Police investigators are under a great deal of pressure to solve crimes. Statistics are tracked. Open cases are posted and reviewed. The temptation is to use aggressive interrogation techniques that are designed to provoke confessions rather than to find the truth.
The "Reid Technique" is considered the golden standard in many departments. It is a nine step inducement to confession: Confrontation, certainty of guilt, varying of techniques until a desired response is provoked.
It isn't dishonest although it is often misleading. William F. Buckley, running for Mayor of New York City in 1965 gave his prescription of law and order. Police should lust after criminals, he said, even as a politician will lust after votes. And the Reid technique does fulfill that. The aggressiveness means that, if improperly used, it is less a tool of discovering guilt than confirming it.
Sometimes things go wrong.
The problem of false confessions is the nightmare of many police investigators. Suspects can implicate themselves when they are innocent. Sometimes telling lies against one's own interests can lead to notoriety. Sometimes guilt for something else leads to a craving for self-punishment. Occasionally a false memory can come from drug or alcohol abuse or mental instability.
Brandon L. Garrett of Yale University has devoted a large part of his academic life to examining such issues. His focus has been on those who are most certainly innocent. DNA evidence provides a clarity that tends to override even eyewitness testimony and, beyond that, even confessions. In a piece written for Slate magazine, Garrett produces startling statistics:
Out of 40 confessions later proven false,
- 27 involved details the confessor should not have known.
- 17 were mentally disabled or mentally ill
- 13 were juveniles
- 7 had visions or dreams of the crime they confessed to
And all 40 were proven innocent through DNA evidence.
Police have devised methods of verification. Often they are used as part of the Reid Technique of interrogation. One is to ask open ended questions. The wrong question is "Did you kill him with a rope in the conservatory?" Someone who is giving a false confession will know to give the right answer. "What did you use to kill the victim?" is better. If the confessing suspect knows answers an innocent person wouldn't, the strength of certainty increases.
All of which makes a murder investigation, subsequent trial, conviction, and sentence in Columbia, Missouri, especially troubling. Kent Heitholt, a popular local sports editor, had been murdered on a parking lot near his workplace. A troubled teenager who had read about the murder told classmates he had been having dreams about the killing. Police soon showed up. The interrogation lacked any of the subtlety that concern for false confessions might have produced.
He confessed after a while. But the young man kept getting key details wrong, so investigators coached him. At one point, video shows questioners asking him how he had killed the victim. He struggled to get it right, but his answers were vague. Finally they told him the victim had been strangled with his own belt. "Really?" responded the incredulous suspect. Later he insisted with untroubled confidence that he and a friend had indeed used the victim's belt to kill him.
The fate of that friend is especially disturbing. Popular Ryan Ferguson was the only high school classmate who had taken the time to befriend the teenager who was later confessing to murder. And so, when police pressed their suspect for the name of an accomplice, Ryan was the one who came to mind.
And those details. The suspect in the interrogation room kept getting them wrong.
For instance, he indicated he and Ferguson stole Heitholt's wallet, which was later found, and said they returned to a nightclub around 2:26 a.m. and stayed for two hours, but Columbia's bars and clubs close earlier than that.
One detail was telling. The confessing suspect mentioned he had watched, from a hiding place, as the victim spoke with another man. He got the race and the hair color of the man wrong. The mistakes just happened to coincide exactly with the identical mistakes in a report that had been filed by a police officer the night of the murder. The police officer got those details wrong, and the suspect under questioning happened to get those exact same details wrong in the exact same way.
There were witnesses. The primary witness pointed to Ferguson as the one he saw at the scene. The testimony didn't make a lot of sense. The witness said Ferguson had called to him, telling him there was someone lying in the parking lot who needed help. Not the behavior one would have expected of a murderer. It turned out the witness was not telling the truth. he later admitted he had just wanted to curry favor with prosecutors. He was in a bit of legal trouble himself.
And there was hair. The victim had a few strands of hair clenched in his fist. The DNA evidence was withheld from the jury. It would have exonerated both kids. The prosecutor has since gone on to become a judge.
The confused young man who confessed to the murder now insists he killed the victim himself, while his friend just watched. He is still shaky about the details. The new confession has several things in common with the original. The most striking is that neither rings true.
I first wrote about this false conviction two and a half years ago. Ryan Ferguson has been in jail since his conviction in 2005. Two national networks have devoted broadcast time to the case, 48 Hours on CBS and Dateline on NBC.
Our lives have changed since then. Both of our high school kids went on to college. One is now a Marine in Afghanistan. The other is on his own in Illinois, talking with us on the telephone pretty much every week. My little girl is married now. Most lives change as the seasons turn. Such is the nature of life.
In death, nothing changes. The victim, Kent Heitholt, has been dead since 2001. That is 11 years without a birthday, a drive to work, an article written, or a kiss from a wife or child. He walked out to a parking lot, and had everything taken from him.
In prison nothing changes. Years ago, Ryan Ferguson befriended a drug addled high school classmate, then awoke one morning to find that his life had become a nightmare. He is seven years older. Seven years without the sort of experiences the rest of us take for granted.
In our system of justice we are told that it is better that many guilty be set free, a hundred?, a thousand?, than that one innocent accused be punished. It is both an injustice and a danger that a killer walks among us. It is an injustice and a danger to freedom that anyone who is so likely to be innocent is still in prison.
This week, new evidentiary hearings are being held. The President of the company that invented the Reid Technique of interrogation has testified. He is scathingly critical of the questioning that resulted in the confession.
Circuit Judge Daniel Green is conducting the hearing. He will decide whether Ryan Ferguson gets a new trial.
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