A Confessed Killer is Found Innocent

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Christopher Harper, age 3. He was murdered in 1975. His murder is now unsolved. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Marvin Grimm spent 44 years in jail and prison for sexual abuse and murder of a three-year old boy, to which he confessed and pleaded guilty. However, the Court of Appeals of Virginia recently said that there is no evidence he committed the crimes and fully exonerated him.

Grimm’s case is largely an illustration of the utility of forensic tools that were unavailable until relatively recently. It is also an illustration of the reality of false confessions and their role in the criminal justice system.

In November 1975, three-year old Christopher Harper (designated as “C.H.” in the Court of Appeals opinion) was reported missing by his mother. His body was found four days later in the James River. An autopsy and forensic analysis reported that he died of asphyxiation. There was sperm in this mouth and throat and a significant amount of ethanol, chlorzoxazone (a muscle relaxant), and acetaminophen in his blood, liver, and stomach.

There was considerable coverage. The police went weeks without solid clues or a suspect. Eventually, they came to focus on the 20-year-old Grimm, a laborer, because he had had two arguments related to the little boy with the boy’s father prior to his disappearance; the boy’s mother had said she felt “Grimm was odd in his actions;” and Grimm lived in the apartment across the hall from the boy’s family.

On December 16, 1975, the police picked Grimm up for questioning at 5:00 p.m. after he had completed a nine-hour shift at work. After being questioned for four hours, he stated that he had been watching a football game on TV the day that Christopher disappeared and that he had “blacked out” and remembered seeing the boy about 3:00 that afternoon. At that point, the police read Grimm his Miranda rights and continued to question him. Around 11 p.m., he told police “what happened” and retraced the steps of Christopher’s abduction, murder, and disposal. Back in the interview room at 2:20 p.m., as the Court’s opinion notes, “after approximately 9 hours of questioning and 18 hours since Grimm began his workday,” the police recorded Grimm’s statement for the first time.

(Actually, the Court’s opinion probably understates the time that Grimm had gone without sleep. Its timeline starts at 8 a.m. when he started his shift at his job. However, he had awakened, gotten dressed, and eaten breakfast before that. Indeed, Grimm said that he had been awake since 4:30 a.m. the previous day when he provided a confession at 2:20 a.m.)

During the recording of the confession, Grimm, with some prompting by the interrogator, admitted to forcing Christopher to have oral sex, then panicking when the boy started choking and stopped breathing, and then disposing of the body.

In addition to the confession, the prosecution presented physical evidence to the court. Forensic scientist Mary Jane Burton testified that eight hairs found in Grimm’s car and a coat found at Grimm’s home “were consistent with samples from C.H.” She also reported that swabs taken from the boy’s mouth, throat, and esophagus indicated the presence of spermatozoa, as did a stain on a towel recovered in Grimm’s car. The medical examiner testified on finding the presence of spermatozoa and “a thick white gelatinate material” in his mouth. It needs to be noted that it would be 10 years before DNA tests were used in criminal cases.

After being threatened with a possible death penalty, Grimm agreed to plead guilty to murder, sodomy, and abduction in return for the prosecutors agreeing not to seek capital punishment. It was an empty threat. The Court of Appeals notes dryly in its opinion that, in 1975, the death penalty was not applicable to the offenses with which Grimm was charged and pleaded guilty to. The court sentenced him to life imprisonment.

Grimm petitioned the Court of Appeals for a writ of actual innocence based on recent tests performed on the physical evidence and his claim that his confession was coerced. The Court of Appeals dealt with each issue in turn.

Hair samples. DNA tests conducted in 2011 by the Dept. of Forensic Science (DFS) and in 2023 by a private laboratory excluded Christopher as the source of the hair samples found in Grimm’s car and coat. Furthermore, the tests indicated that seven of the hairs had been shed by different people.

As previously discussed in this blog, the work of Mary Jane Burton has been called into serious question. Furthermore, the use of hair samples as forensic evidence has been widely debunked as “junk science.” The Court of Appeals did not address the “question of the reliability of the science of hair comparison” because “the DNA evidence here is sufficient on its own to exclude C.H. as the hairs’ source.”

Mouth and throat swabs. A series of DNA tests performed by DFS and private labs from 2002 to 2017 on the swabs taken of the boy’s mouth, throat, and esophagus eliminated Grimm as a contributor to the DNA in the substance on the swabs. Furthermore, the tests found no spermatozoa or evidence of seminal fluid.

Towel. In 2003, DFS tested the towel found in Grimm’s car. The agency concluded “there was no blood or seminal fluid” on the towel. Furthermore, no human DNA was found on the towel.

Toxicology. Based on Grimm’s confession, prosecutors had developed a timeline of 75 minutes in which the offense was committed. A 2023 analysis of the alcohol and drugs found in Christopher’s system indicated that he had ingested the substances 90-150 minutes before his death, which would be inconsistent with the prosecutorial timeline. It is also important to note that Grimm, in his confession, did not mention giving the child any substances.

Confession. To bolster his claim that his confession was coerced, Grimm’s pettion cited many articles from law journals dealing with false confessions, along with a report by the author of one of the articles who reviewed Grimm’s case.

The Court of Appeals made note of the “science of false confessions” and “recent developments in the understanding of false confessions.” However, it concluded that, “because Grimm’s uncorroborated confession alone is insufficient to support his convictions,” there was no need to consider the “body of scholarship concerning false confessions.”

The Court of Appeals reached the conclusion that the confession was “uncorroborated” by a process of elimination. The prosecution claimed that the cause of death was “asphyxiation from semen left in the back of his throat after Grimm forced C.H. to perform oral sex on him.” However, subsequent tests have excluded the boy as the source of any of the hairs found in Grimm’s car and apartment and have revealed that the swabs and towel did not include semen and did not include any DNA from Grimm. In his confession, Grimm did lead police to the location where the body was found, but that location had been well-publicized in local news medica. The court concluded:

“With all this excluded from Grimm’s confession, the Commonwealth’s evidence is C.H.’s body—containing inexplicable levels of alcohol and drugs and a debunked mechanism of death—and Grimm stating he did it—but on a different timeline, with no mention of providing C.H. substances of any kind, and in a manner proven to be incorrect. Indeed, the Commonwealth is left with a body and a man claiming responsibility without accurately describing any of the case’s facts. Therefore, the confession by itself would not provide an adequate basis for a reasonable fact finder to convict.”

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals found that Grimm was entitled to a writ of actual innocence. It needs to be noted that the Virginia Attorney General’s office not only did not contest Grimm’s writ, it filed a brief supporting the granting of a writ of actual innocence.

One question that springs to mind when reviewing this case was: Since almost all the physical evidence had been discredited by 2017, why is Grimm just now getting his writ of actual innocence? The answer is that Grimm and his lawyers faced an obstacle they could not surmount without a change in Virginia law. At that time a guilty plea generally precluded someone from being eligible for a writ of actual innocence. That changed in 2020 with the passage of HB 974, which removed a guilty plea as a bar to filing for writ of actual innocence.

Marvin Grimm, after his release, with his sisters Photo credit: The Innocence Project

Somewhat ironically, this decree by the Court of Appeals does not result in Grimm being released from prison. He was paroled in 2020 and has been living with his sisters. However, parole is not the same as exoneration. There was always the change that any slip-up could result in revocation of his parole. He had a felony record, which often proves to be an obstacle to obtaining jobs and to other opportunities. He also was listed on the sex offender registry. Therefore, he and the Innocence Project, which had been working for years on his case, continued to push for a writ of actual innocence to fully clear his name.

My Soapbox

Marvin Grimm spent more time in prison than any other exonerated prisoner represented by the Innocence Project. The organization, along with the law firm of Arnold and Porter, spent decades investigating his case and filing petitions with the court. The Innocence Project also lobbies legislatures to change laws to provide better opportunities for prisoners to pursue their efforts to prove their innocence. In addition to the advances in DNA technology, the following changes in Virginia law were made over the years that enabled Grimm and others to seek exoneration:

  • Provision for access to post-conviction DNA testing;
  • Creation of a process for issuance of a writ of actual innocence;
  • Authorization of persons accused or convicted of crimes to get testing of evidence at private, accredited labs;
  • Lifting of bar of guilty plea.

