Domonic Faulkner had just finished telling Baltimore homicide detectives about the last time he had seen his friend alive.
Now David Womack was dead. The 22-year-old Baltimore man had been found in a crashed car with a single gunshot wound. And Faulkner, who had been with Womack hours before the shooting, was in the Western District police station, answering questions about that night.
The investigators slid a blurry surveillance image from the crime scene in front of him. The people in the photo were unknown to the detectives. But as Faulkner looked at the image, police said, his eyes began to water.
Detectives Luis Delgado and Robert Heath now sensed Faulkner had been involved in Womack's death — and was ready to come clean.
They turned the tape recorder off.
What happened over the next 51 minutes is in dispute. But when the tape recorder came back on, Faulkner was delivering a full and detailed confession to killing Womack.
What detectives didn't know at the time was that Faulkner's IQ had been measured at 62, placing him in the lowest 1 percent of the population. A psychologist who interviewed Faulkner found him to be "highly suggestible," and determined he was "at risk to making a coerced compliant false confession/incriminating statement."
Faulkner, then 23, would soon say that he had simply told police what he thought they wanted to hear. But it was too late: He was charged with murder. He pleaded not guilty.
"There's not a scintilla of evidence other than his confession," said Brian Thompson, Faulkner's attorney.
For many, the idea that a suspect would confess to a murder he did not commit is difficult to believe. But it's not uncommon. The Innocence Project says more than 1 out of 4 people who have been wrongfully convicted but were later exonerated by DNA evidence made a false confession or incriminating statement.
University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett wrote a book examining such cases.
"Because of the power of DNA testing, we now know that people confess to crimes they did not commit," he said. "Once facts are leaked to a suspect or leading questions asked, there's no way to unring the bell and sort truth from fiction."
Garrett has found 350 cases in which defendants were convicted of a range of crimes but later exonerated by DNA. That is, the physical evidence showed that they did not commit the crime.
Still, in 75 of those cases, the defendant had confessed.
Garrett says a common thread ran through many of those cases: Detectives subjected the suspects to accusatory interrogations, made threats, and then helped the suspect shape his or her account, often supplying facts the suspect didn't know.
Police and prosecutors say Faulkner's was no such case. They say he provided details of Womack's killing that could have been known only by the person who committed the crime. When a judge threw out Faulkner's confession over questions about whether he should have had a lawyer present, prosecutors fought to get it reinstated — and won.
Heath, the detective, said it was a "solid case."
Faulkner "seemed like a nice young kid, who just got caught up in a moment. Sometimes that happens," he said in a recent interview.
At trial, Faulkner and his attorneys had the challenge of arguing against his own words.
"It's been pretty obvious what the question is in this trial," Assistant State's Attorney Terrence Nash told jurors in his closing argument. "Do you believe the defendant when he said he shot David Womack? Do you believe him?"
‘Where u at?’
Police were called to the 2800 block of Mosher Street in West Baltimore just after midnight on March 4, 2013, for what appeared to be a car accident. A silver 2000 Mercedes Benz had crashed into a tree with enough force to blow its airbags, and a man inside was unconscious.
As medics administered CPR, they found the man had suffered a gunshot wound. A single bullet had entered through his shoulder and ricocheted through his heart and lungs.
A block away, officers found what they believed to be the scene of the shooting. Police found a gold cross medallion believed to have belonged to the victim, who at that point was a John Doe.
Delgado, the lead detective, took possession of the victim's phone. That morning, it kept ringing. It was Faulkner.
"GM," Faulkner wrote in a text message: Good morning.
"Yo where u at?" Faulkner wrote in another. "I need to get car washed."
Delgado called Faulkner back from his own phone. Faulkner identified himself as Womack's "cousin," meaning in this case a good friend. Delgado and Heath, his partner, visited Faulkner at his West Baltimore apartment to ask Faulkner if he could help them find Womack's family.
"We learned [Womack's] identity from him," Delgado later testified.
They would testify later that they had no reason to think Faulkner was involved in Womack's death.
Over the next nine days, police worked to acquire surveillance camera footage and waited on DNA analysis from Womack's car.
With no leads and Delgado looking for something to jumpstart his case, he reached back out to Faulkner. Police took him to the Western District police station, because, they say, it was closer to his home than the homicide unit in the department's downtown headquarters.
