Showing posts sorted by relevance for query Crowe. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query Crowe. Sort by date Show all posts

November 16, 2010

Police psychologist settles confession suit for $1 million

A psychologist who helped police obtain a false confession from 14-year-old Michael Crowe has settled out of court for $1 million. A judge had called the aggressive interrogations of Crowe and two friends "psychologically abusive."

Dr. Lawrence "Deadlift" Blum, a police psychologist, helped police in Escondido, California formulate the "tactical plan" that they used to get Michael to confess to the murder of his 12-year-old sister, according to the Crowe family's lawsuit.

Blum admitted in a pretrial deposition that he told a police detective that 15-year-old Aaron Houser, Michael's friend, was a "Charlie Manson wannabe."

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

Images from the videotape of Michael Crowe's interrogation.

The family's lawsuit against the police is still pending in federal court.

Crowe's confession became the subject of an award-winning Court TV documentary that I show to my graduate students. (Unfortunately, The System: The Interrogation of Michael Crowe is no longer commercially available, as far as I can determine.)

The San Diego Union-Tribune coverage of the settlement is HERE. My prior coverage of the case is HERE. The Tru Crime Library (formerly Court TV) has more background on the case HERE.

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

September 30, 2012

The taint of a false confession

Ripple effects bias parties, contaminate "independent" evidence 

Michael Crowe, age 14, falsely confessing to murdering his sister
With the recent tidal wave of scholarly research into false confessions, informed forensic psychologists are by now tuned in to the phenomenon. We know, for example, that they played a role in one out of four DNA exoneration cases. We are aware of their compelling nature, and can cite examples such as the Central Park Jogger case in which they produced profound miscarriages of justice.

But let's take it one step further. What if, once police elicit a false confession from a suspect, it contaminates everything and everyone in touches -- from the prosecutor, the judge, and even the suspect's own attorney all the way to the fingerprint identification and even, perhaps, the DNA match?

That is the troubling thesis raised by Saul Kassin, a pioneer in the psychological study of false confessions, in an article in the current issue of the American Psychologist.
"Corroboration inflation"

Research shows us that such a contaminating effect is plausible. For example:
  • Fingerprint experts who were told the suspect had confessed were more likely to change their opinion and make an incorrect match, as compared with experts who were told the suspect was already in custody at the time of the crime. (1)
  • Polygraph examiners were significantly more likely to opine that an inconclusive chart showed deception when they were told the suspect had confessed. (2)
Bizarre case of multiple false confessions and prosecutions
Such findings may extend to other forensic science that requires subjective judgments, Kassin argues, including comparative analyses of ballistics, hair and fiber, shoeprints, tire tracks, handwriting and even DNA. Although CSI-style TV shows portray such evidence as infallible, a 2009 study by the National Academy of Sciences found widespread errors and bias in the collection and analysis of evidence.

That's not to mention egregious cases of intentional fraud in forensic laboratories that pop up with alarming regularity, such as a case in Boston, Massachusetts currently garnering headlines. There, a lab worker with allegedly bogus credentials as a chemist intentionally fabricated positive drug test results. Over a 9-year period, Annie Dookhan tested an estimated 60,000 drug samples confiscated from about 34,000 criminal defendants. Dookhan reportedly admitted writing reports listing samples as positive for illicit drugs even though she had never tested them; sometimes, "if a sample tested negative, she would take known cocaine from another sample and add it to the negative sample to make it test positive for cocaine," according to the Huffington Post's account. Dookhan has been arrested and the lab is temporarily shuttered.

Kassin points to an archival study conducted by he and two colleagues which found that, in DNA exoneration cases, false confessions were often accompanied by other errors, including improper forensic science, mistaken eyewitness identifications and/or the testimony of dishonest informants. Importantly, the confession preceded the other case errors in two-thirds of cases, suggesting it may have had a corrupting influence.

