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Welcome to wrongful conviction, false confessions. I'm Laura Nightrider. And I'm Steve Drazen. Today will tell you the story of Emerson Stevens, a fisherman from Virginia's Chesapeake Bay. When a young mother was found murdered, it seemed all the evidence pointed to Emerson until the case fell apart. Emerson survived 31 years in prison with the help of an ally from across the bay. Now you can help him finally clear his name. Today's episode is based on interviews with Emerson Stevens and his lawyers, along with legal filings and court opinions.


Hey, guys, it's Laura. You know, we create these podcasts to educate as well as to inspire action. And when I checked out a few of our Apple podcast reviews recently, I was so thrilled to learn about what our incredible listeners are doing. One of you wrote, After listening to wrongful conviction, I've decided to get my associate's degree in paralegal studies. I start school in January at almost 46 years old. Another listener wrote, I have a bachelor's in criminal justice and a master's in forensic psychology.


Your podcast has been so inspirational that I've applied to volunteer for organizations that fight wrongful convictions. I can't say it enough. You guys are fueling our shared work to reform the legal system, join our growing community. And remember, no action is too small. Keep telling your stories in our Apple reviews. We'll keep reading them and fighting for justice right along with you. So, Steve, today we're going to break the mold, we're going to break the mold, this is not a case that involves a false confession.


This is a case that involves a false inculpatory statement. Sometimes detectives can't get a confession, but they'll settle for a false inculpatory statement.


Right. That's lawyer talk for something you say that makes you look really bad. That's exactly right. And it's false. So it's a lie. And the same tactics that are used to get false confessions are often used to get these false inculpatory statements so they can have the same devastating consequences.


So when I think about this case, I think about it in terms of a puzzle. You know, when my family goes on vacation, we often buy a puzzle and we spend a lot of time putting that puzzle together. And anyone who puts puzzles together knows that there are a lot of times where the piece that you think will finish a part of the puzzle doesn't quite fit. It looks like it should fit, but just a little bit off. And that's what happened with a lot of the evidence in Emerson Stephens case.


They manipulated the evidence to make it seem like it fit the police theory.


That's what happens in wrongful conviction cases, right? Tunnel vision makes police officers force these puzzle pieces together when in reality they might not fit at all.


It was only after the fact that you could see that the pieces never really fit in the first place.


Today's story takes place in Lancaster County, Virginia, a rural community nestled between the Chesapeake Bay and the Rappahannock River. It's a place that smells like ocean salt and honest sweat. Generations there have made a living with their hands, hauling fish out of the bay and crabs and oysters out of the river in 1985. This county was home to Mary Harding, who was Lankester through and through Petite and Blue-Eyed. Mary was homecoming queen at Lancaster High before she and her high school sweetheart tied the knot.


By age 24, Mary was working as a bookkeeper at the local bank while her husband was a fisherman. They had two young kids and a modest ranch home located just across the street from the cemetery. On Friday, August 23, 1985, that modest home became the scene of a terrible discovery on weekdays, Mary had a routine before work. She'd drop off her one year old at the home of her husband's grandmother, Virginia Walker. But that Friday morning, Mary didn't show up.


Virginia was worried, so she drove over to Mary's house. Virginia was greeted at the door by Mary's four year old son, who told her that he couldn't find his mom. The TV and lights were on throughout the house. Some unannounced comment was left in the bathroom sink and the little boy's chicken dinner from the night before was still sitting on the table. Don't worry, the four year old assured his great grandma in his mother's absence, he was taking care of the baby.


Virginia knew there's no way Mary would abandon her children. There's only one explanation for her disappearance. Mary must have been taken. Virginia calls the police and soon a state police detective by the name of David Riley arrives at the house. He finds cat litter scattered on the ground outside the back door, along with one of Mary's white sandals.