Unlike the homicide unit, however, the Western District police station was not equipped to record interviews on video from start to finish. For years, homicide detectives had conducted lengthy interviews before recording, then turned on a cassette recorder and run through the same questions.
During trials, defense attorneys seized on the practice, regularly suggesting to jurors that detectives had used the undocumented portions of the interviews to browbeat and coerce their clients into admitting to questionable guilt.
In the first recorded portion of the March 13, 2013, interview with Faulkner, he gave an account of driving around the city and hanging out with Womack. He said Womack left him at his apartment around 9:30 p.m. — three hours before Womack was shot.
"He dropped me off and I called him to make sure, 'David where you at?' He said he was on his way home," Faulkner told police.
The detectives showed Faulkner a still picture from surveillance camera video of a man, a woman and a car.
Faulkner said he didn't recognize the people, but the vehicle looked like Womack's.
"At one point, you told me you didn't want to meet with me," Delgado told Faulkner. "Is that correct? You didn't want any parts of this?
"Yes, sir," Faulkner said.
"Why is that?" Delgado said.
"You know, I ain't, I ain't know what was going on so I really didn't want to, you know, like be a part of this, sir," Faulkner said.
"If you knew anything in reference to his death, would you tell me?" he asked.
"Yes sir, but I don't know anything," Faulkner said.
"You're looking at me kind of — is there something wrong?" Delgado said.
"No sir," Faulkner said.
"You look like you want to cry," Delgado said. "You OK?"
The tape stopped at 7:37 p.m., but the detectives and Faulkner kept talking. Heath says the time was filled with idle chatter. Faulkner says he was threatened.
"They were telling me, 'You'll never see your kids,'" Faulkner told The Baltimore Sun. "I was scared and nervous. I didn't know what to do."
The recording resumed at 8:28. Now, Delgado was asking Faulkner to recount the conversation they had when the tape was off.
Faulkner said he had identified himself and his girlfriend as the people in the grainy surveillance photo — and then gave a detailed accounting of the killing.
Faulkner was charged with first-degree murder, armed robbery, assault and handgun charges. He was now facing the possibility of life in prison. A District Court judge ordered him held without bail.
Police and prosecutors would later say they had no idea about Faulkner's intellectual capacity until his defense team raised it far into the trial. But recordings obtained by The Sun through a Maryland Public Information Act request show detectives were told on the night of his confession.
‘Y’all didn’t know about his symptoms?’
While Faulkner was being questioned, police were holding his then-girlfriend, Tre'Arra Spratley, in another room. She was eight months pregnant with their child.
On tape, Spratley seemed at times to have difficulty understanding the questions being asked. But she was adamant that Faulkner was with her in bed at her apartment when the shooting occurred.
Detectives informed Spratley that Faulkner had confessed to the killing, and had placed her at the scene with him.
"Why would he identify that picture and say that's him?" Det. Martin Young asked.
"Because he's retarded himself," Spratley said.
"He what?" Young said.
"He's retarded," she said. "Yes he is."
There was a pause.
"What you mean?" Young asked.
"Y'all didn't know about his symptoms?"
Faulkner's attorneys say they were not given that tape.
Psychologists who evaluated Faulkner for the defense and for prosecutors would come to opposite conclusions about his mental abilities.
Dr. Michael O'Connell, who examined Faulkner for the defense, reported that he suffered "significant cognitive and developmental deficits" and displayed risk factors for giving a false confession.
In a report, O'Connell wrote that Faulkner had a "history of being influenced and exploited by other people."
"Mr. Faulkner's shame regarding his disabilities and efforts he makes to mask his deficits or present what has been referred to as a 'cloak of competence' would limit Det. Delgado's ability to clarify any confusion," O'Connell wrote. He said detectives had used coercive interrogation techniques developed to instill fear in suspects and lead them to believe they will be found guilty.
The state's expert, Dr. Christiane Tellefsen, found the interview with detectives brief and unremarkable — not the kind of grueling marathon session that might produce a false confession under duress.
"It was very short, simple, question and answer, tell us about this, tell us about that," she testified at Faulkner's trial. "Whatever his vulnerability is, that situation did not exploit those vulnerabilities."
Tellefsen said Faulkner had a low IQ. But she said other aspects of his life showed him to be higher functioning. He was able to hold jobs, maintain a household and care for his children. His "adaptive functioning" pushed him up out of the intellectually disabled range, she determined.
