Unreliable confessions... The Joseph "Joe" Giarratano Story

By Barbara Jean McAtlin

This is a story about a friend of mine, Joe Giarratano. My friend has never told me he is innocent of these crimes. He hasn't had to. I know he is. The facts -- the true evidence -- tell me he is. This is a story of the results of child abuse, mental illness, drug addiction and alcohol abuse.

This story will show only some of the failures in our judicial system. This failure -- and the wreckage left behind -- is what prods me to tell his story. I want the world to know. This is my own personal stand to try to help right a terrible wrong. It's my fight. It's everyone's fight. There but for the grace of God go I. A system by the people should be a system for the people, not against the people. I believe it's time that we the people put that theory into action.

On February 5, 1979, the bodies of 15-year-old Michelle Kline and her 44-year-old mother, Barbara "Toni" Kline were discovered by their landlord in their Norfolk, Virginia, apartment during a routine property check. Toni Kline's body was found in the sole bathroom in a large pool of blood. Toni had multiple stab wounds -- the fatal wound had severed an artery in her neck -- and the bleeding was profuse. Young Michelle was found lying on her bed with her shirt pulled up and her pants and panties lying on the floor of her bedroom. There was an afghan tossed over her and a towel covering her face. Except for some blood in her nose and on her face, there was no other blood on her body.

At a glance, because of the position of her body, Michelle also appeared to have been raped. Bruising around Michelle's neck revealed none of the finger or hand marks that would have shown death by manual strangulation, but showed the cause of death to be strangulation by partial ligature. (Partial ligature strangulation is strangulation by an object other than the hands.) Law enforcement officers were able to obtain a "confession" to manual strangulation before the physical evidence deemed the cause of death to be partial ligature. By the time this case went to trial, the autopsy report would be changed from partial ligature to manual strangulation.

To be certain, it was a heinous crime. Someone would have to pay for the horror done to Toni and Michelle Kline. But, would the real killer be the one to pay? This is where our story begins.

Joe Giarratano, a 21-year-old drug addict and alcoholic, crashed at the Klines' apartment for a few weeks before their murders. As a result of the horrific physical and sexual abuse to which Joe's stepfather, drug-addicted mother and her friends had subjected him, and his quest to escape his feelings of inadequacy caused by that abuse, Joe himself had become a drug addict and alcoholic. Instead of talking about his pain and learning how to deal with it, he tried to numb his feelings. Like some drug addicts and alcoholics, Joe also suffered from blackouts. There are days even now -- twenty-two years later -- that Joe does not remember. He is still unable to remember the day of the murders.

Until Joe was sent to death row for the murders of Michelle and Toni Kline, nobody had ever tried to learn about his life. It took an erroneous confession to a crime he didn't commit, a death sentence, and a few questioning individuals before an investigation into Joe's past began. A small group of caring people started to look into Joe's confessions. They asked questions. They stuck by Joe. When their questions were answered, they became completely convinced of his innocence.

In the early morning hours of February 6, 1979, Joe Giarratano walked up to Deputy Sheriff Charles Wells in the Greyhound bus station in Jacksonville, Florida. Joe told Deputy Wells that he thought he may have killed two people in Norfolk, Virginia, and he wanted to turn himself in. Deputy Wells turned Joe over to Jacksonville Deputy Sheriffs Mooneyham and Baxter. In response to their questioning, Joe gave Mooneyham and Baxter three more statements about his involvement in the Kline murders. They told Joe, "If you killed your friends, then you must know how you did it."

They asked him if he had kicked in the apartment door or if either of them had owed him money. Joe -- still under the impression that he had committed the murders -- answered their questions in such a way that his answers could most certainly be twisted as to make him look guilty.

In the first of these confessions to Mooneyham and Baxter, a still drug-sick Joe said he had killed Toni Kline first by stabbing her with a knife following an argument over money. He said that when Michelle began to scream, he strangled her. He said nothing about sexually assaulting Michelle. In the two statements taken thereafter, Joe gave the same reasons for the murders as in the first statement and never once mentioned the rape of Michelle Kline. After the Jacksonville police interrogated Joe, he was checked out by a doctor and given Mellaril, a major tranquilizer.