Such findings suggest that the legal system's longstanding assumption that independent sources of evidence provide confirmation of a suspect’s guilt may be wrong. Rather, Kassin writes, "confessions can spawn other incriminating evidence, creating an illusion of corroboration":
Amanda Knox, wrongly convicted in Italy
"Supported by 100-plus years of basic psychology and the research reviewed herein, confession-induced corroboration inflation challenges a core premise in law. Both pretrial corroboration requirements and a harmless error analysis on appeal rest on the assumption that the corroborating evidence on record is nonredundant and independent of the confession. It now appears that this assumption is often incorrect, that the other evidence may be tainted by confession, and that the appearances of corroboration at pretrial and the sufficiency of evidence on appeal may be more illusory than real."
"Hollywood productions"

Especially pernicious is the frequent situation in which police -- either intentionally or inadvertently -- feed an innocent suspect information that only a guilty party should know. Taking on the aura of a carefully scripted movie production with the confession as the central plot device, the confession is carefully drawn out of the suspect over hours and even days until in its final version it includes vivid details and plausible motivations.

Such an account proves virtually impossible for a judge or a jury to discount. The scripted confession thus becomes the be-all, end-all of the case, contaminating the minds of all who are exposed to it:
  • POLICE close the investigation, deem the case solved, and overlook exculpatory information, even when (as Richard Leo and his colleagues have shown) the confession is internally inconsistent or contradicted by independent evidence.
  • PROSECUTORS stubbornly cling to false confession cases, refusing to admit the possibility of their falsity even when DNA testing unequivocally excludes the confessor. (The New York Times Magazine has more on this phenomenon, describing -- in an article titled "The prosecution's case against DNA" -- the improbable arguments manufactured by prosecutors to explain away negative DNA findings.)
  • Perhaps most dangerously, even DEFENSE ATTORNEYS succumb to the allure. Individuals who falsely confess are much more likely to be pressured into accepting a guilty plea, which bars future appeals. In an archival study conducted by Kassin and a colleague of 273 DNA exoneration cases, those based on false confessions were three times as likely to involve bad lawyering.
Matias Reyes, the actual rapist
in the Central Park Five jogger
wrongful conviction case

"Taken together," Kassin concludes, "research suggests that judges, juries, and others are doomed to believe the false confessions of innocent people not only because the phenomenon strongly violates common sense but because of corroboration inflation -- a tendency for confessions to produce an illusion of support from other evidence."

All of this suggests that it is essential for courts to allow the testimony of forensic experts who can explain the mechanisms of false confessions, including both what types of police practices are more likely to generate them, and what types of individual vulnerabilities make a person especially prone to cave in under such pressure.

More broadly, this line of analysis suggests the need for changes in police practices, for example an end to the routine practice of lying to suspects about incriminating evidence, and greater government oversight and regulation of police interrogations. Moreover, safeguards on the analysis of supposedly independent evidence, such as evidence technicians being blind to a suspect's confession status, must be implemented in order to ensure that corroborating evidence truly is independent.

The article is: "Why confessions trump innocence." Members of the American Psychological Association may download it for free as part of their member benefits; others may request a copy from the author (HERE).

Related blog posts:

For a complete list of my many other posts on the topic of confessions and interrogations, click HERE.


(1)   Dror, I. E., and Charlton, D. (2006). Why experts make errors. Journal of Forensic Identification, 56, 600–616.
(2)   Elaad, E., Ginton, A., and Ben-Shakhar, G. (1994). The effects of prior expectations and outcome knowledge on polygraph examiners' decisions. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 7, 279–292.

Hat tip: Tim Derning

January 14, 2020

Showdown: DNA evidence vs. cognitive bias

Back in the 1980s, southern Alameda County in the East Bay was the hellmouth for serial murder. As a newspaper reporter covering the crime beat, I was reporting on at least three separate fiends prowling the suburbs and picking off young teenage girls at whim.