It is noteworthy that the Court of Appeals dismissed Grimm’s confession as not providing an adequate basis for his conviction. One of the claims Grimm put forth to support his request for a writ of actual innocence was that his confession was coerced. It is important to recognize that Grimm was not claiming that the coercion consisted of his being beaten or otherwise physically harmed by the police. According to the Innocence Project, which represented Grimm, the coercion consisted of Grimm “falsely being told he could be sentenced to death if he went to trial and lost.” The petition to the court for Grimm cited numerous scholarly articles citing this tactic among others used to elicit false confessions.

 In its opinion, the Court recognized the existence of the newly developing “science of false confessions.” However, because none of the newly discredited evidence supported the confession, the Court saw no need to consider “the body of scholarship concerning false confessions.” As the opinion phrased it, the confession was that of a “man claiming responsibility without accurately describing any of this case’s facts.” The Virginia Court of Appeals showed that it is willing to consider the facts behind a confession and not take it at face value.

False confessions and guilty pleas are probably more common than most people realize or are willing to admit. Marvin Grimm was not the first prisoner in Virginia who has been exonerated despite having confessed and pleaded guilty to a murder. Earl Washington, Jr. confessed to raping and murdering a 19-year-old mother of three children and came within nine days of being executed before Governor Wilder commuted his sentence and Governor Gilmore later pardoned him after DNA evidence excluded Washington as a contributor to the seminal stains found at the crime scene. The Innocence Project reports that about one in four persons who have been exonerated had pleaded guilty despite being innocent. It makes one wonder how many people are still incarcerated because they pleaded guilty despite being innocent and do not have the opportunity, lack of DNA evidence, for example, to seek exoneration.   

Sources

In addition to the sources specifically linked, the following served as general sources for this article:

Court of Appeals of Virginia

https://www.vacourts.gov/opinions/opncavwp/0741232.pdf

Richmond Times-Dispatch

https://richmond.com/news/local/crime-courts/marvin-grimm-innocent/article_0bdce994-2fd3-11ef-b13a-eb418689016a.html

Innocence Project

https://innocenceproject.org/virginia-exonerates-marvin-grimm-jr-in-1975-murder-case-after-45-years-of-wrongful-incarceration


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Comments

47 responses to “A Confessed Killer is Found Innocent”

  1. how_it_works Avatar
    how_it_works

    Shoddy police work.

    Or shoddy police don't work.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar
    LarrytheG

    Dick – You wrote a seriously significant article, the details of the crime are repulsive but the police tactics no less so. And the Va law with regard to guilty pleas. I've read about others also that make me wonder why new evidence beneficial to the convicted would be denied. What is the purpose of laws like that in the first place? These are some of the issues the Innocence Project has to deal with – even after it's clear the convicted are innocent, there are laws that prevent such things to be used legally to actually grant justice. One would think, once it is clear they were innocent, they would be immediately released and changes made that prevent such convictions from happening again – both police and prosecutors actions!

    There is another set of laws that work similarly that I read about this morning. They're called "barrier laws" and they deny jobs to people who
    have been convicted of certain crimes: https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/5215dd49c9f8a5b733e429277e8e1e061598002af80bd14daa16081456cd3434.png
    https://fredericksburg.com/news/local/spotsylvania-woman-fighting-for-second-chances-for-recovering-addicts/article_d778ab34-3932-11ef-aa2b-3f3c6a4902fe.html?utm_medium=social&utm_source=email&utm_campaign=user-share

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      There has been discussion in the past about either eliminating or minimizing barrier laws. I haven't followed that lately, so I don't know the status of those efforts.

    2. WayneS Avatar

      They're called "barrier laws" and they deny jobs to people who
      have been convicted of certain crimes

      Minor correction: barrier laws deny certain jobs to people convicted of certain crimes.

      This is a separate issue from that covered in the article, since Mr. Grimm has been declared innocent of any crime. With that said, I oppose most barriers to employment for those convicted of felonies. There are exceptions, though. For instance, I do not think a convicted pedophile should be allowed to work at a K-12 school in any capacity – ever.

    3. WayneS Avatar

      They're called "barrier laws" and they deny jobs to people who
      have been convicted of certain crimes

      Minor correction: barrier laws deny certain jobs to people convicted of certain crimes.

      This is a separate issue from that covered in the article, since Mr. Grimm has been declared innocent of any crime. With that said, I oppose most barriers to employment for those convicted of felonies. There are exceptions, though. For instance, I do not think a convicted pedophile should be allowed to work at a K-12 school in any capacity – ever.

