Confessions Under Pressure

Detectives Can Say They Have Evidence

In investigating crimes, one tactic sometimes used by detectives is to lie about whether they have incriminating evidence in hopes of prompting a confession. The practice is totally legal.

Under certain circumstances, innocent people have been known to admit to the most heinous of crimes. Erin Moriarty reports.

Could this have happened in Austin, Texas?

During 18 hours of interrogation, suspect Mike Scott ended up implicating all four defendants in the 1991 I Can't Believe It's Yogurt! store murder in Austin.

But defense attorney Jim Sawyer wasn't worried. "The least important piece of evidence in a case is a so-called confession," he says.

Sawyer and Berkeley Bettis represent Robert Springsteen, the other defendant who admitted during interrogation that he helped kill the four girls.

"If we accomplish one thing, we will convince 12 people that confessions don't stand for a hell of a lot," Sawyer says.

Sawyer claims that both Scott and Springsteen were forced by the Austin police into giving false confessions. "When they get you in a windowless room, and they're wearing their guns and their badges, and the hours are ticking by, and they're significantly bigger than you are, and they're telling you what you did, it changes, it changes," he says.

Local Coverage
Read more about the case in the Austin-American Statesman.

Springsteen's friend Roy Rose also claims that the Austin detectives, in their quest for evidence against Springsteen, forced him into giving a false statement. "They would go bang right in front of me, or yell at me," says Rose, who is not considered a suspect.

Rose said in his statement "that Robert Springsteen was involved in the yogurt shop murders and that he had bragged to me about it," Rose says. Rose now says Springsteen did not brag about it.

But Rose, a frail man who suffers from hepatitis C, says he gave police what they wanted after four hours of nonstop questioning. "I didn't think they would let me leave until I signed that statement," Rose says.

Says Rose's wife Charlene: "They just scared him to death, and they said that we know you know all about it, and you're going to go to jail or to prison if you dn't tell us."

Rose retracted his statement six hours after he signed it. "I changed my mind when I realized what I had done," Rose explains.

So were witnesses and defendants in the yogurt shop murder case pressured into giving false statements? The Austin police won't comment. Read more about how that case unfolded in Who Killed These Girls?

It's also true that defense attorneys often make that claim when faced with their clients' incriminating statements. Still, false confessions do happen.

Take the case of Tom Franklin Sawyer. In November 1986, he told Clearwater, Fla., police detectives that he murdered Janet Staschak, his 25-year-old neighbor. He now says he did not.

Tom Sawyer told police that he not only killed her but also raped her. "Because they, after all these hours of interrogation, said if I don't admit I killed her, that they are going to go for the death penalty for me so I might as well admit I killed her and they'd go easy on me," Sawyer says.

"Typically what leads to false confessions is not just enormous psychological pressure," says psychologist Richard Ofshe, who has analyzed 60 cases in which he says suspects made false confessions under intense police questioning. "Typically it's a threat of maximum punishment and an offer of leniency....And that's coercion," he notes.

"Tom Sawyer was made to believe momentarily that he probably committed a murder that he had no knowledge of having done," Ofshe says. "You can do that in the course of an interrogation," he says.

Tom Sawyer's interview with police began as many do, in a friendly fashion.

It did not seem as if they even considered him a suspect, Tom Sawyer recalls. "I wanted to do a good deed....I'll be able to help solve a murder."

During the interrogation, the detectives used a common tactic: They asked him to think like the killer and re-enact the crime.

"How do you think he killed her? He didn't kill her with a shotgun with you next door?" the detective had asked.

"If he wanted her dead, he'd strangle her," Tom Sawyer had offered.

Then detectives told Sawyer he had given them details only the killer could know.

"They (say) you just described exactly what happened at the murder scene," Tom Sawyer recalls.

Such details Sawyer had actually learned from a police officer stationed at his apartment complex where Staschak was killed. "I'd come home from work and talk to her, and she told me stuff," he explains.

Police accused Sawyer of murder and told him they had physical evidence as proof. It was a complete lie but perfectly legal.

"We got laser, Tom; laser picks up," the detective said.

"I don't care," Tom Sawyer replied.

"Laser picks everything up," the detective continued.

"Good. That ought to clear me," Sawyer said.

"It ain't going to clear you," the detective said.

Explains psychologist Ofshe: "This evidence doesn't have to exist at all." He adds, "Police are free to make up."

The police did have fingerprints and blood, but they were not Tom Sawyer's, Ofseh says.

Sawyer says he didn't know they were lying because of his past: Sawyer is a recovering alcoholic who had suffered blackouts. Although he had been sober for more than a year, