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Former Federal Judge Limited in Testimony as Expert Witness

False Confession Expert Testifies in Brooklyn Murder Trial

A New York man charged in the kidnapping and murder of a Brooklyn real estate magnate has called on a psychology expert witness to testify that he falsely confessed to the crime.  The high profile case provides another example of how behavioral science expert testimony is being worked into the legal system, and the outcome could influence the use of false confession research by courts in the future.

Brooklyn Murder Suspect Confesses to Role in Kidnapping

Brooklyn native Kendel Felix was arrested for his alleged involvement in the January 2nd, 2014 kidnapping and murder of real estate mogul Menachem Stark.  Stark was taken from the front of his office during a snowstorm, and his partially burned body was later recovered in a dumpster on Long Island.  Three months after the murder, police arrested Felix and three other co-defendants in connection with the crime, but only Kendel has been charged with murder.  Felix has been singled out in part because of a taped confession he provided to police officers in which he admitted to taking part in the crime by driving and helping to buy gasoline used to burn Stark’s body.

Felix claimed that he did not plan the crime, but his confession has nonetheless become the center piece of the trial against him.  If convicted, Kendel faces 50 years to life in prison, and his attorneys have attempted to attack the confession evidence with a pre-trial hearing featuring false confession expert testimony.  Attorneys for Felix reached out to a psychology expert witness with experience in false confession research to testify that the defendant was vulnerable to police persuasion which may elicit admission to a crime he did not commit.

False Confession Expert Testifies in New York Murder Trial

According to expert testimony from Dr. Marc Janoson during a pre-trial hearing in front of Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Neil Firetog, Kendel Felix may have falsely confessed to the kidnapping and murder.  Dr. Janoson has a PhD in psychology, and is an experienced false confession expert witness with years of research on the subject.  Dr. Janoson has been called to testify in several criminal trials, and told Judge Firetog that Felix has “vulnerabilities that the literature has associated with false confessions.”

Dr. Janoson conducted several one on one interviews with Felix after the defendant’s arrest, and testified that in his expert opinion Kendel suffered from a low IQ of 87 and memory loss which made him more likely to falsely confess.  Dr. Janoson also talked about the police investigation, during which officers told Felix that his parents could be deported if he didn’t confess and that he would never see his three children again.  The police also dissuaded the defendant from talking to a lawyer.  When talking about the methods the police used while questioning Felix, Dr. Janoson told the court “I would also add that if the reports he gave me on his interrogation were correct, there was a great deal of coercion.”

Dr. Janoson cited research on false confessions which demonstrates that low intellect individuals subject to heightened police pressure are at an increased risk to admit to a crime that they did not commit.  During his expert testimony, Janoson explained the existing research on false confessions and highlighted the attributes of Felix’s case which align with false confession literature.  Prosecutors responded by calling a counter-expert to dispute Janoson’s claims.

Prosecution Calls Psychology Expert Witness to Dispute False Confession Testimony

In response to Dr. Janoson’s false confession expert testimony, prosecutors called psychologist Kathy Yates to dispute the defense’s claim that Felix was vulnerable to police coercion.  According to Yates, the defendant had the intellectual capacity to understand his rights to speak with a lawyer, and faked his memory loss in an effort to avoid a long prison conviction.  During her testimony, Yates looked to Felix and directly contradicted Janoson’s testimony by saying, “I apologize for my colleague yesterday for saying you were brain damaged and below intellect.”

The success of Felix’s false confession expert witness remains to be determined, but the case represents an interesting use of experts in criminal trials.  False confession expert witnesses have grown in popularity as research into the phenomenon expands, but even renowned experts have experienced difficulty convincing judges and juries that a suspect can admit to a crime he did not commit.  Despite the uphill battle false confession experts face, psychologists in the field may be called upon by defense attorneys who seek to challenge evidence which is historically a strength for prosecutors.

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.

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.