      I have hired convicted felons twice in the past and neither of them ever gave me cause to regret choosing to do so.

  3. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar
    f/k/a_tmtfairfax

    Just as vigorous prosecution for violent crimes and, IMO, defrauding individuals, is critical for society to function, so are "Innocence Project"-type efforts.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar
      LarrytheG

      except the govt has chosen to not do the "innocence project" as a balance to it's other efforts. It's chosen to not do it, to not seek justice for people wrongly convicted.

      1. DJRippert Avatar
        DJRippert

        Isn't that what public defenders do – try to keep the innocent put of jail?

        1. LarrytheG Avatar
          LarrytheG

          Are you saying that public defenders are known to be the most effective in representing
          their clients? My impression is that they are not the caliber of top professionals in the field.

          The Innocence Project has a known reputation as among the most effective defenders.

          Why not have the state pay them up front with no legal challenges, to investigate every death penalty case thoroughly right after the conviction, not years or decades later? Isn’t it fairly clear, given the number
          that are actually found to be innocent that we do not deliver justice as we should?

  4. I'm a convert on capital punishment. Once upon a time, I whole-heartedly supported it (and would continue to support it if I knew with 100% certainty that a killer was guilty). But the Innocence Project and other groups have uncovered so many instances of false convictions that I don't have that certainty. I can think of few things worse than the state executing an innocent man.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar
      LarrytheG

      geeze… unbelievable… we have the SAME opinion!

    2. LarrytheG Avatar
      LarrytheG

      One thing that COULD be done is that the process REQUIRES an innocence project investigation – paid for by the state and the innocence project is given carte blanch on records and no State or Local legal challenge, and for as long as it takes. Make the bar high.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Actually, that’s what the State is supposed to do in the first place.

        1. DJRippert Avatar
          DJRippert

          Right.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            and apparently does not for some convictions… there is a "gap" between what is claimed to be done and what actually is… imo.

            A BIG question is when they find out that someone who confessed is proved to not be the killer by DNA evidence, What does say about our criminal justice system?

    3. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Another 50 years, you might become positively liberal. I came to that position with the first exonerated prisoner I heard of, Sam Sheppard, and the misconduct of the State’s coroner. It only takes one.

      Raise your hand if you think that the cops and DA worked to stretch the death penalty to Caryl Chessman.

      1. WayneS Avatar

        I'm not raising my hand, and I'm also not necessarily not raising my hand. I just thought you might find this of some interest:

        http://www.gadflyonline.com/10-29-01/ftr-caryl-chessman.html

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          Yep, saw that yesterday while trying to remember how he spelled Carl.

    4. DJRippert Avatar
      DJRippert

      I stopped supporting capital punishment after watching the first OJ trial. If the criminal justice system could be that perverted by a big money "show trial" I realized that I couldn't imagine what would happen in a "low money" trial like the one described by this blog.

      The best line I ever heard about the first OJ trial … "Looks like they framed the right guy."

    5. Marty Chapman Avatar
      Marty Chapman

      Life without parole is viable alternative to the death penalty for the most heinous of crimes. As recently as the 1980's an admissible confession was the gold standard in homicide investigations simply because if the killer was not arrested or a least identified at the scene or within 48 hrs, it was very unlikely that he would be by forensic science.

  5. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    The difference between professionals and amateurs is the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984.

    1. WayneS Avatar

      …which fortunately does not apply to us.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        You do know they have far fewer false confessions and a much higher clearance rate, right?

        1. WayneS Avatar

          I know they have far fewer false confessions they are willing to admit to.

          1. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            I don’t think “they” or “we” admit to them. They are discovered in appeals. That process — similar in both countries— have discovered way fewer there than here.

            The interrogation training they receive downplays the confession. It’s not a goal. Thus, the big difference, they are not allowed to lie or even suggest that they have evidence that they do not have. In contrast, VB cops have faked DNA reports for (they claim) interrogations only. Of course, faking evidence increases the risk of fake evidence entering the system from ZERO to not zero.

  6. WayneS Avatar

    The Virginia Court of Appeals showed that it is willing to consider the facts behind a confession and not take it at face value.

    And that is a good thing.

  7. Marty Chapman Avatar
    Marty Chapman

    "There are no perfect murders, only imperfect investigations"

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