March 14, 2010

Police interrogations: AP-LS issues landmark white paper

Boy's "psychological torture" points to need for reform

In 1998, the Crowe family in Escondido, California awakened to their worst nightmare. Twelve-year-old Stephanie was lying in a pool of blood on her bedroom floor, dead from multiple stab wounds. Police quickly zeroed in on a suspect -- Stephanie's 14-year-old brother Michael. After a series of grueling interrogations, Michael ultimately admitted he may have killed his sister. He and two friends were arrested for murder.

Only through serendipity were the boys' charges dismissed more than a year later, when DNA evidence proved that a mentally ill transient had committed the murder. That man, Richard Tuite, was ultimately convicted of manslaughter.

Now, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has reinstituted the families' civil rights case against the police, dismissed by a federal judge several years ago. Writing for the three-judge panel, Justice Sidney R. Thomas described the shocking nature of the interrogations:
One need only read the transcripts of the boys' interrogations, or watch the videotapes, to understand how thoroughly the defendants' conduct in this case "shocks the conscience." Michael and Aaron [Houser] -- 14 and 15 years old, respectively -- were isolated and subjected to hours and hours of interrogation during which they were cajoled, threatened, lied to, and relentlessly pressured by teams of police officers. "Psychological torture" is not an inapt description.
"Psychological torture" and "brutal and inhumane" were descriptions given by a juror in the real killer's criminal trial after he viewed the videotaped interrogations. (I show the heartwrenching video, which is no longer available commercially, in my forensic courses.) Dr. Richard Leo, an expert in coerced confessions and author of Police Interrogation and American Justice (read my review HERE), echoed the juror's sentiments, describing Michael's interrogation as "the most psychologically brutal interrogation and tortured confession that I have ever observed." So did Dr. Calvin Colarusso, Director of Child Psychiatry Residence Training Program at the University of California, San Diego, who evaluated Michael and described the interrogation as "the most extreme form of emotional child abuse that I have ever observed in my nearly 40 years of observing and working with children and adolescents."

The appellate victory will allow the families' federal civil rights case to move forward to a jury trial or a settlement. In an interesting angle, the justices also reinstated the claim against a psychologist whom police consulted during the interrogation. The plaintiffs allege that Dr. Lawrence "Deadlift" Blum, a police psychologist, conspired with Escondido police, helping them formulate a "tactical plan" that they followed in their interrogation. Blum admitted in a deposition that he told a police detective that 15-year-old Aaron Houser, Michael's friend, was a "Charlie Manson wannabe."

The ruling coincides with publication of a landmark article sponsored by the American Psychology-Law Society (AP-LS) on the scientific status of coerced interrogations and false confessions. The article, written by leading scholars Saul M. Kassin, Steven A. Drizin, Thomas Grisso, Gisli H. Gudjonsson, Richard A. Leo, and Allison D. Redlich and published in this month's Law & Human Behavior after an extensive process of vetting and review, is only the second such paper authorized by AP-LS in its 42-year history. The first was a 1998 white paper on eyewitness identification. As William C. Thompson, criminology and law professor at the University of California at Irvine, notes in the introduction to the special issue:
That paper (Wells, Small, Penrod, Malpass, Fulero, & Brimacombe, 1998) proved extremely influential in subsequent policy debates about line-ups and other eyewitness identification procedures. By providing an intellectual framework for analysis of systemic factors that affect eyewitness accuracy, and by distilling specific policy recommendations from a broad array of research, it set the agenda for policy discussion and channeled those discussions in productive directions. The paper was the foundation for a subsequent National Institute of Justice policy paper. Many of its recommendations, such as procedures for composing line-ups and instructing witnesses, are beginning to be implemented nationwide.
The AP-LS hopes the current review article will have a similar effect on the field. After methodically reviewing the state of the science, the authors make a number of critical recommendations for reform aimed at reducing the number of false and/or coerced confessions. These include:
  • Mandatory electronic recording of interrogations, with the camera angle focused equally on the suspects and detectives
  • Limits on the duration of interrogations
  • Limits on the presentation of false information and evidence
  • Special protections for vulnerable suspects, including juveniles and those with cognitive and/or psychiatric impairments
  • Scrutiny of "minimization" tactics, in which police pursue "themes" that minimize suspects' perceived moral, psychological, and/or legal culpability
Michael Crowe's exoneration came about as a result of what author Edwin Borchard described in a 1932 tome on wrongful convictions as "sheer good luck." The scholars who collaborated on this white paper hope that their recommendations will reduce the role of such serendipity, by giving police, prosecutors, judges, and juries the scientific information necessary to reduce egregious injustices like the one in Escondido 12 years ago.

