlfriend as well. I was already at my wits end on the verge of breaking anyways and then at that point, it’s like I can’t let you fuck her life up too.
You immediately recant the confession and there is no evidence to link you to the crime nor the victim, did your defence mount a false confession defence?
Jason: Absolutely not.
They fucked me over like no attorney has fucked anybody over, they basically did the states job for them. They went into my trial saying that my false confession was true – it just wasn’t me it was my co-defendant. I was like that’s not a defence, I told them over and over I didn’t do it, they were like “we know what we’re doing, we know what we’re doing” – but that was the easiest route for them to take, they didn’t have to investigate anything or really put up a fight.
On learning of your story, It's evident you were ineffectively underrepresented. Did you have public defenders assigned to you?
Jason: Yeh, public defenders yes. Because I told my family I needed an attorney and my family doesn’t have a lot of money and they were believing in the system still “saying no, no, no, they’re going to fight for you Jason, you didn’t do this justice will prevail”… and then when I lost they were like “holy shit we got to get you a real attorney” and I was like well it’s a little late now.
It’s that blind faith that people have that the police and the system will do the right thing that it will correct an injustice.
Jason: To a degree I still maintained a little bit of hope that it would right itself as well, but I still at the back of my mind knew that I’m pretty much fucked because of the way they were going about it.
So, in asking whether a false confession expert testified on your behalf – that’s a no?
Regarding the obviously ineffective counsel you landed, have you any insight into the type of defence they mounted? You have touched on this but how did you feel they represented you?
Jason: Well, they didn’t mount any kind of defence, I mean in fact when I lost them and my family hired a private attorney, the state's attorney told my new attorney right in front of me if I had him (new attorney) at trial I would be home already. If my case had been such a joke to the prosecutor (state's attorney) then the public defenders representing me at trial should have been able to mount a better defence. They knew there was nothing against me, they didn’t want to put up a fight, they gave me no defence whatsoever. They chose not to.
I was really struck when you recalled the jurors individually handing down their guilty verdicts, one at a time - that really moved me. Can you remember what was going through your mind in those moments –knowing that you’re innocent?
Jason: I mean it’s a pain I can’t describe really, I wanted to die. I’m hearing these people, each one saying guilty, and like you said I’m sitting there knowing I’m innocent, on top of that I hear my family breaking down behind me and there’s nothing I can do about it. In fact, when I left the trial, I had to ask one of the guards to put me in solitary for a short time so that I could decompress and break down a little bit. Pretty much it was the loneliest day ever.
You then go on to lodge a habeas petition and represent yourself pro se, what roadblocks did you experience in representing yourself? How within the confines of a correctional facility were you able to put your 70+ page petition together?
Jason: It was very difficult, I didn’t have access to a typewriter as they took all the typewriters away, so basically I wrote everything by hand, colour coded it and explained everything in perfect detail then sent it home to my grandmother - she typed up all my briefs for me. Because its maximum security we’re on lockdown, so, I didn’t have access to the law library very often and even when I did, they weren’t very helpful – so, it was tough.
Did you teach yourself the law to file your own habeas petition?
I learned from previous briefs that were filed, I also filed my own post-conviction petition, my grandmother sent me some books and I had a really good friend in there, he’s still fighting his case after 37 years, he taught me a lot too.
I find it incredible when people represent themselves pro se, to have the absolute confidence and motivation that you’re just not going to stop.
Jason: Yeh, I took on a mentality of give me liberty or give me death, I was not going to stop fighting until I was dead or free.
Touching on the interrogation, do you believe you were subjected to the REID technique?
Jason: Oh absolutely. It’s what they used on me and the witnesses they coerced. They also mocked me, belittled me, threatened and lied to me. It was at times, good cop, bad cop, they didn’t hesitate to be intimidating and at times aggressive.
Interestingly the “good cop, bad cop” routine was initially part of the REID technique then law enforcement started using it as a standalone technique. Did they do a polygraph?
Jason: No, but I think it’s because I offered to do one. I was like I didn’t do this; I’ll take a lie detector test; I didn’t do this. And obviously if you want to do one, they’re probably not going to give you one.
The irony though is that even if I did it (the polygraph), they aren’t admissible in court so.
It interests me that the polygraph and REID were developed by the same individual
Jason: They’re fallible, because you can be innocent and fail a polygraph because it can depend on whether or not you’re stressed – and who wouldn’t be stressed in that environment?
