Tag Archives: false confession expert

False Confession Expert Can Testify During Kowalski Murder Trial

A man’s conviction for double murder was vacated when concerns were raised about the relationship between the judge who presided over his case and the murder detective involved in investigating the murders. Now, an appeals court has ruled that a false confession expert, who was not allowed to testify at the first trial, will be allowed to testify at the new trial.

The Underlying Case

In 2008, Richard and Brenda Kowalski were found murdered in their home. In separate interviews with the police, Richard’s brother, Jerome Kowalski, both confessed to and denied murdering his brother and sister-in-law. 

At trial, Kowalski’s attorney, Wally Piszczatowski, attempted to call a false confession expert to testify. The American Psychological Association (APA) filed an amicus brief arguing there was an empirical evidence base for admission of false witness expert testimony based on review of the scientific research on false confessions. 

Judge Theresa Brennan denied this request. Kowalski was convicted in 2013 and sentenced to life. Brennan’s decision was affirmed on appeal. 

Vacated Conviction and New Trial

In January 2019, Michigan Supreme Court officials discovered that Judge Brennan, who had presided over Kowalski’s case, had failed to disclose a previous relationship with Michigan State Police Sgt. Sean Furlong, who had acted as lead homicide investigator on the Kowalski case. Kowalski’s conviction was vacated and he was granted a new trial. Judge Brennan was removed from the bench by the Michigan Supreme Court and charged with three felonies: perjury, tampering with evidence, and misconduct in office in connection with her failure to disclose her relationship.

At Kowalski’s new trial, Judge Matthew Stewart of Shiawassee County Circuit Court ruled that expert witness Richard Ofshe could testify. Ofshe, a Sociology Professor Emeritus at University of California in Berkeley, is an internationally recognized expert on influence interrogation. His work on coercion in interviews, confessions, groups and interrogations have made him a sought-after specialist. Ofshe also serves on the advisory board for the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.

Judge Stewart ruled that Ofshe’s testimony would be limited to generalities on false confessions, with no case-specific testimony. Mark Gatesman and Heather Nalley, Kowalski’s attorneys, appealed the decision, as did the prosecution. Kowalski’s attorneys argued for unlimited testimony and the prosecution argued that no false witness expert testimony be allowed at all. 

New Court of Appeals Ruling

The Michigan Court of Appeals agreed with Judge Stewart’s decision. It ruled, “The trial court did not abuse its discretion by finding that Dr. Ofshe was qualified to give expert testimony on police interrogation techniques and that his methodology was sufficiently reliable to admit his testimony.”

Reacting to the decision, Kowalski’s attorney Nalley stated, “We are thankful that the court ruled Dr. Ofshe will be allowed to testify as to how interrogation techniques such as the ones used in this case can be coercive.”

Kowalski had been awaiting a pending new trial since January of 2019. If convicted as originally charged, he faces a sentence of up to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

False Confession Expert Testifies in New Mexico Murder Trial

A false confession expert witness has testified in the trial of a New Mexico man who stands accused of murdering his girlfriend in 2013.  The testimony represents the growing relationship between American courts and psychology experts used to explain human behavior during criminal trials, suggesting the once substantial gap between the two fields is shrinking with advances in behavioral science research.

Confession Expert Testifies in Murder Trial

New Mexico resident Cody Soto has been accused of murdering his 29-year-old ex-girlfriend Brandy Robinson in 2013 by stabbing her multiple times.  The first-degree murder charge against Soto has been aided largely by a confession he provided to detectives during the criminal investigation following Brandy’s death, and prosecutors rested their case against the man earlier this week.  Defense attorneys representing Soto have maintained the Not Guilty plea entered by their client, and attempted to downplay the weight of his confession by calling a psychology professor as an interrogation expert witness who will tell jurors why and how false confessions happen during police investigations.

Dr. Deborah Davis, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada in Reno who has become a confession and interrogation expert, took the stand as an expert witness for the defense in order to explain to jurors what circumstances create a false confession.  According to Dr. Davis a suspect may be pushed towards a false confession when they are overwhelmed by an interrogation and “will do anything to get out of there,” or they believe they are going to lose at trial anyway and a confession is their best chance at a favorable legal outcome.  In either case the suspect is distraught, confused, unsure of the legal system, and pressured to engaging in behavior that most jurors believe is impossible: confess to a crime he or she did not commit.

Dr. Davis pointed out to jurors that the Innocence Project, which is an organization committed to exonerating wrongfully convicted suspects by presenting DNA evidence, has calculated that one out of every four wrongfully convicted defendants has falsely confessed to a crime – many of them to serious crimes such as murder or rape.

Confession Expert Explains Police Interrogation Tactics

Police tactics are central to eliciting confessions, and Dr. Davis spent a significant portion of her testimony explaining to jurors how the popular Reid Technique used by most law enforcement detectives can result in a false confession.  When instituting the Reid Technique, police officers are trained to demonstrate unwavering confidence that they know the defendant is guilty and that they have enough other evidence for prosecutors to earn a conviction in court.  Detectives are allowed to mislead suspects about the strength of their other evidence, and frequently do so.

Dr. Davis when on to explain that detectives use confinement and isolation during interrogations to break down suspects, and will also frequently try to identify with them and express understanding about why the suspect committed the crime by downplaying the seriousness of their actions.  The goal of the Reid Technique is to gradually elicit small admissions before earning a full-blown confession over the course of time and constant pressure.  Dr. Davis pointed out that the Reid Technique is a highly effective tool, so much so that it can result in false confessions – particularly when defendants are mentally ill or intellectually deficient.

Dr. Davis concluded her testimony by identifying circumstances which can result in a false confession such as a longer-than-usual interrogation, a tired or hungry suspect, and the general discomfort of the session.  Dr. Davis was not permitted to talk about Soto’s interrogation specifically, but jurors watched the confession video and attorneys for the defense will likely point out false confession indicators during closing arguments.

False Confession Expert a Sign of Behavioral Science and Law

The use of false confession expert witnesses like Dr. Davis is a growing practice in the American legal system, but is not without controversy.  Attorneys and judges have voiced concerns over trials becoming “battles of experts” who can either confuse a jury with highly technical or scientific testimony, or improperly influence jurors by telling them how they should interpret the facts of a particular case.  The case of false confession expert witnesses further muddies the intersection of law and psychology because no one really knows how frequent or problematic false confessions are.  Even though 25{d61575bddc780c1d4ab39ab904bf25755f3b8d1434703a303cf443ba00f43fa4} of wrongfully convicted offenders who are later exonerated by DNA evidence falsely confessed to committing a crime, it is probably unreasonable to assume the percentage of confessions which are false is that high.

Despite the concerns over increased use of experts and uncertainty about the need for psychology expert witnesses, cases which feature experts like Dr. Davis are becoming more frequent.  As behavioral science slowly integrates its research and findings into American jurisprudence, jurors are more frequently exposed to psychology expert witnesses who testify about human judgment and decision-making in order to assist the men and women of the jury appropriately weigh and analyze the facts presented during trial.

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.