But there's no sign of Mary. Pretty soon, word spreads and the whole community starts searching through the woods and along the shore. But they find nothing, nothing, that is, until four days later. That's when a woman's body is found in the shallows of the Rappahannock River. The body is unclothed, badly decomposed and hard to identify. But it's clear something horrific has happened. The woman's back is covered with deep, evenly spaced slashes.


There's a rope tied around her neck with a huge cinder block attached to the other end. A heavy chain is wrapped around the woman's right leg.


Soon enough, the medical examiner confirms this is Mary Harding. She's been strangled to death. Now, here's the thing, the rope and chain were the same kind that you can find on most fishermen's boats in Lankester, so suddenly this close knit community was being torn apart by suspicion. Everyone was wondering who would have done this to the homecoming queen. Before long, the authorities settled on a suspect, 32 year old Emerson Stevens. Like so many other Lankester men, Emerson had worked on the water since he was a teenager.


Emerson was a crabber and an oysterman who hauled his catch in on a boat named after his wife. He'd spent his life by the shore, the kind of guy who had saltwater in his veins. It was Mary's husband who pointed police to Emerson Stevens. Emerson had gone to Mary's funeral, and Mary's husband thought Emerson seemed nervous there. Mary's husband also remembered that he'd once heard Emerson make a crude joke about female anatomy. This wasn't much to go on, but days later, a couple of people told police they had seen a light colored pickup truck outside Mary's home on the night she disappeared.


Now, Emerson Stephens happened to drive a white Dodge pickup, so he quickly became the police's number one suspect.


Detective Riley asks Emerson to meet him at Mary Hardings house and the two men sit down on the front porch, according to Emerson, Riley gestures to the street and asks, why were you parked in front of this house the night Mary vanished?


If you question somebody on the porch, you're creating a context that is different from your standard police interrogation. You can tap into all of the emotions of this is where this woman lived. This is where she had her children. This is where she was last seen. This is not a police interrogation room.


It feels like the kind of place where you'd have a heart to heart conversation. And there's another thing that makes this porch interrogation even more emotional.


And not only was this the front porch of Mary's house, it was right across the street from the burial ground where her headstone was. As the two men look out at the cemetery, Riley presses Emerson for information, but Emerson is stunned. He hadn't been at Mary's house. He says he'd been at home. Then he'd taken his kids over to the neighbors to watch TV and eat crab.


They'd returned home together at about nine thirty p.m. and Emersons wife had gotten home from work. Shortly after, he tells Riley to talk to his neighbor and confirm the alibi.


But Riley doesn't buy Emersons story. Instead, he orders a search of Emersons pickup truck. After digging through the truck for hours, police discover a single strand of hair. They send the hair off to the state crime lab for forensic analysis.


The next week, Riley asks Emerson to come to a nearby Virginia police station for a polygraph as soon as the polygraph completed. Riley tells Emerson he failed, according to Emerson. Riley says he must either have killed Mary Harding or done something else related to her murder. Those are two pretty bad options, and Emerson is terrified. But then Riley offers Emerson a third choice that seems a lot better.


Maybe you were at Mary's house that night doing something innocent. Maybe you were driving by and you stopped on the side of the road to take a leak. The fisherman takes the bait, he's desperate to please Riley and changes his story to exactly what Riley suggested.


If detectives can't get a full confession, they'll settle for a false inculpatory statement. All the detective can get from Emerson is a statement that he pulled over on the side of the road a short distance away from Mary's house to relieve himself at the approximate time of death. That's the admission I was in the vicinity of her home near the time where the medical examiner believes she was killed.


That was all, Emerson said. He did not confess, but he'd said enough to get himself in real trouble. He just placed himself at the crime scene.


Detective Riley was on high alert, but the case against Emerson was pretty damn thin until test results came back from the state crime lab on that hair from Emersons truck. The lab had put the hair under a microscope and compared it to Mary Hardings hair. And the lab said it was an exact match. The police's Didden case suddenly seemed rock solid. And in late October 1985, Emerson Stephens was arrested for the abduction and murder of Mary Harding. The trial of Emerson Stevens was one of the most dramatic events Lancaster County had ever seen to a packed courtroom.


