Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Expert: Yogurt Shop Case a Prime Example of False Confessions

At a meeting this morning of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' Criminal Justice Integrity Unit, University of San Francisco academic Richard Leo expounded on his research into police interrogations and the causes of false confessions. (See Grits' prior discussions of Leo's work here, here, here, and here.) What follows is a recap from my notes:

False confessions are exceptions, said Leo, not the norm, but they are caused by flaws in policing techniques that make them much more likely to happen. As has been discussed previously on Grits, most police interrogation training in the United States is based on the so-called "Reid method," which teaches there are three stages to the process of questioning suspects: Behavior analysis, the interview, and the interrogation.

Police tactics that encourage false confessions include erroneous behavior analysis and moving too quickly from the "interview" to the "interrogation" phase.

Much of the behavioral analysis taught by Reid and Associates amounts to "faux psychology," said Leo, about how guilty and innocent people behave that doesn't stand up to scholarly rigor. Police are taught to believe these methods are so reliable that officers become "human lie detectors," but excessive confidence in their ability to read deception cues can cause police to inadvertently assume guilt. That can directly lead to the more critical mistake: Moving too quickly from interview to an interrogation.

To be clear: A police interview is a relatively non-confrontational, information gathering process, where police are trained only to use interrogation methods on those they believe are guilty. Interrogation is a "guilt presumptive" process in which officers may lie, yell, intimidate, threaten, offer inducements, or otherwise manipulate suspects to secure a confession.

Leo insisted that police interrogation tactics are the primary cause of false confessions, but thinks that a secondary cause has to do with individual personality types. At risk individuals include juveniles, the mentally retarded, the mentally ill, people who are highly suggestible or compliant, or who have poor memory or high anxiety.

Most false confessors, he said, are "mentally normal" individuals, but those in a risk group are more likely to falsely confess.

There are three types of false confessors, said Leo: Voluntary, Compliant, and Persuaded. To use a current, local example, all three of these false confession types were in play in Austin's Yogurt Shop murders.

Voluntary false confessions typically occur in high profile cases when people come forward of their own volition to confess to the crime. This is a surprisingly common phenomenon -in Austin's Yogurt shop murders, some 50 different people confessed to the crime.

A "compliant" confesson occurs when a suspect confesses at the end of a long, grueling interrogation in order to put an end to the stress and make the interrogation stop. In the Yogurt Shop case, the confession offered by defendant Robert Springsteen falls into this category, he said.

The "persuaded" confessor actually comes to temporarily believe, or at least accept, that they must have committed the crime even when they really didn't. Leo said that Michael Scott's confession in the Yogurt Shop case is a classic example of this, and that he believes Scott is actually innocent with "every bone in my body."

Quite a few "persuaded" confessors have had their convictions overturned by DNA evidence, said Leo, pointing out that DNA evidence failed to corroborate Scott and Springsteen's Yogurt Shop confessions.

In summary, Leo says there are three basic "pathways to false confessions." Police may make "misclassification" errors in which officers misjudge guilt on the front end and mistakenly initiate interrogations. They might make a "coercion" error in which psychological manipulation techniques backfire and intimidate innocent suspects to confess. And police also can make a "contamination" error, in which they inadvertently feed suspects information that later fills out the details of a confession, but which came from the officer, not the defendant.

When it comes to public policy reforms to prevent false confessions, Leo thinks recording interrogations is the best available tool. Generally, he said, police tend to oppose recording interrogations on the front end, but once they've fully implemented the practice, "they love it." While some false confessions still occur when they're recorded (like Scott and Springsteen's), recording creates a reviewable record, eliminates "swearing contests" about what was said in the interrogation room, and protects police from false allegations of misconduct.

Ten states already require recording interrogations, he said. In two of them - Minnesota and Alaska - courts issued the requirement, while elsewhere it was enacted through legislation. Wisconsin's statute, said Leo, is the best version currently available and should be considered a model.

Some states require recording in all felonies, some only for homicides, and the Wisconsin legislation allows exceptions for field interviews and when exigent circumstances prevent recording.

Rep. Jim McReynolds asked about funding, to which Leo replied that this is an often-raised concern by police but their objections can be easily overcome. These days recording is "not super expensive," he said, and digital storage has become especially cheap.

