Police-Induced Confessions

I saw a very disturbing Dateline murder mystery show on August 24, 2012. The show revolved around Chris Tapp, in prison for the murder of a young woman named Angie Dodge in the late 1990s. The murder occurred in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Another man is in prison for the same murder. I don’t know much about his circumstances because I missed the first part of the program and the rest of the program focused almost exclusively on Tapp and the victim’s mother, who has become convinced that her daughter’s real killer has escaped detection.

The DNA found at the crime scene does not match either Tapp nor the other imprisoned man. There is no other physical evidence linking Tapp to the murder scene and there is no known connection between Angie Dodge and Chris Tapp. Tapp began using drugs in high school and was a meth addict at the time of the murder. It is not clear if his addiction played a role in his being targeted by the police.

Chris Tapp’s admission of murder appears to fall into the category of a police-induced confession, as he was questioned for a total of 20 hours, divided into seven interrogation segments. He denied any participation in the Dodge murder through six segments and made an ill-informed confession in the seventh, when the interrogators switched to a hypothetical mode of questioning. He took a series of lie detector tests, which the police told him showed deception. It is not known if the lie detector tests actually showed deception, or if Tapp was told that as an inducement to draw a confession from him.

I say ill-induced confession, because when Tapp was asked to give the location of Dodge’s residence, he said it was on the corner, whereas Angie Dodge lived in the middle of a block. Also, Tapp could not verbally describe the apartment layout and when asked to draw the layout he was told that he had the bedroom in the wrong place. Tapp did get one crime detail right when he said that one of Dodge’s pant legs was partially off the leg; however, the fact that Tapp was shown photos of the crime scene rendered that observation meaningless as an indication of guilty knowledge.

The hypotethical mode of questioning conisted of the interrogators saying such things as, “If you had been in the apartment, how do you see the murder going down?” The police lieutenant interrogator — now mayor of Idaho Falls — introduced one hypothetical by saying, “When Angie Dodge was cut… .”, thereby cuing a suspect to bring a knife into play when concocting a confession.

Angie Dodge’s mother was very concerned, because the crime scene DNA was not a match for either Chris Tapp nor the other convicted killer. She became convinced that the actual killer of her daughter had not been found after she watched the entire 20 hours of Chris Tapp’s interrogation. 

The final travesty in the Chris Tapp case was that the hearing, held before a judge, examined the narrow question of whether Chris Tapp was free to leave the interrogation room, rather than examining the interrogation for its provative value in assessing the guilt of Chris Tapp. Dateline showed enough of the interrogation to raise doubts that Tapp was a participant in the killing. The judge’s ruling was that Tapp was not being improperly detained, beacuse he was not in chains, nor other visible restraints.

A society that claims to abhor people going to prison for crimes they did not commit should have wanted to make reasonable doubt the center of the interrogation procedure review.

 

There are some interesting, although frightening ramifications stemming from the Dateline program. The finding of unmatched DNA should have led to the conclusion that some yet unknown person had killed Angie Dodge. Yet, in a Donald Rumsfeldian type of reasoning, in which “lack of evidence is not evidence of a lack,” some prosecuting attorneys will shift their theory of a crime when that becomes necessary to get a conviction. The two persons convicted of killing Angie Dodge could not prove they were not involved — it is hard to prove a negative.

The Chris Tapp case illustrates how interrogators can help a suspect concoct a confession by feeding details of a crime to him/her. It brings to mind the killing of an elderly woman in her Missouri trailer home. A prime suspect, a mentally retarded teenager, was fed details of the woman’s clothing, how she was bound to a chair and how the fire wa set that burned her trailer home. The fly in the ointment was that the teenager was at home, some distance from the crime scene, when several people saw the fire break out. Later, through a series of unusual circumstances, the actual killer was found to have checked into a nearby motel, corresponding to when the murder occurred.

