Anthony Harris

Anthony Harris

Anthony Harris

At age twelve, he was convicted of murder in a case the U.S. Court of Appeals said a reasonable prosecutor wouldn’t have brought

Five-year-old Devan Duniver disappeared from her home in New Philadelphia, Ohio, on June 27, 1998, and was found dead the next day in a nearby wooded area. She had been stabbed repeatedly.

Two and a half weeks later, police asked twelve-year-old Anthony R. Harris to take a voice stress test that, if he told the truth, would eliminate him as a suspect. Harris and his mother, Cynthia Harris, agreed to the testing.

Thomas Vaughn, the chief of police in the nearby town of Millersburg, was brought in to conduct the test, which was never given. It became superfluous because— after repeatedly denying the crime during a ninety-minute interrogation—Harris finally broke down and confessed.

Vaughn began the interrogation by suggesting that the motive might have been racial. The victim was white; Harris was black. “A lot of African Americans got a lot of hate built up over the years and it’s because of what we did to you, you know,” Vaughan said. “It wasn’t me that did it but it was my forefathers, and it wasn’t a nice thing and there’s people in this world that are racist.”

After several minutes of Harris’s denials, Vaughn said, “I think that both of us know that something happened out there and see, that’s the thing that you got to tell me. You got to tell me what she did to make you so mad. Because I don’t think you did it just to—I don’t think you were hiding behind no tree, just to do it. ... I don’t think you planned on doing this and I’d like to help you out of this, Anthony.”

Moments later, Vaughn followed up: “If you just happened to be walking through the woods, which I think is what happened and she was there and she did something nasty to you and you just snapped. You said you little nasty kid and you chased her after you did this. That’s what happened, isn’t it? That’s what happened isn’t it, Anthony?” “Yes,” the child responded.

The next day, July 16, Tuscarawas County Prosecutor Amanda Spies filed a complaint in juvenile court charging Harris with murder. Juvenile Court Judge Linda A. Kate denied defense motions to suppress the incriminating statements and, after an adjudicatory hearing on March 4, 1999, found Harris guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and ordered him committed to the Ohio Department of Youth Services until his twenty-first birthday.

Fifteen months later, the Court of Appeals of Ohio unanimously reversed the conviction, holding that the confession had been coerced. The next day, June 9, 2000, Judge Kate ordered Harris’s release. A subsequent investigation showed that the prosecutor, Spies, ignored evidence of other suspects, including the victim’s mother’s former boyfriend, a drug-addicted ex-felon who previously had kidnapped the child and beaten her with a belt.

Harris filed civil rights suits against police officers involved in the case, Spies, and Tuscarawas County. The claims against the police were settled for an undisclosed amount. The claims against Spies and the county was settled for $2.2 million in 2008 after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that “any reasonable prosecutor in Spies’s position would have known, after listening to the tape of the confession, that it was involuntary as a matter of law and thus untrustworthy.

Recent Coverage: The American Lawyer (pdf)

— Rob Warden