A Virginia judge has recently denied a request for a false confession expert witness by a woman on trial for murder who alleges she was coerced by police into admitting to the crime. While the refusal to admit a false confession expert is not unusual given the judiciary’s reluctance to embrace social psychology experts, the case is noteworthy in that it represents the continued efforts by attorneys to embrace experts who explain behavior in legal situations.
Virginia Women Confesses to Murder Charges
Janice Burney Widenor, 52, of Greensboro, NC was arrested in July of this year on charges that she murdered 70-year-old James Austin and entombed his remains inside the walls of a house the two shared in Virginia at the time of the murder. According to prosecutors, Widenor murdered Austin and concealed his body in 2011, leaving it hiding until it was discovered earlier this year. After her arrest, Widenor progressed through a number of stories about Austin during her interrogation; first telling officers the man had left several years ago, then saying that he died of natural causes and she hid the body to avoid prosecution for aiding a fugitive, to finally agreeing to tell officers that she smuggled Austin with a pillow to ease suffering he experienced from an illness.
After her confession was signed, Virginia prosecutors used it as the foundation of a first degree murder case against Widenor. Because Austin’s body was concealed in concrete for several years prior to its discovery, forensic evidence that would otherwise explain the cause of death or connect Austin’s killer to the crime has eroded to the point where there is little physical evidence tying Widenor to the crime. With the confession the centerpiece of Widenor’s murder trial, her attorneys have sought to attack police interrogation tactics in an effort to diminish the value of the state’s primary evidence.
Virginia Defendant Seeks False Confession Expert Witness
In an effort to reduce the impact of her confession to the killing of James Austin, Janice Widenor’s attorneys requested that they be permitted to present testimony from an expert witness that indicated the circumstances of the confession cast doubt over its authenticity. According to Widenor’s attorneys the police used what is known as a “Reid Technique” which wears down a suspect via lengthy interrogation sessions that are designed to elicit confessions. Widenor was interrogated for a total of 10 hours over the course of two days before finally capitulating to the police officer’s suggestion that she killed Austin with a pillow and hid his body in concrete.
Widenor’s attorneys requested that an expert witness be allowed who would tell the court that when an interrogation lasts longer than two hours fatigue and feelings of helplessness cause suspects to say things that are unreliable simply to get out from a stressful situation. According to false confession experts like the one Widenor sought to present, aggressive and lengthy police interrogations can steer suspects towards a desired confession even if they did not commit the crime. Widenor’s attorneys submitted a motion requesting they be allowed to present this information to the jury so the confession evidence could be viewed in a more appropriate light.
Judge Denies Request for False Confession Expert Witness
Widenor’s attorneys were forced to issue the request because she is considered an indigent defendant who does not have the money to pay for her defense. Indigent defendants are permitted expert witnesses at the state’s expense only if the trial judge determines that the expert is absolutely necessary to adequately mount a defense against the charges. The judge in Widenor’s case heard arguments from both sides on the issue of a false confession expert witness and rejected the defense’s motion saying that there did not appear to be a “particular need” for one.
The legal community and the behavioral psychology community have become increasingly entangled in recent years with attorneys looking to psychologists to act as expert witnesses in false confessions, eyewitness testimony, and other fields that inform how legal actors behave when confronted with police investigations. Although Janice Widenor was not successful in demonstrating the need for a false confession expert witness in her case, the increased efforts to incorporate behavioral science expert testimony into criminal cases will create future opportunities for these experts to speak about their research during trial.