The case of former Death Row inmate, Joseph Burrows, represents a very troubling use of interrogation to frame a person for murder. The principal players in this sordid drama were Joseph Burrows, convicted of killing Bill Dulin, an elderly farmer in southern Illinois; Bill Dulin’s drug-addicted niece, Gayle Potter; Ralph Frye, Joseph Burrows’ younger sidekick; and the reprehensible interrogator, Robert George.

Gayle Potter’s story was that she went to a Mobil station in Urbana, Illinois in connection with a debt owed to a drug dealer. The dealer and the dealer’s “collector,” Joseph Burrrows, proceeded to pistol-whip her for failure to pay a $3,000 debt. At some point, Ralph Frye entered the scene and he and Burrows forced her into a rusted-out blue pickup. She was then driven 65 miles to Dulin’s farmhouse in the hope of getting a loan to pay off the drug debt. When Dulin refused the request, a struggle ensued; Ralph Frye knocked Gayle Potter to the floor; and Potter heard about five shots fired. Potter described, in great detail, the gun Burrows used to kill Bill Dulin. It later turned out that Potter was describing her own gun.

It would later be learned that Potter had phoned her uncle before the alleged meeting at the Mobil station to set up an appointment.

When Ralph Frye was interrogated for his alleged role in the murder, he said that his interrogator, Robert George, told him what to say, detail-by-detail, and George signaled Frye by head shakes whenever he, Frye, “messed up.” Furthermore, Frye said that George stopped the tape several times for Frye to adjust his story. Thus, there was corroboration for Gayle Potter’s story.

I read an account of Joseph Burrows’ predicament in a magazine supplement of the Los Angeles Times. When I went to the Northwestern Law School conference on wrongful convictions, I was able to ask Burrows’ attorney about the tape stoppages. He answered that the stoppages were evident in listening to the 30-minute tape; moreover, the similarity of Ralph Frye’s story to the made-up story of Gayle Potter made it evident that Frye was being coached.

Bill Dulin was shot to death on November 6, 1988. Burrows, Potter and Frye were charged with first degree murder. Burrows’ first trial ended in a hung jury in April 1989. He was convicted in a second trial in June 1989 and sentenced to death. In June 1989, Frye was sentenced to 23 years in prison and Potter was given 30 years, despite an Illinois law requiring equal sentences for equal crimes. 

Joseph Burrows’ appealate attorney developed a rapport with Gayle Potter during her visits to Potter in prison and made it a point to tell her how Burrows was going to pieces on Death Row, even talking of suicide. On April 4, 1994, Gayle Potter made a taped confession that she was the lone killer of Bill Dulin. On September 2, 1994, a judge ordered a new trial for Joseph Burrows. When prosecutors decided against a new trial, Burrows was set free.

 

The tenacity with which some prosecuting attorneys will hang on to a case, even changing their theory of a case to avoid an overturn when very strong evidence points to another individual, is made manifest by the conviction of Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez for the abduction and killing of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico on February 25, 1983 in Naperville, Illinois. Her body was found just north of the Illinois Prairie Path six miles from her home.

Police got a tip that a 19-year-old Aurora man, Alejandro Hernandez, knew something about the Nicarico case –he may have wanted a piece of the $10,000 reward. Hernandez said that he heard about the case when drinking with friends, including Steven Buckley. Then, another tip indicated that a 19-year-old “street punk,” Rolando Cruz, might know something. He was picked up and released when he had no useful information.

Later, a hysterical Cruz called a police detective, saying he had been shot at because of his knowledge of Jeanine Nicarico’s killing. While in the police car, Cruz allegedly told a detective about a “vision” he had about an abduction and murder that had  similarities to the Nicarico case. This vision was to assume a huge role in the wrongful conviction of two young men, in the absence of any linking evidence.

Interestingly enough, the Chicago Tribuine reviewed nearly 5,000 pages from a grand jury probe and contended that the police may have borrowed the idea of a vision statement from another suspect. John Ruiz, son of the Nicarico’s housekeeper, told of a dream in which he saw Jeanine Nicarico’s body in a wooded area by a creek.