It was harder to stop them back then. Forensic DNA was still in its infancy. The historic evidentiary hearings in Oakland, California on the admissibility of DNA typing, with full-scale scientific battles tying up courtrooms for months on end, were still a few years away.

Tina Faelz and her mother Shirley
Fourteen-year-old Tina Faelz was one of the victims. In 1984, she was found dead with 44 stab wounds. She had taken a shortcut through a drainage culvert while walking home from school.

(As a side note, Tina had walked home that day because a group of girls was planning to beat her up if she rode the bus. Bullies tyrannized Foothill High School in suburban Pleasanton; on the same day as Tina’s murder, an alpha-male bully threw a football player into a dumpster and locked the lid.)

Detectives had no shortage of suspects. There was the mother’s violent boyfriend. There was the aforementioned school bully, whom someone had spotted near the crime scene. There was a man who was arrested shortly after Tina’s death for a similar assault in which the girl managed to escape.

What they lacked was hard evidence.

The case went cold for decades. It was finally cracked just a few years ago, thanks to the intersection of DNA science and a cop’s pregnancy. Detective Dana Savage couldn’t be on the streets due to her pregnancy, so she decided to take a gander at the vexing cold case.

Detective Savage was fairly certain that the culprit was one of two serial killers who’d been active in the region at the time; she just didn’t know which one. Based on the vigor of the attack, she figured the killer must have shed some blood, so all she needed was something to test for DNA. She struck gold with the victim’s purse, which had been found lodged in a nearby tree.

But when Savage got the call from the crime lab, she was in for a surprise. The culprit was not one of the serial killers. Nor was it any of the original suspects.

It was the 16-year-old classmate who’d been thrown into the school dumpster earlier in the day.

After killing Tina, Steven Carlson had dropped out of school and spent the next 30 years abusing meth and bouncing in and out of custody. When police came to talk to him, he started retching violently. He was tried and convicted, and is now serving a 16–to-life sentence.

It’s unfortunate that it took so long to catch the killer. But on the bright side, the Pleasanton police did things right: They kept their minds open and never fixated on the wrong person. That would have been far worse.

Barking up wrong trees

In other cases during that violent era, police sometimes got it tragically wrong. For example, when 8-year-old girl Cannie Bullock was raped and murdered in her home in nearby San Pablo, Detective Mark Harrison fixated relentlessly on William Flores, the sexually creepy guy next door, literally driving him to his grave. (If every creepy guy was a murderer there wouldn’t be many women left on the planet, or even many male cops if you believe the dismal statistics in the must-watch Netflix series Unbelievable.) Even after Flores self-immolated, the detective wouldn’t let him rest in peace. Once DNA technology became available, Harrison got a court order to dig up Flores’s body, certain the test results would clear the long-dormant case.

He was dead wrong. The DNA didn’t match that found on the little girl’s body.

(That case went cold for many years. Finally, DNA from a man convicted of sexual assault in Colorado was routinely entered into a database, which spit out a match. The killer, Joseph Cordova, was never a suspect in the girl’s killing, although he lived and worked in the area and had used drugs with the girl’s mother. He is now parked on California’s death row.)

But here’s the really bad news: Even with modern DNA technology’s miraculous crime-solving capabilities, fixations like Detective Harrison’s still lead police astray with some regularity. In particular, forensic science is no match for a priori stereotypes about the bad guys.

A case in point: The murder of elderly Leola Shreves in Yuba City, California.

The attack was frenzied. As detailed by San Francisco Chronicle reporter Matthias Gafni, the TV set was smashed and a door was ripped from its hinges. The 94-year-old victim had been tortured, strangled and beaten to a pulp. Her teeth were shattered, her jaw and back broken, and 17 of 24 ribs cracked. Her ears and scalp were nearly ripped from her skull.

Police quickly latched onto the next-door neighbor, a socially awkward video-game devotee. Michael Alexander aroused police suspicion in part due to his troubled past: He had been arrested at age 15 for threatening to kill a high school teacher and burn down the school after fighting with and choking another student.