What's more, recording saves the state money at future points in the process, though such savings won't necessarily accrue to the police budget. Overall, recording more than makes up for the minimalist expense by saving time in the courts, mostly because it facilitates plea bargains and reduces haggling over whether confessions are admitted. The recording expenditure more than pays for itself when you consider how much it costs to pay lawyers, judges, bailiffs, etc., for suppression hearings.

While Leo said recording interrogations would be his top recommendation for reducing false confessions, he mentioned several other approaches worth recording here:
  • Expanded police training on the causes of false confessions and how to avoid them.
  • Create a post-confession review team when a confessor falls in an at-risk group
  • Jury instructions where confessions are the primary evidence.
  • Allowing expert witnesses in court to dispute confessions.
Those last two on the list are Leo's least recommended options, he said, because they occur so late in the process the damage has mostly been done. He preferred approaches that might catch or prevent false confessions earlier in the process, long before the defendant ever gets to trial.

BLOGVERSATION: From Simple Justice, "The Bricks that Build a False Confession." See also coverage of Leo's talk from the Stand Down Texas blog.


Unknown said...

I enjoy reading your blog. As a law school student I interned for the Innocence Project and as part of that experience researched the phenomenon of false confessions.

It's impressive that Professor Leo appeared before this so-called integrity board. Do you know whether he asked to speak before them, or did they seek him out as an expert in the field? Did they pay for his travel to Austin or did he fund it out of his own pocket because of his commitment to the cause of justice? My questions are because I'm wondering about the integrity board's own level of commitment to reform.

If the yogurt shop murder cases don't shake to the core the establishment's confidence in the justice system, nothing will. How much worse does it have to get before those responsible will take an interest in restoring a sense of justice in Texas?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks, d. Professor Leo was invited to speak, and I don't know but am guessing that the CCA paid his expenses to get him there.

Last fall they also brought down Gary Wells, who's arguably the leading national eyewitness ID expert.

What they do as a RESULT of these presentations remains to be seen, but they're definitely bringing in some big guns to talk to the group.

Don Dickson said...

Great post, Grits, thanks.

Marcella Chester said...

You make great points. The only ommission I see is that these techniques have also been used on crime victims when they file a police report which leads to false recantations.

One such case was highlighted in the book Cry Rape. A Madison, WS investigator decided that a victim of stranger rape made up the crime and coerced her into recanting. She was charged and only her determination led to the DNA in her case being processed which eventually led to the identification of her rapist. That rapist was eventually convicted.

Unfortunately, most crime victims who are pushed into false confessions won't have DNA evidence which will exonerate them and identify the real criminal.

SB said...

false confession- derived from a false accusation from someone known to the suspect and identification is not in doubt. Sex crimes lead the way in false confessions because gilt has already been established in the minds of the public and the professionals involved in such a situation. To fight would insure that the accused is used as an example for others who may also wish to fight. 95% enter a guilty plea and hope for the best since there will be a conviction.
With 95% accepting plea bargains a certain truth becomes clear. Does anyone believe that 95% of those charged are actually guilty? Especially when cases will never be heard by a court of law.
As sad as it is females are the bait that brings in the business. There is no punishment and no level of responsibility. Even in the case where a female teacher is charged with having sex with a student a lot of squirming takes place and it has nothing to do with double standard in the ordinary concept. In other kinds of cases gender does not provide immunity. In sex cases a female in TX who may feel threatened by authorities may keep a female in Alaska from making a report. Females draw males. They are bait that must be coddled. Many of our young females want to take responsibility for their part in a sexual crime but they get tossed right out the door. Our girls learn the lack of a penis makes them the victim. If this ever changes business will dry up. Our system teaches females to bring down males anyway possible. Every 13 year old in America carries the power to destroy and it seems there is no incorrect way to use it.Sadly there are real claims but a true confession and a false confession look the same.
Here is something that I really need to share. Please check it out.

---Alan Jackson at his best.

http://www.openmyeyeslord.net/ UltimateFreedom. htm

Anonymous said...