Cruz, Hernandez and Steven Buckley were indicted on several charges. Cruz and Hernandez were convicted in February 1985 but Buckley’s jury was hung. While the convictions were on appeal, Brian Dugan, a convicted murderer and rapist, confessed to the Nicarico crimes.

Brian Dugan had been convicted of killing a young girl named Melissa Ackerman and a 27-year-old woman. Dugan had ensountered Melissa and her girlfriend riding their bikes. The girlfriend escaped from Dugan’s car while he was corralling Melissa and safely hid until the car left.

The Illinois State Police put Brian Dugan in a car outside the Naperville city limits and told him he would be in complete charge of directing them to the Nicarico home, which Dugan did. Then Dugan directed the state police to a short distance of where Jeanine Nicarico’s body had been found. Dugan also described kicking in the Nicarico door and accurately described the towel and medical tape used to bind Jenaine.

Other evidence implicating Brian Dugan included two tollway workers seeing a white male driving a car similar to Dugan’s green Plymouth Volare, right down to a missing hubcap. A farmhand found a boot or shoe, lending some support to Dugan’s story that he threw away his boots after the murder. Brian Dugan also missed work on the day Jeanine Nicarico died.

In January 1988, the Illinois Supreme Court ordered a new trial for Cruz and Hernandez based on faulty trial procedure. Cruz was convicted a second time in February 1990 but Hernandez’s jury hung in May 1990. Hernandez had a third trial and was sentenced to 80 years in prison after a May 1991 conviction. This sentence was in violation of an Illinois law mandating equal sentences for equal crimes.

In December 1992, the Illinois Supreme Copurt upheld the Cruz conviction but reversed itself in July 1994 and ordered yet another trial. Hernandez’s second conviction was overturned by the Illinois Appealate Court in January 1995.

It was in September 1995 that DNA evidence excluded Cruz and Hernandez as donors of the sperm swabbed from the crime scene but Brian Dugan was not excluded. Even with this damning evidence added to the other evidence against Dugan, Dupage County prosecutors went ahead with another trial of Rolando Cruz. They had, however, a new theory of the crime, which Chicago Tribune columnist, Eric Zorn, called “an offense to reason.” The new theory was that Dugan, a then-26-year-old white man and two Hispanics, Cruz, then 18, and Hernandez, then 19, went to Naperville from Aurora to do a daytime burglary — Steven Buckley not included. They took nothing nor disturbed anything inside the house, except Jeanine Nicarico, whom Dugan alone raped.

Sexual predators seldom act in tandem and by all available evidence, Brian Dugan acted alone in his several crimes. No witness ever testified to seeing the three together and Cruz and Hernandez hardly knew one another. State police interviewed scores of people whose names were in Dugan’s address book and turned up no one who could link the three.

Dupage County Sheriff’s Lieutenant James Montesano was a compromised man when Rolando Cruz came up for a third trial in late 1995: he had told a prosecutor that he had never talked to Rolando Cruz; however, a report surfaced that he had. Bowing to the documentation, Montesano put the date of his contact with Cruz as May 9, 1983. Members of his family then told him that they were on vacation in Florida on that date and Montesano found credit card receipts showing that he had made purchases in Florida on both May 9 and 13. Dupage County Circuit Court Judge Ronald Mehling had heard enough: he found Rolando Cruz not guilty and closed the case. Rolando Cruz was set free on November 3, 1995.

Alejandro Hernandez was set free on December 8, 1995 after prosecutors decided against another trial.

It took until 2005 for Brian Dugan to be indicted for the abduction, rape and murder of Jeanine Nicarico. It wasn’t until 2009 that Dugan pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death.

A total of seven Dupage County prosecutors and law enforcement officers were indicted for their roles in the long-running major miscarriage of justice. All were acquited.

When the Chicago Tribune did an extensive investigation of wrongful convictions, it included the role of prosecutors. Although the Tribune found many instances of prosecutorial misconduct, including withholding exculpatory evidence from defense attorneys and actually manufacturing evidence, the Tribune could not find a single instance of a conviction of a prosecutor.

 

 

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