Prosecutors described how they thought the crime unfolded. Emerson kidnapped Mary, they said, then strangled her and threw her body into the river. They even suggested that Emerson slashed Mary's back with his fishing knife in order to attract crabs so there wouldn't be anything left of her body, the worst imaginable kind of crime.


It's like throwing chum over the side of a boat to entice sharks.


But there were problems with the prosecution's theory.


They claim that Emerson had thrown Mary's body into the river off the end of his own dock, but her body was actually found a full 10 miles upstream.


How does a body that is weighed down with a cinder block traveled 10 miles upstream, upstream against the current? That's the thing.


I mean, to swim those 10 miles upstream would have been crazy, let alone somehow to float a weighted down body. That distance, it makes no sense at all. It's absurd.


But prosecutors found a witness to bolster this theory in saying, though it seemed a marine scientist testified that it was possible for Mary's body to float against the current cinder block at all for 10 miles from Emersons dock to where it was found. And there were other witnesses to. Detective Riley told the jury that Emerson claimed to have been near Mary's house on the night she disappeared. And the prosecution called two people to corroborate Emersons statement. Clyde Dunaway and Dick. They both claimed they'd seen a pickup truck resembling Emersons near the victim's house that night.


And finally, the prosecution called a witness from the crime lab to testify that the hair and Emersons truck seemed to match memories.


So it seemed at this point as though all the puzzle pieces fit together and they painted a compelling portrait of Emerson's guilt. But this is not the end of the story, not by a long shot.


When the defense's turn came, Emersons lawyers put on a strong case of their own.


No fewer than four alibi witnesses. In the end, the jury hung, unable to reach a verdict.


The prosecution was quick to retry Emerson. And on July 8th, 1986, the second trial began. This time, the prosecution's case seemed, if anything, weaker. The marine scientist was a no show, so the prosecutor read the jury his testimony from the previous trial. Only one witness, Clyde Dunaway, testified about seeing Emersons pickup near Mary's house. But the crime lab technician repeated his previous testimony about the hair in the truck. And Detective Riley testified again about Emersons statements during the second trial.


Emersons lawyer put on his alibi witnesses again, and Emerson himself took the stand.


He tried to explain that he was innocent, that he hadn't actually pulled over near Mary's house that night. He'd only said that to satisfy his interrogator. Prosecutors pounced. You admit to us you lied? They asked. Yes, I told that, Emerson answered. Later, he quietly added, I'm not a smart person. The case wasn't any stronger than at the first trial, but this time the jury reached a verdict guilty and Amerson Stevens was sentenced to a prison term of 164 years.


Fast forward to 2002, during those 16 years behind bars, Emmerson earned his GED. He worked in the dusty prison woodshop, building furniture for state institutions. He wrote letters constantly to his family and to lawyers begging for help with his case. When he wasn't working or writing, Emerson would dream about the smell of the shore. He wondered if he'd ever be on the water again.


In April 2002, Emersons attention was caught by a news story about a genteel Virginia lady named Beverly Monroe. Beverly was a professional chemist whose upper middle class background seemed worlds away from Emerson, at least at first.


You see, 10 years earlier, 55 year old Beverly had been dating a wealthy real estate mogul named Roger de la Byrd. Roger lived on a massive estate in Virginia horse country. He claimed to be an art dealer who was descended from European nobility. But when Roger turned up dead one morning from a gunshot wound, police suspected Beverly of murder, even though she'd never had so much as a traffic ticket. The case against Beverly was absurd. From day one, Beverly had a grocery store receipt proving she hadn't been at Roger's estate at the time he died, and Roger's death had been ruled a suicide.