On February 8, 1979 -- two days after the original confessions -- Joe gave a fifth "confession" to two detectives from Norfolk, Virginia. Detectives R. J. Mears and R. D. Whitt had arrived in Jacksonville to interrogate Joe on the basis of their knowledge of the crime. The two detectives were very helpful in getting an extremely sick Joe to "confess" to the crime in their own words. The detectives spoon-fed Joe the details of the crime -- they knew them as well as the words to his "confession." These helpful detectives even wrote Joe's formal confession in their own handwriting. Joe initialed the pages the detectives had written. The confession that Joe gave Mears and Whitt was quite different from his previous confessions. Joe now said that Michelle had been killed first -- not Toni -- and he said that Michelle had been raped and then killed when she began to scream. He also said in this version that Toni had been killed when she had come home during her daughter's rape and murder.

Before they obtained the confessions from Joe, the detectives told him what they knew about the crime and showed him photographs of the crime scene. When Joe gave his formal statement of the crime, he said he lived with the Klines for three or four weeks, but moved out three days before the murders. He said that he went to the apartment around 8 p.m. on February 4, 1979, and that Michelle opened the door to him. He said that he and Michelle talked for a bit and then wandered into her bedroom. Joe tried to talk her into having sex with him, but Michelle said no. He said that when she told him no, he raped her and then strangled her to quiet her screaming. Also in this fifth confession, Joe said that Toni returned while he was still in the apartment, discovered him there and began screaming. Joe said that he stabbed Toni to death at this point. After the murders, Joe made his way to the Greyhound bus station and boarded a bus headed to Jacksonville, Florida.

Detectives Mears and Whitt had Joe transported back to Virginia, where he was confined in the Norfolk Jail. When they arrived at the jail, Joe noticed two spots of blood on his boots. He told the detectives about the blood spots and turned the boots over to them. Joe was certain that he had murdered the Klines while in a drug and alcohol-induced blackout. After Joe turned the boots over to the detectives, he attempted suicide. The Department of Corrections answered Joe's obvious call for help with a four-year long Thorazine ride. Only after Joe's legal team petitioned the court on Joe's behalf, did the forced drug feedings quit.

When Joe's trial began, the Commonwealth introduced physical and crime scene evidence in an effort to confirm at least one of Joe's confessions -- especially the one that was taken by the Norfolk investigators. There was nothing in this evidence that pointed to Joe as the Klines' murderer. The Commonwealth introduced photographs of bloody footprints that lead away from Toni Kline's body. These footprints had never been matched to Joe or Joe's boots. According to pathology experts, Joe's boots would have had blood in the seams if he had walked through Toni Kline's blood, and it would have been impossible to wash it away completely. The boots that Joe gave the detectives were used for evidence against him even though the blood was typed O positive -- Michelle's blood type. Michelle had never bled enough to bleed on anything. The only blood present on or near Michelle was in her nose and on the towel that had been put over her face. The two spots of blood that were found on Joe's boot and on the towel were also O positive.

For some reason, Toni Kline's blood was determined to be too decomposed to test by the Commonwealth. Although there was no direct evidence linking the blood on Joe's boot to the bloody footprints leading away from her body, the impression created for the judge was that Joe's boot had made the footprints in Toni's blood. During the reinvestigation of Joe's case by his appellate team, the Commonwealth's own blood expert said that when she finally saw the photos of the crime scene -- after Joe's trial -- she was certain that Joe's boots could not have made the prints in Toni's blood.

The Commonwealth had also collected a number of human hairs from or near Michelle Kline's body. The highly skeptical "laboratory analysis" of these hairs was introduced as evidence. (Without the hair's root for DNA testing, hair can only be determined as consistent by way of color, texture or shape.) Out of a total of twenty-four hairs that had been collected, fourteen had belonged to Michelle. Six were identified as human pubic hairs. One of them was identified as consistent with a pubic hair sample obtained from Joe. Toni's, Michelle's and Joe's pubic hair were used as identified control hairs; however, not all [of] the hairs were consistent with these three known donors. The remaining hairs were left unidentified. To whom did they belong?

Hair analysis testing can only state what essentially means it looks like it COULD have been Joe's. The one public hair that was found to be consistent with Joe's was among the three pubic hairs that had been found on Michelle's left hand, stomach and pubic area. Nobody identified in which place this one pubic hair was found. Joe had lived in the apartment for three or four weeks. His fingerprints or hairs would have been all over the Kline home. The one pubic hair that was found consistent with Joe's could easily have come from the afghan found on top of Michelle.