"He had the capacity to" understand what was happening during the interrogation, she testified.
"I can't tell you he did or didn't" understand, she said. "Only Domonic can say whether he did or didn't."
A mentor intervenes
Faulkner had been mentored by the jeweler Tom Smyth since 2006. They met at a Saturday morning breakfast hosted by Young Life Urban, which pairs inner city youth with male role models.
Faulkner, who grew up in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, knew little of his father. He was taken from his mother and placed into foster care at age 6.
When he met Smyth, Faulkner was a student at Claremont High School, which serves adolescents and young adults with moderate to severe disabilities. He and Smyth continued to meet up from time to time, with Smyth offering guidance and helping him navigate some of life's challenges.
Faulkner began working at age 17, first in fast food and also in cleaning. At age 20, he was arrested on a minor drug charge — the only criminal violation that shows up in his online court records.
Now Faulkner was in real trouble. Soon after his arrest, Smyth went to visit him at Central Booking. Faulkner told Smyth that he didn't kill anybody, but had said what he thought police wanted him to say.
Smyth remembers Faulkner's words.
"Mr. Tom, I don't understand," he said, according to Smyth. "They told me if I didn't confess, I'd be in jail for the rest of my life. But I confessed, and I'm still in jail.
"I don't understand."
Smyth said he believed Faulkner didn't understand. Faulkner had been appointed a public defender. Smyth hired a new legal team to take on the case.
Attorneys Brian Thompson and Erin Murphy began digging into the case. Thompson, a former county prosecutor with a gravelly voice, said he believed Faulkner. He started looking closely into the police investigation.
Thompson knew that before Faulkner spoke with detectives, he had twice called an attorney from his firm. (Smyth had connected him with the attorney after the 2010 drug charge.) The attorney had advised Faulkner not to speak, yet he'd gone along with the interview anyway.
With the recorder running, the detectives asked Faulkner to read his Miranda rights aloud. He struggled to pronounce words such as "afford" and "voluntarily." Thompson said that should've been a sign to detectives that Faulkner didn't understand the gravity of the conversation ahead.
In the confession, Faulkner told the detectives that he and his then-girlfriend were riding with Womack when they stopped to get a chicken box. Faulkner and his girlfriend got into an argument, and Womack intervened. Faulkner told him to mind his own business and yanked the gold cross medallion around his neck.
"I got out of the car, we had words, exchange of words," Faulkner told police. "Next thing you know, you know … he was trying to hit me, but I took his chain off him. … He had a gun and I took the gun from him and I shot him in the arm, then he got up, he got back in the car and rode off.
"I called the next day to see if he answered and he didn't answer."
Faulkner told police he had dumped the gun in a sewer drain a couple blocks away. Police removed the drain cover and searched below, but never found the weapon.
It was too heavy to float away, and it was unlikely that anyone else would have opened the sewer to recover the weapon. Thompson knew that was a major strike against the state's case.
Police never found any sign of the chicken box that Faulkner said he had purchased and which supposedly touched off the argument.
Police also botched an effort to obtain surveillance footage from a store that could've offered a better view of the man and woman in the surveillance stills — they asked for the wrong time period, and realized the error only after the footage had been overwritten.
Thompson felt the text messages Faulkner sent in the morning to Womack's phone — saying good morning and asking when they were going to hang out that day — were crucial.
"That's not the kind of thing you'd text someone who you had shot the night before, unless you're a criminal mastermind and you're setting up your defense," Thompson would say.
Heath told The Sun that he introduced the idea of self-defense to Faulkner.
"I gave him a self-defense kind of thing: 'If he pointed the gun at you, you wrestled it away from him, and it's going off, you got nervous,'" he suggested. "'You had to do what you had to do.'"
No such exchange appears in the recorded portions.
Spratley, whom Faulkner had placed at the scene, was never charged.
The state presses its case
It took Faulkner's case three years to get to trial.
During pretrial motions, Thompson had been able to get Faulkner's confession thrown out. He argued that Faulkner did not have a lawyer, and did not understand what he was saying. Prosecutors appealed, and won. The confession was back in play.
The trial began in May 2016 in Baltimore Circuit Court.
On the stand, Delgado said he learned of Faulkner's low IQ only during court proceedings. But he knew from investigating dozens of killings in the city that it doesn't take a genius to pull the trigger of a gun.