Turns out his life was falling apart. The FBI was investigating him for art fraud and his claims of nobility were also being exposed as phony. But Beverly ended up being wrongly convicted of Roger's murder. Anyway, why? Because in part of Detective David Riley, the same officer who'd built the case against Emerson Stevens when Detective Riley interrogated Beverly, she refused to admit to something she didn't do. But Reilly administered a polygraph and told Beverly she failed it. And then he suggested that she must have been present when Roger shot himself.


Detective Riley seems to have manipulated Beverly into placing herself at the scene of the crime, just like he seems to have done with Emerson. The similarities are unmistakable.


Beverly Munroe was wrongfully convicted based on inculpatory statements that placed her at the crime scene. And Riley then built his case around that statement to make it look like this wasn't a suicide at all, that this was a murder. Amazing.


Just like Emerson, Beverly never confessed to anything. Same detective using the same modus operandi in order to get not a false confession, but a false inculpatory statement that was used to convict them and send them away for crimes they did not commit.


A federal judge later called Riley's interrogation of Beverly Monroe deceitful and manipulative. Even so, Beverly ended up serving 10 years in prison before her conviction was thrown out and she was released in April 2002. That news story Emerson saw on TV from behind bars was about Beverly's first moments of freedom. Emerson didn't waste a minute. He immediately wrote to Beverly's lawyer, who agreed to take his case. And when Beverly herself heard about Emerson, she got involved, too.


She went to the lawyers that had just exonerated her and said, now you need to do it again for this other guy, which, you know, to their credit, they did. They tried to reinvestigate as much as they could. And then when it became clear that they were sort of losing steam, Beverly turned her sights to me.


That's Deirdre Enright, the director of the University of Virginia's Innocence Project Clinic. She's one of the lawyers Beverly enlisted to join Emersons legal team.


Emerson, you know, he had been trying for years writing to people about his case and begging for help. And if you ever meet or speak to Beverly, you will learn that you will do anything that Beverly says to do because she's absolutely charming, but also absolutely compelling.


Beverly made it something of a mission to help other people who were convicted by the evidence collected by the same detective.


With Beverly's help, Emerson now had a top notch legal team. And while the lawyers got to work, Beverly and Emerson began corresponding.


Beverly is not only college educated, but she's a chemist and she lived a very extravagant life with her partner before this all happened. And Emerson is this Waterman who grew up, you know, with his nine siblings in Lancaster.


I mean, this is the classic thing that happens in these wrongful conviction cases is that people who would never in a lifetime be near each other or connect do.


Beverly and Emerson became friends. Beverly sensed how much this fishermen longed for the water and started sending him photographs of the place he missed most.


The Chesapeake Bay.


She was hyperaware of taking care of him while he was incarcerated, so he didn't feel abandoned, writing and calling and making sure he had money in his.


Commissary and holidays and birthdays, and I remember thinking she knows what he's feeling better than any of us.


I think that Emerson, once he had Beverly, he knew that there was another person out there who was advocating for him ferociously. I mean, most people who are incarcerated don't have that person. And because she was so smart and because she had been through it, she wasn't going to hear that it couldn't be done.


While Beverly was keeping Emersons hope alive, his legal team was systematically unwinding the case against him. And as it turned out, one piece of faulty evidence after another seemed to lead back to Detective Riley. First up was the claim that witnesses had seen a white pickup truck like Emersons near Mary's house.


A woman named and Dick had testified to that effect at the first trial, but her story had changed by the time of the second trial there, she swore that the person she saw driving the truck was not Emerson Stevens. When asked why she didn't say that to the first jury and answered because Detective Riley told me not to.


The other pickup truck witness, Clyde Dunaway, well, turns out he came forward only after police offered a 20000 dollar reward for information. He asked Detective Riley about the money during their very first conversation.


But at Emerson second trial, Dunaway's swore he never asked anyone about the reward. Now, Detective Riley was sitting in the courtroom listening to this. He must have known Dunaway was lying, but the detective never said a word.


Eventually, Dunaway paid a price for his false testimony and Emerson Stephens case, he ended up pleading guilty to obstruction of justice.