Also introduced was physical evidence that indicated that Michelle was indeed raped. The medical examiner testified that there were two lacerations in her vaginal area from which she bled. He did not say how much bleeding there was from these lacerations. The medical examiner also testified that sperm cells were present in Michelle's cervix. There was no testimony or any other evidence -- except Joe's confession -- that says that the sperm that was found in Michelle's cervix was Joe Giarratano's.

It would seem that if a rape had been suspected, the medical examiner would have been asked to testify to the extent of any trauma to Michelle's genital area. As no trauma was mentioned, it is highly likely that the unknown donor sperm could be accounted for if Michelle had consensual sex with another man as long as 72 hours before her murder.

The police lifted twenty-one distinct fingerprints from various areas of the Klines' apartment. The one fingerprint that was identified as Joe's was found on the closet door in the northeast bedroom of the apartment -- a bedroom unconnected to the locations of the bodies. Michelle's body was found in the southeast bedroom -- not the northeast.

Throughout Joe's trial, nobody questioned the reliability of his February 8th confession to the Norfolk police. It was presumed that the confession was reliable -- working with that assumption, the evidence against Joe was overwhelming. Joe's confession established his guilt. The physical and crime scene evidence appeared to provide some independent corroboration to his confession. However, if one sets aside the presumption that Joe's confession was reliable and tries to measure its reliability based on all the available evidence, substantial doubt arises as to the reliability of any of Joe's confession.

Only when his lawyers, investigators and advocates confronted Joe about the differences and inconsistencies in his confessions, did he admit that he had no actual memory of murdering Toni or Michelle Kline. Joe said at one time that he only remembered going to the Klines' apartment to pick up some of his personal belongings and finding Toni on the floor of the bathroom and Michelle on the bed. This may not even be a true memory. Joe had been shown the photographs of the crime scene by the investigators from Norfolk. He also believed at one point that he had passed out at the Kline's apartment and when he woke up, he found their bodies. This is a more convincing theory although Joe didn't seem to know as much about the crime as the true murderer would have. Joe convinced himself that he had killed the Klines. It was this belief that led him to turn himself into Deputy Wells in Jacksonville. Over the next several days --and after his interviews with the police -- his belief in his guilt solidified in his mind and he came to see himself as an evil person who deserved to die. Because of this belief, he did nothing to help his defense lawyers.

Although the trial judge expressed his concerns about Joe's inconsistent confessions, he concluded that the inconsistencies did not matter because Joe was not disputing anything. Joe was found guilty during the half-day bench trial and sentenced to death for the murders of Toni and Michelle Kline.

After Joe was convicted and sent to death row for his crimes, he started refusing to take the tranquilizers the prison doctors were feeding him. After Joe's Thorazine-induced haze cleared, he was able to look back on his confessions and see that they were not based on recollection, but rather on inference. His confessions were spoon-fed to him by detectives with a crime to solve. A deeply troubled man had walked up to a Deputy at a bus station in Jacksonville with a story about the murder of his two friends that he had seen or heard about -- somehow or somewhere -- while in the throes of a drug and alcohol induced blackout. At the time, his lack of self-esteem and his self-destructive manner made him believe he was guilty. Before Joe had talked to the Norfolk investigators, his knowledge of this crime was negligible. After speaking with them, his confession fit with the evidence.

By looking at the crime scene photographs that the investigators from Norfolk showed him before his "on-record" confession, Joe would have known that Toni was stabbed. One of the stab wounds in Toni Kline's neck was plainly visible and the amount of blood surrounding her had obviously come from one or more stab wounds. If Joe had been present at the crime scene and had actually viewed Toni's body, he would have easily seen two stab wounds.

Joe also reported in his confession that he had stabbed Toni with a seven-inch long kitchen knife. According to the medical examiner's report, the stab wounds were only three inches deep. Given the force necessary to inflict the stab wounds that killed Toni, a seven-inch long knife would have inflicted deeper wounds.

In Joe's confession, he said he threw the knife with which he had killed Toni into a yard next to the apartment building. No knife was ever found in that yard or any other.

Similarly, Joe would have been able to easily see that Michelle was strangled in the crime scene photographs because they showed that her face was swollen and discolored and showed some bleeding from her nose. In addition, there were marks on her neck consistent with someone squeezing her necklace against her neck. Anyone who was trying to determine what had happened to Michelle could have easily deciphered the signs of strangulation by simply viewing the photographs.