Umm, loweryshirley, it's very hard to understand what you're saying in that incoherent rant. Did you just say that girls are untrustworthy and that we should never believe them when they report rapes? I ask, because that's what it looked like you were saying. And if it is, you're entirely, completely, and stupidly wrong.

justice4all said...

I too, would be interested in knowing of any cases and/or stats of innocent people who took a plea because they were coerced into a false confession, then led to believe the court & jury would convict on that, despite any evidence to the contrary. I also read that pleas are offerd by PA's when they DON'T have much of a case, hoping the accused will accept. Good for the truly guilty, but bad for the innocent.

SB said...

Gravyrug, we have a rigged system where females are used and tossed aside. Being a victim is an eye-opening experience.I filed my complaint, the state became the victim and I was their insurance until the case was settled to their satisfaction. My role was laid out very clearly from the beginning and my satisfaction was never a topic of conversation. In fact there were no conversations. A plea bargain was made and accepted before I knew an offer was on the table. Who was I? Just a piece of meat who handed them an easy conviction. Did I walk away feeling like a winner? Afraid not. Used and degraded are more appropriate terms. And foolish. I had expected something that resembled justice. The statement I never got to tell my story and I knew that I could have come in with a pack of lies and the end result would have been the same. PMS and the potential to be WMD's is a lethal combination.

Anonymous said...

The suggestion to record the interrogations is a good one. However, you should be aware of a large body of literature addressing this topic. There is a "camera perspective bias" that can occur...basically this addresses the camera angle that is used during video taping. When the accused is the sole person on the video, jurors judge the "confession" differently than when the video shows both the accused and the interrogator. There is also a real problem with poor quality

A professor by the name of Daniel Lassiter has done a tremendous amount of research in this area. I believe the American Psychological Association is also in the process of developing a white paper on this topic. I suggest checking out Lassiter's work. The last time I counted he had done over 25 studies on the camera perspective bias and false confessions.


Unknown said...

Enjoy your blog. My son is one of the Yogurt Shop incarcerated. One point about experts testifying in Texas courts - it has been ruled on appeal that studies like Dr. Leo's may not be significant enough to qualify them as 'expert', likening them to a "hobby" was how it was phrased. Therefore, a trial judge can control to an extreme degree what an expert can say to the jury.

Anonymous said...

This is interesting and all, but I missed the part that states that police have the right to assume someone is guilty. I have this quaint belief that Police are there to gather evidence, find facts and arrest when enough facts warrant an arrest. I thought that presumption of guilt is strictly for a court to decide. Am I way off here? I understand that for an arrest to be made, there must be a overwhelming amount of evidence that points at an individual; however, there should remain the assumption of innocence over guilt until proven.

That stated, Believing that 'you' can judge innocence or guilt by looking into someone's eyes, or noticing a nervous twitch is pure fallacy. Any method that teaches otherwise is not scientific and should be banned.

Anonymous said...

I am a criminal defense lawyer, so I've seen a lot of defendants and crimes. First, police often do find someone early on in ths investigation, decide that person is guilty and then focus on that person only. This leads to ignoring evidence of that person's innocence (usually not consciously, but the harm is the same).

Second, about plea bargains. There are many, many cases in which someone takes a plea because they are terrified of a jury, guilty or not. It has been my experience that pleas are offered in all but the most notorious cases. The case doesn't have to be weak. However, the worse the State's case, the better the offer, the more likely the defendant is to plead guilty. Prime example - Defendant is incidted. State waits over a year and a half to appoint a lawyer. By this time most evidnece was either never collected or has been lost or destroyed. Witness names were lost and cannot be recovered. Judge denied Motion to Dimiss based on speedy trial and destruction of evdience. State offers time served. Well, this guy swears he's innocent. I believe him. But, he is terrified of facing 2-20 in front of a jury. He takes time served. State gets a conviction, even though they did a crappy job. State wins, Defendant loses, justice loses even more.

SB said...

, my prayers are with you and your loved ones.
Criminal defense attorney,I wish you would use your name so I can say I know you. Your few short sentences spoke volumes.

Anonymous said...