Once you dangle reward money, especially in a place like Lancaster, where there's a lot of people living very much on a margin, the fact that Clyde Dunaway bit on that is hardly surprising.


He repeatedly inquired about when am I going to get that money? And the detective would say only after you testify. The upshot of the investigation is that Clyde Dunaway got in trouble and our dirty detective who sat on that information during both trials walked away unscathed. The little guy got it as usual.


Next up was the bizarre claim that Mary's body, cinder block and all floated upstream, 10 miles. That marine scientist who testified at the first trial, remember he was MIA at the second trial. Prosecutors had to read the jury a transcript of his previous testimony.


Why didn't he show up the second time? Well, Emersons lawyers found a letter from the scientist to the prosecutor that provided a pretty clear explanation. After the first trial, the scientist wrote, Lieutenant Riley applied what may be the correct term to my testimony in this case.


He called it eyewash. Eyewash is Wirginia slang for bullshit? Oh, God, the marine scientist.


It's clear that the science that he put forth at this trial wasn't real. Even Detective Riley called this theory eyewash. Why?


A marine biologist went along with that the first time, I have no idea. But by the second time, he clearly did not want to do it and thought it was dirty. Right. That's what his letter suggested, is you're asking me to do something that's nonsensical.


Suddenly, there was reason to believe that Detective Riley had ginned up some of the evidence against Emerson. And it seems that Riley tried to take it even further. The owner of a Lancaster convenience store gave Emersons lawyers a sworn statement that reads as follows. Detective Riley tried to get me to say that Emerson Stephens woke me up in the middle of the night, that Mary Harding disappeared so that he could buy five gallons of gas. Detective Riley was extremely aggressive and pushy, insisting that I agree with his story.


Even though it was not true. I was never woken up in the middle of the night by Emerson Stevens ever for any reason.


None of these pieces of the puzzle actually fit together. They were all manipulated by this detective so that they fit his theory that Emerson was guilty of this crime. Now, that's the eyewash.


The rest of the case crumbled to remember the theory that Emerson used his knife to slash Mary's back. A new assessment by the medical examiner showed that those evenly spaced gashes were probably made by a boat propeller, not by a human with a knife. And finally, what about the hair from Emerson's truck? Back in 1985, the crime lab had put that hair under a microscope and claimed that it was an exact match to Mary. This technique, known as hair microscopy, has since been debunked.


There's no way you can match hairs with that level of certainty just by looking through a microscope. In fact, more than 70 people have been exonerated after bogus hair evidence was used to convict them.


There's just nothing to the science that you can microscopically compare hairs and identify anybody. We've had cases where. People say that this is a human hair belonging to this victim and it belongs to a dog, even according to the FBI, hair microscopy is junk science. Decades later, Amazon's lawyers thought DNA testing, but it turned out the hair was too old to test. In other words, there's no way to know who it belonged to. It could have been Merry's or Emersons or Emersons wife's.


It could have been anybody's. Armed with this new information, Emersons lawyers filed a post conviction petition in 2016 asking for his conviction to be thrown out, but it hasn't been yet. This is where Emersons legal case has stalled despite skilled lawyers and compelling evidence of innocence. The courts have denied his petitions at every turn, but there has been one important victory. On May 19th, 2017, Emerson Stevens was paroled from prison. He'd spent 31 years behind bars.


His family filled the lobby of the correctional center, which is almost always absolutely empty. And then we came with students and people who had been working on this case for years. We all hopped into cars and we asked Emerson where he would like to have his first free meal. So what was the fisherman craving? After more than three decades of prison food, Emerson very quickly told us that he wanted to go to Cracker Barrel and he wanted the seafood platter at Cracker Barrel.


And I don't argue with anyone who wants that. Like a tide that might never come back in, Emmerson Stevens life ebbed for 31 years as he sat behind bars. Now his life is flowing again. You know, he's done such a great job of getting out and just sort of sliding back into his life, moving back in, seeing family, going back to work immediately, being a great worker. So in that part of his life, he's done a really wonderful job.