Absolutely, they are so many physiological variables your body is going to experience under the weight of that level of stress. Heart rate quickening, nervous state etc.
There are so many people as you would see on platforms such as Twitter behind those who have been wrongfully convicted and trying to inform themselves and others – and trying to understand how a false confession unravels. Can you tell me a little bit about the environment you found yourself in, the room, the interrogators, and the treatment you endured while you were being interrogated?
Jason: It was your basic simple small room, pretty much unremarkable, a room probably about the size of 8 x 8, a table and chairs a window on one side that basically leads to another room – a watch room, I guess. And that’s it. There’s nothing to it, but its just you in a room with them constantly. Every time you’d put your head down, they’d come in a fuck with you some more.
Did they give you a break, offer drinks or food etc?
Jason: Periodically but it wasn’t very frequent. But it doesn’t really matter its not going to ease the stress of what you are going through, if they had let me, I would have smoked cigarette after cigarette, but they wouldn’t let me.
How long did the interrogation last Jason?
Jason: Through the night, So basically, the prior 48 hours I had maybe 6 hours sleep, I was already running on empty, I had been with my girlfriend and her friend when they came and got me at gun point. I had been drinking and was already in an unstable condition when they come in with guns - that freaked me out. They’re threatening and lying and I'm concerned for my girlfriend. The interrogation would not stop until early the next morning. I was just so drained of energy and everything, all I wanted to do was sleep and get it to stop. Like I said every time they would leave the room, I would lay my head down I was so drained of all energy – then they would come back in and start again it was “just leave me alone” you know.
Do you think if you had an attorney with you at the time of your interrogation it would have made a difference to the trial outcome?
Did they offer you the opportunity to request an attorney?
Jason: No. Basically they make it seem like your rights are gone, when you decide to talk to them. Because obviously an innocent person has nothing to hide. So, I was like yeah absolutely I will talk to you, I want to clear this up I didn’t do anything wrong – right? So they had me sign a paper that says you’re willing to do that – and then later on when you realise they’re not listening to you and everything is going to shit, you’re like I want an attorney, and their response was, “you can’t have one, you cant afford one”. So, the implication makes you think well you signed away your rights. No matter how many times I asked for one, they wouldn’t give me one. But if I had one right at the jump, then I would have been okay. But I didn’t think I needed one as I didn’t do anything wrong. Its that false hope that you think the justice system is going to do the right thing.
In many wrongful convictions the accused have felt that their innocence is going to protect them. On researching your case, I read of an officer who had in fact pursued you in trying to bring you on as a snitch.
Jason: I can’t prove that.
Do you think that influenced your wrongful conviction?
Jason: Oh 100%. I can’t prove it but basically this man wanted me to be a snitch – I told him I didn’t know anything and two weeks later I’m locked up for a murder I didn’t commit, after that man told me he would destroy my life and make it a living hell if I didn’t cooperate. It seems a little too coincidental, plus he’s the one who arrested my co-defendant Tweedy, who’s saying to high heaven it was me. I didn’t know Tweedy on the night in question, but would meet him days later. So, it’s like come on, then later when that guy recanted, he said all the cops wanted to talk about was me. Why was that? So, I think it was entirely that guy. I just can’t prove it.
During your interrogation do you feel they offered promises of leniency.
Jason: They did to a degree. There was one who was like “look if you do the right thing, we’ll stand with you, we’ll help you get a bond” which was all lies. Then there was another one that was kind of like when I was breaking down and crying would put his arm around me and say “it’s okay we understand how these things happen” you know the good cop, bad cop.
So thankfully through your habeas petition, Tom Geraghty from Northwestern gets involved and was instrumental in forming a formidable legal team to continue your fight, how did this come about?
Jason: I’d been reaching out to them for a while and built a rapport with Jane Raley and she passed away before I got out, I was really gutted. I built a rapport with her, and my grandma would talk to her. They couldn’t take my case on right away, so she was kind of helping us behind the scenes and then when I got to federal court I had a procedural issue – but I think that the judge looked at my case and saw something. Because they could have appointed any attorney in the world to represent me with my procedural issue, but he didn’t, he called Tom Geraghty personally and asked him to look at my case. So once Tom got involved and heard I was talking to Jane and others, he talked to them and researched my case, he was like “we’re going to take you all the way”. So that’s how that all happened.
After 15 years of incarceration do you feel free now.