A few comments:
d, as a law student, you should already be aware that there is a great deal of debate in the academy and further reflected in case law regarding the credentials of experts.
I highly doubt, though I will admit I have not done the research, that the pedagogy of coerced false confessions is on par with the "science" of say, ballistic tests, or DNA.
As a working lawyer in civil cases, where no on's life or freedom is at stake, I can guarantee you you can get an expert to testify under oath to virtually anything. An article from a Cal Tech historian Morgan Kousser (himself an expert witness in voting rights case) poses the question, "Are Expert Witnesses Whores?" Well, often times what experts swear to is colored by their own prejudices, by the questions they ask or that they fail to ask.

Here are my thoughts, as someone who took a Ph.D from a top 10 graduate program, and earned a law degree, and still works as a lawyer, and regularly engages experts, and cross examines the other side's experts.

(1) real science involves rigorous efforts to falsify hypotheses. If they stand up after you repeatedly try to falsify them, then you are getting closer to scientific "truth." Ideally the scientist should not be invested in the outcome. Coercion studies may not be junk science, but I doubt they are anywhere near as robust as the hypothesis that the penicillin in bread mold kills infection, or DNA identifications.

(2)My educated guess (correct me if you can demonstrate I'm wrong) is that whatever biases the "coercion" scholars have, they don't lie on the side of law enforcement.

(3) I have not seen the videos, but have seen excerpts from transcripts, and I read those closely and critically. Springsteen and Scott, it struck me, sparred with the questioners, stonewalled, played dumb, and spun stories. The questioners clearly leaned heavily on them. But at some point, both suspects independently and separately told a story that not only rang true, but independently confirmed many key details-- finding four girls in the store where they expected two (two had been dropped off there later); staking out the store and rigging a rear door to open; killing the girls one after another when they could not provide an answer as to accessing the dropped cash; sexual dysfunction in the course of attempted rape (which might, coupled with setting a fire with accelerant, explain lack of DNA evidence); agreement as to who was the ringleader; vomiting off a brdge after the incident.
While the methods and some of the lack of DNA evidence gives me pause, I cannot shake off the similarity in these two confessions, both made a FULL decade later.

(4) Project innocence and others less formally devoted to springing murderers always have a metaphorical bushy haired man out there who-really-dunnit.
But life isn't a Grisham novel.
If you ask me who likely did this, and check off against the main suspects, the answer loops around to these two, and Pierce and Welborn.
First, armed robbery itself is a high risk, low reward crime. Due to security in banks, cash drops in other manners of businesses, you're looking at serious felony for small change. So if I had to say who did this, was it some pothead high school dropouts with low impulse control, ready access to guns, and plenty of time on their hands to cruise malls and strip malls, I'd say yes. More likely them than some phantom Mexican nationals. Most of the latter come here to work. They have to have a certain amount of savvy and initiative just to get here. Would they stick up a yogurt shop? Dubious.

As to the theories of insurance reserve fraud and murder spun by "Moebius," or whatever his name is,the simpler explanation is usually the correct one. I.E., well, yes, maybe Sam Giancana, brokered through Fidel Castro and Jimmy Hoffa, enlisted Woody Harrelson's father (and a supporting cast of hundreds)to kill Jack Kennedy while setting up Lee Oswald as a patsy,so that LBJ could fight a war in Vietnam in order to torpedo his own presidency, running all the major planning through New Orleans because they liked the ambience of the French Quarter. Or just possibly Lee Oswald was a whack job with a mail order scoped rifle who acted alone.

As to lack of DNA evidence, well, my understanding is the convicts and the unconvicted participants attempted to burn the bodies and caught the store on fire, doubtless triggering sprinklers. Even if sprinklers were not present, firemen soon were. It's likely fair to say this was not a pristine crime scene.
It's probably also fair to say there are many ways for DNA to wind up on such a crime scene (treating the entire store as a crime scene), some of it from boyfriends, customers, investigators, fire fighters, etc.

By the way, wasn't there independent concurrence of the confessions as to using an accelerant to strat the fire, and stacking napkins around the bodies?

And concurrence as well that there were two guns, a .22 and a .380?

Finally, I note one of the two convicts took the stand at his trial, and sparred with the cross examining prosecutor about the Fifth Amendment. Harder to convince me he was "coerced" where his attorney put him on the stand knowing he could be subject to withering cross examination. Ah, but there's the beauty of it, I suppose. Then you can try to claim ineffective assistance.