But on the other hand, he's still a convicted murderer and that burden weighs on him every day.


I think he feels that until he is cleared and other people are exposed, his life is on hold.


Until that happens, at least Emmerson gets to see his kids and his grandkids. He's back out on the water and his small aluminum boat feeling the breeze on his face.


I just said to him, the only thing you owe me is a trip to go oystering. And he will be good for that. I know it. I've been to a Stephen's cookout.


And you know what they do is go crab and fish and come back and cook it all up in the yard and have huge tables of food. And it's delicious.


The case against Emerson Stevens has taken years to unwind. Sometimes fighting cases this thin can be strangely hard, almost like your shadow boxing a ghost.


Emerson should be pardoned. And Emersons innocence needs to be recognized by the governor of the state of Virginia.


In cases like this, it's just never the slam dunk that it should be. We immediately applied for an absolute pardon, which would exonerate him totally. And he pretty quickly got a letter that said, Thanks for your petition. We probably won't be able to get to this for two years and don't bother us. In the meantime, for Emerson to be pardoned would mean that he gets an absolute clean slate and it's a gateway to maybe proving what people did to get him convicted.


For people like him, you need that. You need the real story to be told.


For her part, Beverly Monroe, now in her 80s, still supports Emerson, still talks to him regularly by phone, still is waiting for the day he'll be exonerated. We're waiting to Emerson and we stand with you all the way.


Hey, is this Emerson? Yes. Yes. Hey, Emerson. It's Laura Nightrider and Steve Dreazen. How are you? I'm doing good. So tell me, Emerson, what have you been doing these days? Have you been keeping yourself busy?


Well, my oldest brother, he asked me if I would take his boat and get all this crap up. So I did that, you know, how was it? Oh, it felt great. So great being back out on the water again. And then it was made to build oysters with it. You know, I'm thinking about it. I want to purchase a boat of my own, you know, like my brother's got. And be able to work on the water again.


What would you name your boat, Emerson? Well, these type of boats, you don't really put names on them, but I don't know, misfit or something. I don't know.


There's times that are enjoyable and wonderful, you're with your family, you're back out on the water, and there's times that are hard to, I'm sure. Oh, yeah, yeah. I lost my oldest daughter when I was in prison. She died at the age of 40 and that broke my heart. And it's not a day that don't go by that I don't think about. You know, I'm really sorry, Emerson. Yeah. Yeah, well, she's looking down from somewhere, I hope, and rooting for you, just like the rest of us are.


Are you still in touch with Beverly? Oh, Beverly. She's been not my number one fan. You know, she's always believed in me and she's great. She's a great person. Every now and then I call and talk to her. But she loves to talk now.


She loves the. Does the Port Emerson Stevens, you can write the governor of Virginia and ask him to grant Emerson an absolute pardon. You can find the address on my Instagram page at Lura Nightrider. And that's the story of Emerson Stevens join us next week when we tell you about a Philadelphia man named Walter. Oh, God, Walter spent decades on death row until a new generation of prosecutors came to Philadelphia. They brought reform to the city and hope to Walter.


Wrongful conviction, False Confessions is a production of Lava for Good Podcast's in association with Signal Company No. One special thanks to our executive producers Jason Pflum and Kevin Autists. Our production team is headed by senior producer and pope, along with producers Josh Hammer and just Shane. Our show is mixed by Jeanie Montalvo. John Culberson is our intrepid intern. Our music was composed by Jay Ralfe. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter at Laurer Nightrider and you can follow me on Twitter at S Drizzt.


For more information on the show, visit wrongful conviction podcast NORCOM. Be sure to follow the show on Instagram at wrongful conviction on Facebook, at Wrongful Conviction Podcast and on Twitter at Wrong Conviction. For NPR ex.