Thompson told Delgado that he had no corroborating evidence that the people in the picture were Faulkner and his girlfriend.
"Your client," Delgado responded, "identified himself."
In a perfect world, the phone in the homicide unit would have been ringing off the hook with tips after Womack was killed. Police would've found the murder weapon with DNA or fingerprints — or both. Video surveillance footage would have captured the shooting, and the events before and after. But neither prosecutors nor the defense had any of those things.
Could Delgado discount a defendant's own admission of guilt, just because the rest didn't fall into place?
Inconsistencies don't necessarily refute a case. Just because Faulkner had admitted shooting Womack didn't mean he'd been honest about every detail. What if the chicken box wasn't the real reason for the dispute? What if he discarded the gun another way?
Then there was the bus. Faulkner said he'd fled by climbing onto the No. 15 bus at Edmondson Avenue. It wasn't until later that Delgado would get video evidence showing a man and a woman, who appeared similar to the couple shown in the other surveillance image, getting onto that bus at that location.
"If the defendant wasn't the shooter … how else could he possibly know they were going to get on a bus unless he actually got on the bus?" Assistant State's Attorney Terrence Nash asked Delgado.
"There was no way of knowing," Delgado responded.
Delgado now works in the police department's arson unit. The department did not make him available for an interview for this article. Heath, his partner, retired in 2013.
Nash pointed to a flurry of calls Faulkner had made to Womack — not just a "what's up" text message, but 10 calls, starting at 6:15 AM. Nash said they showed Faulkner was trying to check on Womack's condition.
He addressed the jury.
"One might ask," he said, "if he shot the victim, why doesn't he text him, 'Hey are you dead, I know I shot you?'
"Of course he's not going to text that. Nobody would put that. But after you saw him drive off, you probably want to know if he's alive. So you probably want to send a text to see if he'll respond."
For Thompson, the gap between recordings raised questions. The only way to know whether Faulkner had been threatened or coerced, he said, would be to hear what happened in the interim.
He turned to Delgado.
"Why in God's name did you turn that tape off?"
Lingering questions, and a fresh start
Faulkner had spent 19 months in jail awaiting trial, and then another 20 months on house arrest while lawyers argued over the admissibility of the confession.
The trial lasted five days. Prosecutors argued that Faulkner confessed to the killing. The defense said Faulker's intellectual capacity cast doubt on his confession, and there was no other evidence to convict him.
Jurors deliberated for six hours. Then they cleared Faulkner of all charges.
No one from Womack's family attended the trial. Over the span of two months in 2011, his father and mother had both died; other relatives weren't close or lived out of state. Toni Klatt, Womack's girlfriend and the mother of his infant child, was told the killer had been caught on tape and confessed, and that the case was closed. No one ever contacted her again, she says. She considered the matter behind her.
"I just assumed the system worked," she said in a recent interview.
She didn't know Faulkner had been acquitted.
Informed of the verdict, Klatt said: "If he didn't do it, who did?"
In all but the rarest of circumstances, when a defendant is acquitted, the case ends. Double jeopardy prevents a defendant from being tried again. But the fact that prosecutors couldn't convince a jury of his guilt seldom leads them to conclude that they were wrong.
For these reasons, a case marked "closed" in police files will not be re-investigated barring new, actionable evidence or intelligence that points to another suspect.
Nash now runs the criminal strategies unit of the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office.
"I feel for Mr. Faulkner," he said recently. "I know he has difficulties, there's no doubt about that.
"That does not mean he did not kill his friend."
"I believe in innocent until proven guilty, and they had nothing on him to indicate he was the guy," he said. "They just had easy pickings, in my opinion."
Faulkner has not been re-arrested since his acquittal. He is looking to make good on his second chance.
He lives in a Northeast Baltimore home purchased by Smyth, who continues to mentor him. He works as a landscaper.
Though Faulkner grew up without a father, with Smyth's help, he's been working to be a good role model for his four children.
"I want to be a loving man," he told The Sun recently. "It's not just for me, it's for my kids and doing the right thing.
"If I didn't do the right thing, I'd be in a slump — in a hole. I gotta lead by example and keep my kids positive.
"Every day I wake up, I give thanks … I could've been in jail for the rest of my life for something I didn't commit."