The medical examiner also determined that Michelle Kline had been killed first. This would nullify the part of Joe's confession that says he killed Toni before Michelle during an argument over money. As the true murderer would have known that Michelle had been murdered before Toni, what does Joe's erroneous accounting of the crime say about his involvement?

There seem to be three possible answers: A) he was not involved in the murders, B) he was involved but could not remember the details, or C) he was involved and did not want to report the details accurately. Without further information, it isn't possible to decide which of these three answers is the most accurate. Therefore, Joe's inaccurate recounting of the order in which Toni and Michelle were killed raises, rather than erases, doubts about his involvement.

Now we arrive at the rape of Michelle Kline. Only after Joe was interviewed by the Norfolk police did he report that he raped Michelle Kline. In the first four confessions, Joe said nothing about raping Michelle. Was Joe prompted by investigators to provide them with this information to make his confession more believable or did he somehow come up with the rape story on his own? There is no answer to this question, but the weight of the evidence shows that Joe did not produce these facts on his own.

When Jacksonville Sheriff Deputy Wells testified at Joe's trial, he said Joe had told him he had raped Michelle. When viewing Wells' written account of Joe's statement to him -- taken before Wells' testimony -- there is no mention of any rape. Joe's trial attorney failed to confront Deputy Wells with this inconsistency during Joe's trial. The rape of Michelle Kline was never mentioned until after the Norfolk investigators interrogated Joe and after the investigators had -- admittedly -- learned everything they could about the crime before heading to Jacksonville to interview Joe. Only after the Norfolk police questioned Joe did the story of the rape become a part of his confession.

Joe also said in his confession that Michelle had gone with him willingly into her bedroom. Police reports note that there were drag marks leading into Michelle's bedroom. These marks can be shown to prove that Michelle was taken by force into her bedroom.

Given the urine found in the panties and pants that were found next to Michelle's bed, the forensic scientist for the Commonwealth believed that Michelle was wearing them when she died, and her bladder quite naturally emptied at the time of her death. The panties and pants were removed after her death -- not before. This alone is cause to rule out a rape.

Two weeks after the Kline murders, the Commonwealth of Virginia sent Joe to Central State for a psychiatric evaluation. The Commonwealth's lead psychiatrist testified at Joe's trial that because of Joe's heavy drug and alcohol use, he was suffering from Korsakoff's syndrome -- a peripheral neuropathy with a loss of recent memory. Joe's inability to accurately remember certain details -- such as which of the Klines was murdered first -- was normal in people suffering from Korsakoff's. The doctor said that these people are not doing this intentionally -- they simply cannot remember. To fill in the blank spaces left by their memory loss, people with Korsakoff's will unintentionally fill in the spaces with what they believe probably happened. With his history of drug and alcohol abuse as well as psychiatric disturbances like depression, according to the Commonwealth, Joe was a perfect candidate for Korsakoff's syndrome. According to Joe, if he had Korsakoff's, there would probably be no need for this story to be told.

Doctors who have spent a substantial amount of time with Joe since his conviction have concluded that Joe was vulnerable to suggestibility and confabulation in 1979. However, there has been a dramatic improvement in Joe's mental and emotional functions since then. He still has some deficiencies, but they are nowhere near as deep-seated as they were in 1979 [--] at the time of his confession. These doctors' evaluations can be used to establish that Joe's contradictory versions of the Kline murders reflected his lack of knowledge, not his firsthand knowledge.

In the course of reinvestigating the Kline murders, investigators found evidence pointing to another suspect. Unfortunately, this person cannot be charged because these facts are insufficient and cannot be established beyond a reasonable doubt. However, they do reinforce the doubt about Joe's guilt. Investigators have learned about the presence of another man's driver's license in the Kline's apartment. The Commonwealth refuses to turn over this evidence -- or any other evidence -- to Joe's defense team.

The defense team does not know if the other twenty fingerprints that were found in the apartment belonged to either of the Klines. If they did not, [to whom did they belong? To the man who left his driver's license in the apartment? They do know that only one of those fingerprints belonged to Joe. Six of the pubic hairs collected from the crime scene were considered inconsistent with Joe's. No pubic hairs were collected from Michelle or Toni. To whom do these unidentified hairs belong? Would they be consistent with the Klines' or not? Only one of the pubic hairs testified to in court was consistent with Joe's pubic hair. What about the others?