Jason: Yes and no. I mean I do for the most part. But there are times when I’m still haunted and I get messed up dreams and I don’t sleep very well, and then there’s the fact of broken time, like my internal clock is really messed up now. So, I look in the mirror and I see a 43-year-old man, but in my head I’m still 24. I lost all of those years; it fucks with my head now.
I think there are many similarities with Brendan Dassey’s case such a prosecutorial tunnel vision, does Brendan’s story resonate with you and what did you think when you first watched Making a Murderer and witnessed what Brendan went through?
Jason: Well none of it surprised me at all. It’s the same when I see any other case that I’ve followed. I’m not surprised. I followed the West Memphis Three, I followed Amanda Knox’s story, I followed other people that came from the same county as me – and none of it surprised because it was all basically stuff, I was already familiar with and recognised. But it did show me that this is bigger than me, that this is a bigger problem. When I first got locked up I didn’t think it was a big issue like it has turned out to be.
Brendan Dassey is an avid fan of Proven Innocent; do you think the creators and yourself could have foreseen that the wrongfully convicted and incarcerated watching the show might find hope in the profile being given to wrongful convictions. That they may see their own stories mirrored back to them. Can we tell Brendan whether there is going to be a season two?
Jason: I think the creator of the show, David Elliott, did anticipate that the wrongfully convicted and incarcerated would find hope in the show. He also wanted to raise awareness. I knew the show would do all of that. Unfortunately, the show was cancelled, but it was great to be a part of it. We may try another show like that in the future. We'll see.
If you could talk to Brendan Dassey what advice would you give him?
Jason: Just don’t lose hope. I know it’s hard, there are going to be dark days but never lose hope. And count on and trust the people that support and are there for you. And probably, and this may sound weird but don’t let those walls dictate who you are.
If you could give yourself one piece of advice, go back to being 24 years old before you walk into that interrogation room what would it be?
Jason: Shut up and ask for attorney. The only words that should ever leave your mouth is “give me an attorney”.
What’s next for Jason Strong? I loved the Injustice System and know you are an avid filmmaker, so what’s next?
Jason: I am working on a longer documentary on false convictions in general, I’m hoping to do some other smaller ones. I’m writing a book, my movie, and a couple of other movies that are unrelated. Me and David Elliot the guy who did Proven Innocent are talking about pitching a podcast together. I’m on the Tennessee Innocence Project Advisory Council. I've got talks coming up, I'm doing a lot of different things, I want to get involved with legislation - a variety of stuff.
That’s brilliant Jason.
Jason: The sky’s the limit.
Absolutely it is, and you have a voice and a platform, and you are eloquent in the sharing of your story and to get that out to as many people as possible is powerful.
Jason: I always joke that I was a rebel without a cause, now I’m a rebel with one.
It is inspiring to see people who have come out the other end of the wrongful conviction process such as yourself, Jeffrey Deskovic, Marty Tankleff, Amanda Knox all with high profiles in the criminal justice space creating awareness for others.
Jason: I try to do what I can. I will definitely keep you posted on things I work on.
I’d really appreciate that; I look forward to watching your journey.
Just one last question, throughout those 15 years Jason where did you pull your mental and emotional strength from?
Jason: Oh that’s a tough one, my family was a big support, in the very beginning it was mostly a fuck you attitude, I was like “who the fuck are you to do this to me” I didn’t do anything wrong, but over time that wasn’t enough to carry me, so then I adopted a militaristic mindset of looking at it as a war, fighting for my life, unlike anything I’ve ever done before. I was never one to fight for anything really. I was kind of a mess. But I took on that mentality and through my Mom and my grandmother, my family supported each other and we just went from there. We just never gave up.
Thank you so much Jason, I feel Brendan’s supporters will gain a lot of insight from your story, it gives hope. When you hear a story like yours the lived experience that you’ve had and to know you came out the other side. There is inherent hope in that.
Jason: Always happy to help, was good talking to you.
Footnote: in 2013 the Illinois Attorney General and the Lake County State’s Attorney agreed to re-investigate the case. The injustice perpetrated against Jason unravelled, revealing a tapestry of recanted trial testimony from the state’s key witnesses and the discovery of previously unexamined medical evidence regarding the Lake County coroner’s death investigation. The original medical examiner had misrepresented his findings at trial which were ultimately proven wrong. For more information on Jason's path to exoneration please visit The Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Bluhm Legal Clinic.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jasonstrong01
Follow Jason on Instagram: @jasonstrong1