Tag Archives: false confession

False Confession Expert Witness Testifies During Child Abuse Trial

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{d61575bddc780c1d4ab39ab904bf25755f3b8d1434703a303cf443ba00f43fa4} 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.

False Confession Expert Witness Denied in Virginia Murder Trial

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.



Experts Clash over Suspect Confession in Murder Trial

Two expert witnesses clashed over the validity of a suspect’s confession during a murder trial in New Jersey.  Prosecutors and defense attorneys presented psychology expert witnesses to debate whether or not police coerced a false confession out of suspect David Granskie Jr. during the investigation into the death of his father’s girlfriend, Carolyn Stone.

Defense Calls False Confession Expert Witness

On May 24th, 2009, Carolyn Stone was murdered during a Memorial Day event at the home of her boyfriend, David Granskie Sr.  Although suspect Gary Wilson immediately confessed to murdering Stone using a cinder block without assistance or involvement of accomplices, Granskie Jr. was investigated for participating rape and suggesting that the victim be murdered in order to cover up the crime. While being detained by police Granskie was videotaped admitting that he was part of the sexual assault and present for Stone’s murder, and with his confession as a centerpiece, prosecutors developed and pursued a murder case against Granskie that finally came to court last September.

Defense attorneys for Granskie targeted the validity of the confession by calling Dr. Clarence Watson, a psychologist expert witness who specializes in identifying false confessions coerced during aggressive police interrogation.  Dr. Watson testified that Granskie’s admission was not legitimate due to the defendant’s battle with heroin withdrawal.  Saying that Granskie’s struggle with addiction created significant anxiety and stress, Watson claimed that the defendant simply wanted to accommodate police officers by telling them what they wanted to hear.

Calling the information in the confession “contaminated” by the police’s use of pressure and leading questions that directed Granskie to the answers that would implicate him in Stone’s death, Dr. Watson expressed doubt that the admission of guilt was genuine.  During his expert testimony, Watson pointed out several examples of pressure tactics, including:

  • When Granskie said he didn’t know how many times Stone was hit with the cinder block, police forced him to provide a number.  When Granskie responded incorrectly with “10”, police accused him of lying.
  • In several situations where Granskie responded with “I think,” or “I don’t know,” or another vague answer, police would not relent and continue to pressure him until he provided a definitive answer that fit their theory of the crime.
  • When Granskie claimed he did not rape Stone, police told him that he did, and, after several suggestions that he engaged in sexual intercourse with Stone and then moved her body to the site of the murder, Granskie relented and agreed.

Dr. Watson reinforced his theory that Granksie’s confession was coerced by pointing to signs of heroin withdrawal throughout the interrogation.  Granskie was fidgety and showed signs of bulging veins that Watson argued should have tipped police off to a vulnerable condition.  Dr. Watson’s expert testimony concluded by telling jurors that in his opinion Granskie was pressured into a false confession, striking a blow to the prosecution’s key evidence in the case.

Prosecutors Call False Confession Rebuttal Expert Witness

To rebut the testimony of Dr. Watson, prosecutors called a false confession expert witness of their own: Dr. Louis Schlesinger.  Contrary to Watson’s claim that Granskie’s admission was the result of police pressure, Dr. Schlesinger argued that there was no evidence that suggested the police took improper action or that Granskie’s confession was invalid.  Schlesinger attacked Watson’s expert testimony on four key points:

  • Granskie Jr. was not suffering from symptoms of heroin withdrawal: During his testimony, Dr. Watson pointed to physical symptoms of heroin withdrawal that Granskie appeared to be suffering, but Dr. Schlesinger countered that none of those symptoms reached the level of “clinically significant distress.”  While Granskie displayed some minor discomfort, Schlesinger attributed his demeanor and mannerisms to the stress anyone accused of murder would display.
  • Granskie did not use heroin two days before the murder: key to Watson’s claim that Granskie’s heroin withdrawal influenced his confession is the time of the defendant’s last use of the drug.  According to Schlesinger, Granskie did not use heroin immediately before the murder or the subsequent investigation.
  • Granskie did not ask to be released after the interrogation was over: When the confession ended, Granskie simply asked for a cigarette rather than request his release.  According to Schlesinger’s expert testimony, this behavior indicates the defendant was not simply appeasing police in hopes of being allowed to go home.
  • False confessions are usually only made for people who fall into three categories:  Dr. Schlesinger pointed to research that suggests only mentally retarded, juvenile, and mentally ill defendants are prone to making false confessions during police interrogation, and argued that since Granskie didn’t fall into any of those, it is unlikely he was pressured into a lie.

Defense attorneys objected to Schlesinger’s testimony because he was improperly primed about the content of Dr. Watson’s argument prior to taking the stand, but the trial judge allowed the prosecution to proceed providing that jurors would be informed of the tampering.  Granskie’s trial is expected to wrap up within the next week, and with the confession central to the evidence, significant importance will be placed on the dueling testimony of the psychology expert witnesses who debated its validity.