In the course of the reinvestigation by Joe's appellate team, they identified a man who may have been the true murderer of Michelle and Toni Kline. This man's history of sexual assaults and his relationship with Toni Kline suggest that he is someone who could have killed Toni and her daughter. Why has this never been pursued even after Joe learned that the Norfolk police actually suspected this man?

The first suspect was the man whose driver's license was found at the Kline's apartment. That suspect -- a heavy heroin user -- pointed to Joe as the murderer and told them that Joe could be found in Jacksonville. Joe has never been able to determine how this man knew he was in Jacksonville. The first suspect's sister and brother-in-law contacted Joe after they heard the man mumbling about the murders. This man turned out to be a federal informant. When Joe's investigators started looking for him, the man's trail came to a sudden dead end. It could be deduced that the federal government took the man into the Witness Protection Program and he vanished. Although this man could very well be the true killer, because of the Commonwealth's 21-day rule , the evidence of his guilt will probably never be seen in a Virginia courtroom, even to clear an innocent man.

Joe has never learned how he found out his friends were dead.

So many questions with so few answers.

In 1991 -- thanks to wonderful allies like Marie Deans and the rest of his spectacular appellate team -- Joe's death sentence was commuted by then-Governor Douglas Wilder to life imprisonment. Wilder recommended a new trial for Joe because of the numerous questions surrounding his confessions.

One might very well ask: "Why has there never been a new trial?" New evidence is NOT permitted to be introduced more than 21 days after a conviction. Then-Commonwealth's Attorney Mary Sue Terry refused to check into Joe's case by invoking that rule. Therefore, by Virginia law, Joe cannot introduce his evidence of innocence of the crime for which he is paying out his life -- someone else's crime. For every one of those 21 days, Joe has spent one year in prison. Since invoking this 21-day rule in Joe's case and being voted out of office for it, Mary Sue Terry has disappeared from the political scene.

Joe has many supporters from all walks of life. These people include former prosecutors, former judges, police organizations, actors, singers, death penalty supporters and anti-death penalty activists. Each of these people swears that the case against Joe is bogus.

But now, because of Virginia's 21-day rule, not a single thing can be done to gain Joe's freedom. Everyone must work against the 21-day rule. Joe was relatively fortunate that one inquiring governor commuted his sentence to life. What about the men and women on death row who may not be as fortunate as Joe? What will become of them? Why should justice have a time limit?

Joe turned out to be a pretty decent fellow. After the fog cleared, Joe adapted. He grew up. He knew the answers all along; he just didn't know where to find them. He is a student, a teacher, a friend. Joe became quite a decent "jailhouse lawyer." A couple of his cases have made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He worked tirelessly on Earl Washington's case as well as many others. He taught Non-Violence Classes in the prisons to which he's been shuttled. He taught some of the men with whom he's been incarcerated to read and write. He started prison charity programs to benefit children. His giving of himself never stops.

Just over two years ago, Joe's activism landed him in solitary confinement in Red Onion State Prison in Pound, Virginia. Prison officials decided he was somewhat of a thorn in their side. He knows what he wants and he knows how to get it. Joe is no longer allowed to teach serenity to other inmates. He is no longer allowed to teach reading and writing to illiterate inmates. He is no longer allowed to file briefs on behalf of inmates who have no attorneys. Joe spends his time alone in his cell. He is allowed out to shower twice a week. He is shackled and forced to wear chains when he has the rare opportunity to leave his cell or greet a visitor. He prefers not to have visitors. He says it's too uncomfortable for them to see him in his chains. Even in the uncertain and frightening world of Red Onion State Prison, Joe -- a devout practitioner of Zen Buddhism -- says that he has long since broken the mental shackles of his unjust situation and transcended beyond his circumstances. It is an honor to know someone like Joe.

Joe Giarratano
Red Onion State Prison
PO Box 1900
Pound, VA 24279-1900

I thank the people responsible for the source materials for this story. First, Joe supplied a few tidbits in letters written from the floor of his cell late at night. (The floor was the only place he could find light. Night is the only time he can find quiet.) Second, I thank Todd Young for sending me Joe's Petition for Conditional Pardon by the Governor of Virginia. Third, and most importantly, I thank Ms. Marie Deans of Richmond, Virginia, Julius L. Chambers and Richard H. Burr of New York, New York and Richard L. Schaeffer of Baltimore, Maryland for the eloquent petition they wrote to gain the conditional pardon for Joe that provided me with the necessary resources for this story.

Justice Denied