Earlier this week a false confession expert witness took the stand in the trial of Wisconsin man accused of violently shaking his infant son and causing the boy’s death. The expert testimony represents a growing trend of psychology experts applying their research and testimony to criminal courts across American jurisprudence.
Wisconsin Man on Trial for Child Abuse
David Allen Sr. of Milwaukee, Wisconsin is on trial for child abuse and homicide for the 2013 death of his infant son, David Allen Jr. In October of 2012 Allen and Junior’s mom brought the infant to the hospital after he stopped eating and suffered from a noticeable change in activity. Physicians at the Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee diagnosed the child with bleeding between the brain and the skull and brain swelling. According to doctors, these injuries are common signs of child abuse, and David Sr. was arrested and charged with abuse. Junior died in foster care the following April and murder was included in David’s charge.
Although the prosecutors have some available physical evidence of child abuse, the key component to their case against David Allen is his confession given to police while in custody following his 2012 arrest for abuse. During a two-day interrogation period covering more than 3 ½ hours Allen finally admitted to police investigators that he had shaken his son and dropped him onto a concrete floor. The prosecution built their case on the strength of Allen’s confession, but during trial attorneys for the defendant argued that he had been coerced to providing a false story to the police.
False Confession Expert Takes the Stand in Child Abuse Trial
To bolster the defendant’s claim that he was coerced into providing a false confession, attorneys called Dr. Lawrence White who is a professor psychology at nearby Beloit College and specializes in false confession research. White began his expert testimony by explaining the field of false confession research generally, telling jurors that recent research has demonstrated situations in which regular people can be coerced into providing false confessions. White also told jurors that of the 300 offenders exonerated of serious crimes by DNA evidence 25% of them had falsely confessed to crimes – even heinous crimes – they did not commit.
White then turned his false confession expert testimony to the particulars of David Allen’s interrogation and ultimate confession to Milwaukee police investigators. White testified that police detectives used several tactics that provide opportunity for suspects to issue false confessions: isolation over three days, constant interviewing, and talking to Allen when he was clearly mentally and emotionally tired. Investigators also provided Allen with a narrative – that he lost control and shook his son – and threatened that both Allen and the boy’s mother would suffer maximum jail sentences without a confession.
White concluded by pointing to explanations from the police’s report about the child’s injuries that Allen had adopted directly into his confession as evidence that investigators drove the conversation to fit their narrative of the incident. On cross examination, prosecutors took the defense false confession expert to task for not really knowing how common coerced confessions are.
Prosecutors Question Validity of False Confession Expert Witness
On cross-examination prosecutors asked White about the actual incidence of false confessions, and the expert admitted that most confessions are true. White was also unable to provide statistics on how frequently false confessions occur because there are not accurate numbers. Prosecutors also pointed out that many of the conditions of false confessions – such as mental impairment, youth, and 12-hour or longer interrogations – were not present in David Allen’s case. White agreed that some factors were not present, but maintained that the situation had characteristics of false confessions.
Allen’s trial, which also features medical expert witnesses to challenge the initial diagnosis of child abuse, will last until the end of the week.