Burdened with an intellectual disability, the 20-year-old was no match for the seasoned detectives who brought him in for questioning. When he denied ever being at his neighbor’s house, police lied to him, saying his fingerprints, shoe prints and DNA had all been found there. When he continued to profess his innocence, detectives suggested that maybe he had blacked out, and an alter ego named “Angry Mike” had committed the crime. Alexander’s na├»ve acceptance of the detectives’ ruses eventually led him to accede to their version of reality despite not having any recollection of it.

For anyone with expertise on false confessions, Alexander’s had all the classic hallmarks. It was replete with maybes and probabilities. The details did not match the evidence from the crime scene. And Alexander immediately recanted.

“Have you been looking for the real killer?” he later asked the detectives.

His question fell on deaf ears. He was arrested and charged with capital murder.

Unbeknownst to him at the time, there was indeed an abundance of real physical evidence – DNA, fingerprints and shoe prints. All of it excluded him and pointed to someone else.

Astonishingly, the identity of Shreve’s killer was in front of the detectives the entire time, but it took them six long years to realize it.

Armando Cuadras
On the night of the murder, a man named Armando Cuadras was found collapsed on the street just 300 yards away, drunk and badly injured. He was taken to the hospital by ambulance, but police failed to connect the two events. Cuadras, whose DNA was splattered all over the bloody crime scene, is now awaiting trial.

Mental blinders

Cognitive scientists have various names for the mental processes that cause people to prematurely focus on one solution to the exclusion of other possibilities. Tunnel vision. Myopia. Confirmation bias. In essence, the Yuba City police identified a suspect, based in part on their preconceived ideas about what a guilty person should look like, and in the process closed their minds to alternate possibilities.

Then, once all of the physical evidence came back and screamed out Alexander’s innocence, cognitive dissonance kicked in: It can be hard to abandon a firm belief even when confronted with irrefutable evidence that it is wrong. Cognitive dissonance was on florid display in the infamous case of the Central Park Five. As documented in the powerful Netflix series When They See Us, prosecutors still refuse to accept overwhelming evidence of the young men’s innocence. Such is the power of cognitive blinders. (My blog post on that astonishing case is HERE.)

Unfortunately, when police focus on the wrong person they not only destroy the suspect’s life, but also allow the real culprit to remain free, thereby endangering others in the community. There are myriad cases of very dangerous men who went on to rape and kill again after police investigators failed to diligently pursue all leads. (Again, let me plug the harrowing series Unbelievable.)

After almost two years in jail, Alexander was finally set free and the charges against him dismissed. But even with another suspect in custody and awaiting trial, police and prosecutors have stubbornly refused to concede that Alexander is innocent.

Which just goes to show, even the miracles of DNA typing are no match for minds that are rigidly shut.

* * * * *

FURTHER RESOURCES: The transcript of Michael Alexander's confession is available online, and is a good resource for teaching and learning about false confessions. Tina Faelz's killing is the subject of a true-crime book, Murder in Pleasanton, which includes back-story information not available elsewhere. If you are interested in diving deeper into the problem of cognitive biases in police investigations and how they can be avoided, a great resource is Criminal Investigative Failures, edited by D. Kim Rossmo. Two chapters I especially recommend are "Who Killed Stephanie Crowe," focusing on the appalling case that I've blogged about several times in which a 14-year-old boy was wrongfully arrested in his sister's murder, and "On the Horns of a Narrative," by my colleague David Stubbins and his brother, which focuses specifically on cognitive biases in criminal investigations.

A NOTE TO MY FAITHFUL SUBSCRIBERS: My apologies for the diminishing quantity of posts as of late. I'm working on a couple of larger writing projects. I also Tweet regularly on forensic psychology and criminology topics, so feel free to follow me on Twitter for more regular news and commentary.