Law student "d" states he/she worked on the "innocence project."
That's all well and good, I guess, but my greatest sympathies have always been with the victims of crime. But most law students get a much greater charge out of trumpeting the innocence of some convicted murderer than they do out of, say, working with bereaved parents of murdered children.
I'm not saying project innocence is totally worthless, but it does seem there something a whole lot sexier or cooler or whatever about trying to spring convicted criminals, than dealing with the wreckage the criminals leave behind. The evidence I've heard about and read about in this case only convinces me the real tragedy
was the murder of the four girls, and the fact that the likely main instigator and triggerman was never tried.

SB said...

Anon 12:02
Someone who is executed for a crime they did not commit must feel a bit victimized as well. Working with the bereaved parents of a slain child would include expecting the guilty party to be punished. The Innocence Project has proven that getting a conviction often comes before getting the guilty party. In most cases it isn’t done purposely so it is nice that someone comes along to check out the work of others. The proof is either there or it isn’t.
There are many tragedies that take place and punishing the innocent while the guilty go free is one of them. I don’t know enough details to argue this case but your outlook is rather scary. There is nothing sexy or cool about trying to spring convicted criminals that are innocent. Actually, it is called justice and your flippant attitude says we don’t have time for such petty things. That’s a real shame.

Anonymous said...

anon 12:02

I think that someone who proclaims himself to be an attorney would know better than to set yourself up for defamation lawsuits. I am also appalled that you would disparage the innocence project. What ever happened to the axiom better one guilty man go free than one innocent man go to jail? I agree that the persons responsible for this crime need to be punished. Let us punish those that committed the crime. I am afraid that there is reasonable doubt about weather these men committed the crime. As long as there is that doubt they cannot be convicted of the crime.

Anonymous said...

To Anon 12:02

Two of these men (Pierce and Welborn) were released from jail and one of them was never indicted by two grand juries. They may be considered "Involuntary Public Figures" so you may get away with your comments. Though I do think you should be ashamed of yourself for using your status as a lawyer to try these guys in the public eye. Don’t we have a court system that should do that? And it sounds like they did. Hence they are no longer in jail.

I'm worried about all the kids out there experimenting with drugs and dropping out of high school. It sounds like if you had your way you would scoop them all up and have them incarcerated. Also, lack of impulse control is due to the frontal lobe being that of a child’s. The human brain is not fully developed until the age of 26. My point is that doing drugs, dropping out of high school, and having the brain of a 15 or 16 yr old doesn’t make you a killer. You also mentioned “access to guns” and “plenty of time on their hands to cruise malls and strip malls.” That was most of the kids I grew up with if not all. Weren't two of the girls at a mall before they were killed? How many parents out there were in law enforcement and had guns? How many parents hunted? How many tragic stories have we heard about toddlers that get access to their parent’s guns? Does this make them killers?

So, even if you were not trying to defame the ones that the court never tried, your points have no basis in fact.

Anonymous said...

Anon 12:02

One more thing, you mentioned these confessions included “key details.” The Ochoa confession from “The Pizza Hut Murders(another Austin murder botched by the police)also included key evidence that only the killers would know. So, how do you explain that? My explanation is that these detectives fed these men the same information and the men regurgitated what they were told. If the detectives didn’t like what the accused were telling them they stopped them until they got it right. They tried to do the same with the other two men (Pierce and Welborn) but it didn’t work in the detectives’ favor. Several things you need to keep in mind, these detectives took at least two of these boys in their police cars many times and talked about the details of the case. Were these conversations on tape or part of the transcripts? I think not. What about the detectives taking two of the men to the Yogurt Shop to "refresh" their memories? Also, What about their smoke breaks? On tape? Nope. I personally talked to four detectives at the same time and they fed me info so I could “help” in feeding it to one of the accused. Unfortunately, for the detectives their tactic didn't work. Was that on tape? You guessed it. No!

What about the other 48 people that confessed and had key information to the case that only the killers would know? How do all these people know only what the killers should know? I don't get it? Anon 12:02 have you read the transcripts of the other 48 confessors? The only explanation that makes sense is that they were fed the information during their interrogations.