Images: (1) Michael Crowe's interrogation, (2) Richard Tuite, the real killer, (3) Michael Crowe with his sisters; Stephanie is on the left.

Hat tip: Adam Alban


ladyfotoartist said...

One of the main questions I have is should polce be allowed to question juveniles and others with impair reasoning without an independent observer such as a psychologist present? This alone should minimize this type of forced confessions. I really don't understand why anyone would want to force a confession which too often turn out to be useless at best or end up finding the wrong person guilty. Isn't the whole purpose of Law Enforcement to protect the innocent?

Phil Trompetter, Ph.D. said...

I'm glad you posted this case in your blog, Karen. The issue of forced confessions/self-incrimination has been topical for quite awhile but this is the first time I've become uncomfortably aware of the active, disturbing, influential participation of a police psychologist in promoting and (according to the published case) designing the troubling interrogation.

As a police psychologist I know of a few limited situations where the participation of a psychologist can be extremely helpful, particularly in exigent circumstances, but until or unless we develop practice guidelines beyond the APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, we should expect to see statutory prohibitions in state laws for a health professional's participation of any kind in interrogation activities.

There is legislation now pending in New York state (AB 6665) that promotes a blanket prohibition. I fear it may have unintended consequences. One example some of us cited in our attempt to have this bill modified was based on this (and other) example:

"In an upstate New York community, a child goes missing on her morning walk to school. A boy from the girl’s class identifies a man whom he saw approach and talk to the girl. The boy is able to identify the man as working in a local grocery store. The police locate the man, who in his mid-thirties, and discover he has recently moved into this community from out of state. Not satisfied with his answers to their initial inquiries, the police bring the man in for questioning. He soon begins quoting Bible passages that make reference to children. Unsure of how best to question the man and increasingly concerned about the girl’s safety, the police contact a psychologist who works at a nearby federal prison and is known to the law enforcement community for his research regarding individuals who have kidnapped and sexually exploited children. The police ask the psychologist for suggestions and possible guidance in their approach to questioning the man. The psychologist indicates a strong desire to assist the police, but says that because of a recent change in New York law he cannot."

Dr. Blum's reported conduct in this case has reduced our legitimacy to argue against the broad exclusonary language of this legislation. Some may applaud this legislation and view it as proper - APA has certainly condemned the involvement of psychologists in these activities. I applaud the prohibition of a psychologist's involvement in torture or degrading interrogations, but I fear we will throw out the baby with the bath water if there is a blanket prohibition againsy ANY involvement in civilain police interrogations, as we will unintentionally contribute to the victimization of vulnerable individuals who could use our assistance.

I hope we psychologists can articulate exceptions to a blanket prohibition to prevent the types of conduct condemmed by the 9th DCA.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...


Thanks very much for your comments. As a police psychologist, you are in a unique position to weigh in on this. I don't believe the AP-LS is calling for a prohibition like the one being proposed in New York. But, at minimum, it would behoove psychologists who confer with police in these matters to be intimately familiar with the current recommendations as well as with the critical literature on confessions, such as the various studies by the authors of the Law & Human Behavior article, and especially the research on vulnerable populations including juveniles, the mentally ill, and the cognitively impaired.

suetiggers said...

