A 15-year-old girl charged with murdering her newborn in California relied on an expert witness to cast doubt on the reliability of her confession. The expert questioned police interrogation tactics that have been shown to produce false confessions.
Because the accused is a juvenile, press accounts refer to her as “Maribel S.” Her first-degree murder charge was tried by a judge (rather than a jury) in Santa Maria Juvenile Court. She was prosecuted by the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office.
Maribel based her defense on evidence that she did not know she was pregnant until she gave birth and that she did not intend to cause the baby’s death. Prosecutors argued that Maribel knew she was pregnant and wanted to conceal the pregnancy and childbirth from her parents. They argued that evidence from her cellphone showed that she searched the internet for ways to induce a miscarriage.
Evidence Concerning Childbirth
A registered nurse testified that Maribel came to a medical center on January 17 complaining of vaginal bleeding and abdominal pain. During her examination, the nurse noticed an umbilical cord attached to Maribel’s body. Prosecutors alleged that she gave birth, and murdered her child, that day.
A physician’s assistant testified that Maribel admitted giving birth to a baby in her bathroom. He said Maribel gave him three different versions of events that occurred after the birth. In one version, she said she held the baby on her lap for an hour. In another, she mentioned flushing the baby down the toilet.
Prosecution’s Expert Evidence
Police found the baby’s body in a bag next to the tub. No blood was visible in the bathroom, but forensic experts used a luminol test to search for spots of blood that had been wiped clean. They found blood spots on the bathroom floor, walls, and door.
A forensic pathologist who performed an autopsy expressed the opinion that the baby was alive at the time of delivery. Air in the baby’s lungs and stomach indicated that the baby took a breath before dying. He concluded that the cause of death was a “sharp force injury of the neck.” He based that opinion on his discovery of “a gaping incision wound” across the front and sides of the neck. The incision severed the baby’s trachea and carotid arteries.
Defense Experts Concerning Mental Health
The defense contended that Maribel suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of repeatedly being raped by her cousin between the ages of 8 to 11. Maribel gave a number of inconsistent statements about the baby’s death. The defense attributed those inconsistencies to her PTSD, which caused her to deny her pregnancy, and to police interrogation tactics.
The defense called a psychiatrist, Dr. Peter Garcia, as an expert witness to establish Maribel’s mental state. Dr. Garcia interviewed Maribel two days after the birth. He learned that Maribel began cutting herself after she was sexually assaulted. A Global Assessment of Functioning test supported the conclusion that Maribel needed psychological help and was at risk of continuing to harm herself. He diagnosed her as having acute stress disorder, a condition that precedes PTSD
A psychologist, Dr. Carolyn Murphy. also provided expert mental health testimony. Her testing revealed that Maribel showed no signs of psychopathy and had no criminal tendencies. She did have escapist tendencies and a tendency to avoid confrontation. Dr. Murphy attributed those tendencies to her victimization. Dr. Murphy also determined that Maribel tended to be impulsive and that she cut herself to help her cope with stress. Dr. Murphy concluded that Maribel suffered from PTSD.
Maribel’s parents made her live in Mexico between the ages of 5 and 11. Dr. Murphy expressed the opinion that Maribel suffered from abandonment issues and worried that she would be returned to Mexico if she did anything to displease her parents.
Expert Testimony Concerning Police Interrogation
Police detectives questioned Maribel on January 20. Maribel repeatedly said she did not remember much of what happened on the day her baby was born. She said she knew that she was bleeding nonstop but did not know she was pregnant until she gave birth.
Maribel told a detective that she delivered the baby in her bathroom and that the baby fell into the toilet. She said she then used a knife to cut the umbilical cord. As she was “sawing” the cord, the knife slipped and cut the baby’s neck.
Dr. Richard Leo testified for the defense as an expert in police interrogation practices and psychological coercion. He told the judge about the difference between an interview, which is meant to develop information, and an interrogation, which is designed to induce a confession. Interrogation tactics include:
- Isolating the suspect from friends and family.
- Building rapport with the suspect before becoming accusatory.
- Convincing the suspect that the police already know she’s guilty, so she might as well admit her guilt.
- Promising or implying a good outcome in exchange for a confession (“things will go easier for you”).
- Lying about evidence of guilt that the police claim to have.
- Explaining a theory of how the crime occurred and encouraging the witness to agree with that theory (a process known as “scripting”).
Dr. Leo also testified that a young person with a trauma-based disorder is particularly susceptible to those tactics. Research establishes that police who use interrogation tactics rather than conducting an interview have a history of obtaining false confessions.
Dr. Leo noted that the police used interrogation tactics when they questioned Maribel. They built a rapport, claimed that they already knew what happened, and implied that they had evidence of guilt that didn’t exist. They also “scripted” the confession by telling Maribel that she cut the baby’s throat and asking her to explain exactly how she did it.
Dr. Leo forthrightly acknowledged that parts of Maribel’s statement were probably not induced by interrogation tactics. For example, her statement that she felt the baby’s heartbeat and saw his stomach go up and down did not appear to be scripted.
Expert witnesses serve an important role by helping a judge or jury understand the evidence. In this case, Dr. Leo’s testimony may have helped the judge focus on the parts of Maribel’s testimony that were not scripted by the police, none of which suggested that Maribel had planned to commit a murder.
The judge described the case as emotional. He declined to find Maribel guilty of first degree murder, as the prosecution requested. He instead found her guilty of second degree murder, a crime that occurs when a decision to kill is not premeditated. He ordered a new psychological evaluation that he will consider before imposing a sentence.