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Detectives coerced confession from man accused in Pinellas Trail death, documents say

The confession of a Clearwater man whose first-degree murder charge was dropped last week was coerced by detectives during an interview that lasted more than nine hours, according to court records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times on Monday.

His assistant public defender argued in court records that Clearwater detectives used "inappropriate psychological questioning techniques" to coerce the confession from Dewayne Jones. They also did not read him his Miranda rights at the start of the interrogation and violated his right to due process.

His statement, wrote assistant public defender Ari Weisberg, "was not made of Defendant's free will and choice."

A month after Pinellas Circuit Judge Nancy Moate Ley tossed the confession, prosecutors dropped the case Thursday.

Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter said in a statement last week that his detectives did not commit an "egregious error." But Public Defender Bob Dillinger likened the Jones case to that of Tom Sawyer's, whose 16-hour interrogation with Clearwater detectives in the 1980s ended with him confessing to the murder of his neighbor. He was later exonerated after an appeals court determined his confession was coerced.

"Same exact errors that the (District Court of Appeals) slammed Clearwater for," Dillinger said. "For the chief to say nothing was done wrong, I think he got bad info."

On Aug. 10, 2014, a day after Lydia Ann Tross' decomposed body was found along the Pinellas Trail, Jones showed up at the Pinellas sheriff's north county station to turn in her wallet. He told Clearwater police detectives he found it in a purse on the side of the trail. After talking to them, Jones, then 18, went home.

But the next day, Clearwater homicide detectives Thomas Dawe and William Hodgson picked him up from his North Greenwood home, drove him to the crime scene, and then headed to police headquarters.

They escorted him into a cramped interview room. A table and the two detectives stood between him and the door. The interview began at 12:17 p.m.

From the beginning, court records state, the detectives were "clearly deceptive" about why they brought Jones to the station, telling him they wanted to show him some photos of the crime scene.

They began to ask questions that could "elicit an incriminating response" before reading Jones his Miranda rights. They finally did, at 1:37 p.m., court records state.

When Jones asked if he was in trouble, Dawe said no.

Even though Jones told them multiple times that he didn't kill Tross, the detectives told him at least 10 times that the murder could have been a mistake. They accused Jones of lying and told him if he didn't provide a statement that matched their theory of the murder, he would not get leniency from the court system.

"That's the case that will put you in prison for the rest of your life because you're a liar and a murderer," Dawe told him.

But Jones continued to insist he wasn't involved.

"You're not telling me the truth, okay, so it doesn't matter whether you did it or not," Dawe continued. "What matters is you're lying to me."

The detectives also used "inappropriate psychological questioning techniques" by providing details of the crime that Jones repeated back to them.

But Jones, who according to court records has an IQ of 75, eventually confessed. He spent the last two years awaiting trial at the Pinellas County jail. He was released Friday.

Slaughter declined to comment regarding the public defender's motion because he had not read it Monday, but pointed out that Jones blamed someone else for the murder. He had told police that a friend named CJ assaulted Tross while Jones stole her belongings.

But police were able to rule the friend out when they saw him in a video from a church during the time of the murder.

"This person that we're rallying behind at this point would have put that person in jail if it weren't for the officers' work on that," Slaughter said.

Dillinger said his office doubts Tross was even killed. When Tross' boyfriend reported her missing after she left their apartment after a fight, he told police she left with bottles of sleeping pills and that she was suicidal. Empty pill bottles were next to her body, Dillinger added.

"It appears from our perspective that it was a suicide," he said.

Assistant Chief State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said besides the confession, the only other evidence in the case was Tross' wallet.

"There was not sufficient evidence to go forward without the confession," he said Monday. "The case basically rested upon the confession."

Contact Laura C. Morel at Follow @lauracmorel.