Few people realize how easy this is for the police, (the wrong kind) to do to someone, anyone. Yes, it's worse if it's a child. But what about to someone mentally ill, developmentally challenged?
My son was 36 yrs. old, schizoaffective when a child (8 yr.old) falsely accused him of sex abuse. She grew up and recanted later. But I ASKED if she could be interviewed by an experienced person and was told no. That could have saved my poor son and our family years of grief, expense and horrendous ruin of my son's name. He never had any criminal record prior to this, but there was a rush to judgement. He did not take care of himself, had bad teeth and skin. He looked guilty; she looked innocent. He had NO idea why she lied. It took years to find out that answer. But, the cops treated him like he was guilty from the get go, the states attorney was horrific. I never thought this could happen in Maryland. But it did. And even though we now know why she lied (2 adult women gave her the idea and she was no ordinary 8 yr. old), Ken is still on the registry, his case still in appeal. It may never go away.
Yes, all interrogations should be videotaped, both the accuser and the accused.

Anonymous said...

Karen - the link you provided to the Crowe interrogation is a fictionalized/dramatized movie. Does it also contain the actual interrogation video? I teach Psychology & Law and would also be interested in the actual video.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Oops! My mistake. The video that I show in my course is a 46-minute VHS documentary by Court TV entitled, "The System: Interrogation of Michael Crowe." It won a prestigious Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award for excellence in broadcast journalism. It looks like it may be a little hard to get (Court TV has now merged with Tru TV), but I do see it listed on Thomson-Wadsworth’s website (, so I’ll update the link in my blog post to that site. Thanks for inquiring.

Anonymous said...

I too appreciate Phil Trompetter's comments. I think the best perspective is to take a step back and inquire as to the purpose of police interrogation. If interrogations are viewed as part of a process whose goal is 'truth seeking' (as best as humans can pursue it) then I certainly agree that any type of blanket prohibition on psychologists assisting in police work is harmful.

The difficulty is that, as the case in the OP illustrates, some (many? most?) interrogations do not have truth seeking as their goal. Rather, the goal of the police is to protect the innocent, catch the bad guy, or other such nebulous concepts which are often just a guise to advance the career of the detective with a conviction and truth be damned. When that reality is confronted then the case for the professional involvement of psychologists in police work becomes less clear cut.

The fundamental truth is that the professional cultures and imperatives of criminal justice and psychology just don't mesh well. The result is that the role of psychologists in police interrogations is a vexing question and one that I think will continue to be a source of tension going forward.

Gregg McCrary said...

It's fair enough to say that luck, both good and bad, played a role in the Crowe case as it does in any case. There are too many examples of both good and bad luck in this case to list them here. But to credit Michael's exoneration solely to, "sheer good luck" tends to do a disservice to the many professionals who were relentless in the pursuit of the truth.

Defense attorney Mary Ellen Attridge insisted on having Tuite's clothing examined. Perhaps that could be considered a stroke of luck, but may be better understood as an example of good instinct and the dogged determination of a seasoned professional. Detective Vic Coloca and his colleagues at the San Diego County Sheriff's Office conducted an exhaustive investigation - over $50,000 in DNA testing alone. Was that luck or the result of uncompromising professionalism? True criminal justice professionals seek to find the truth, not just close the case.

When the county prosecutor refused to indict Tuite, Coloca, at no small risk to his career as a county employee, went over the DA’s head and took the case to the State AG's office. Dave Druliner took the case and indicted Tuite over the objections of the San Diego County DA. The State AG’s office, along with the San Diego County Sheriff's office, then took the unusual step of publicly exonerated the three teens. During Tuite’s trial Druliner and his colleagues enlisted the help of many professionals such as Richard Leo, to help the jury untangle and understand the evidence being presented. The trial was unusually complicated as it was a trial within a trial. Druliner and his colleagues not only had to prosecute Tuite, but also had to defend the three teens as Tuite’s defense attorneys prosecuted the three boys while defending Tuite. I am sure that Dr. Franklin meant no disrespect to the many dedicated professionals who worked countless hours to find the truth and bring this matter to a just resolution. But crediting the accomplishments achieved in this case to nothing other than “sheer good luck,” seems to oversimplify the reality and appears to slight the efforts the professionals involved.