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John Purvis

Other Florida False Confession Exonerations
On November 8, 1983, 38-year-old Susan Hamwi was found stabbed to death in her home on Poinsettia Drive in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Her 18-month-old daughter, Shane, was found dead from dehydration in her crib. Hamwi had recently relocated from Aspen, Colorado after divorcing her husband, Paul.

Police believed Hamwi was killed on November 4. Based on an autopsy, authorities said the baby died three days later.

On November 9, police questioned 42-year-old John Purvis, a schizophrenic who lived with his mother three houses away, after neighbors claimed that Hamwi reported Purvis had been bothering her. Purvis denied involvement in the crime, but police began monitoring his movements.

In January 1984, police approached Purvis when he went to a drug store to buy a Reader’s Digest and took him to the station where he was first questioned by a psychiatrist. When the psychiatrist told police that Purvis admitted killing Hamwi because she rebuffed his romantic advances, detectives then took over the interrogation and obtained a detailed statement that was tape-recorded.

On the tape, Purvis said he knocked on her door and when she answered he stabbed her in the chest and the knife broke off. He said he then partially undressed Hamwi and had sex with her on the kitchen floor with the knife blade still in her chest. “She didn’t like me…I killed her,” he said. “I stabbed her with a knife. . . . I stabbed her in the heart. . . . I strangled her with a cord . . . I just left the baby.” Afterward, he told his mother about the murder and she got rid of his bloody clothes.

Purvis was charged with two counts of murder and one count of sexual assault.

Less than 24 hours later, he recanted the confession. His lawyer described Purvis as a man who would tell anyone “anything they want to hear.” Purvis was not read his Miranda warning, the lawyer said.

The defense filed a motion to bar Purvis’s statements to the psychiatrist and the tape-recorded confession from trial. In August 1984, at a hearing on the motion, two psychiatrists testified that Purvis was “psychologically coerced” into giving the confession. Afraid and without his mother, Purvis “under those circumstances, would say what they wanted him to say,” Dr. James Jordan, testified. “He's a very suggestible guy.”

Broward County Circuit Judge Thomas Coker rejected the defense motion to suppress the statements to the psychiatrist. The judge ruled that although Purvis may not have had his rights read to him when he told the psychiatrist he killed Hamwi, he was not yet formally in police custody and therefore the statements were voluntary. The judge, however, barred the use of the tape-recorded confession because Purvis was not read his Miranda warning.

In March 1985, Purvis went to trial in Broward County Circuit Court. Jurors heard a tape recording of Purvis’s interview with detectives on November 9, 1983, the day after the bodies were found. “I did not kill the girl, I did not kill the girl at all...I never went inside her house,” Purvis said. “I just knew her as a neighbor, that's all. I don't want no trouble.”

No physical evidence, including none of the fingerprints taken from the murder scene—linked Purvis to the crime.

Two neighbors testified that they heard voices inside Hamwi’s house early on morning of Nov. 4, 1983, the day the prosecution said Hamwi was killed and four days before the bodies were discovered. One of them, Amy Rood, said she heard a man, whose voice she identified as Purvis, asking, “What do we do with the baby?” Rood told the jury she also heard a woman say, “Don't touch the knife.” The prosecution contended the woman was Purvis’s mother.

Dr. Joel Klass, a psychiatrist, testified that when Purvis was brought to the police station in January 1984, he showed Purvis some picture cards used as a standard psychological test. Purvis became tense and almost angry when shown two of the cards, Klass said.

Klass said one of the cards could be interpreted as showing a violent scene, the other card a sexual one. “There was an immediate denial of what was happening on the card,” Klass said. “He kept saying it was just people on the card. There was no recognition of the obvious.”

Klass said Purvis then stood up and said several times: “You think I did it?” Klass said he asked what he meant and Purvis said, “Kill that woman.” Klass said Purvis then said, “I killed her. I liked her.”

“He became totally relaxed, as if unburdening himself,” Klass testified. "He made several stabbing motions with his right hand, and said, ‘I stabbed her in the heart.’”

Former Ohio policeman Earl Ross, a Fort Lauderdale neighbor of Hamwi, testified for the defense that he saw Hamwi and her daughter alive on the evening of Nov. 4, 1983—11 hours after the prosecution claimed Purvis and his mother were heard inside the house talking about the crime.

“I saw Susan and what appeared to be a baby walking hand- in-hand in (Hamwi’s) front yard,” Ross testified. “And I’m positive it was November 4.”

Dr. Sanford Jacobson, a Miami psychiatrist who interviewed Purvis in jail, testified for the defense that Purvis would respond to questions by police or anyone else by saying what he thought they wanted to hear. “He doesn’t think about the consequences of his answers,” Jacobson said.

Purvis testified in his own defense and denied involvement in the crime. He said he confessed because he thought they would let him go home if he did. Instead, he said, “They shook my hands and said, ‘Congratulations for confessing to the murders, John. Now you're going to spend the rest of your life in jail.’”

On March 14, 1985, the jury convicted Purvis of first-degree murder and sexual assault of Hamwi and second-degree murder of Hamwi’s daughter. He was sentenced to life in prison.

In October 1992, after Purvis’s convictions were upheld on appeal, his new attorney, Steven Wisotsky, filed a public records request for the investigative file. During his research on the case, Wisotsky discovered a number of inconsistencies between Purvis’s confession and evidence that had been overlooked or ignored. Purvis’s description of the victim’s clothing was wrong, his description of how Hamwi was killed was incorrect and after denying he gagged Hamwi, agreed with police that he did gag her with a handkerchief, when in fact she was gagged with paper towels. Purvis also confessed to strangling and smothering Hamwi’s baby—but the child died from dehydration.

Wisotsky also found a memo in the prosecution file detailing how information had come to police in May 1985—two months after Purvis was convicted—suggesting that Hamwi’s murder was a contract killing and the murderer was a man named Robert Beckett. The memo said that detectives investigated fruitlessly for six months and then closed the investigation.

Prompted by the disclosure of the memo, authorities re-opened the investigation. Ultimately, in December 1992, detectives found 54-year-old Robert Beckett, who said he had become a born-again Christian and was in failing health. In return for immunity from prosecution, Beckett confessed that he and another man, Paul Serio, killed Hamwi after being hired by her ex-husband.

On January 13, 1993, Fort Lauderdale detectives arrested 47-year-old Serio in White Settlement, Texas and charged him with murder. The following day, 46-year-old Paul Hamwi was arrested in Aspen and charged with murder. According to Beckett, Hamwi paid $14,000 to kill his ex-wife because he wanted to avoid a $150,000 divorce settlement.

Hours later, Purvis was released from prison and on February 24, 1993, his conviction was vacated and the charges were dismissed.

In March 1994, a jury convicted Paul Hamwi and Serio of first-degree murder. They were sentenced to life in prison.

Purvis filed a federal civil rights lawsuit and in February 1995, the city of Fort Lauderdale settled the case for $1 million.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 5/15/2018
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Rape
Reported Crime Date:1983
Age at the date of reported crime:42
Contributing Factors:False Confession
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No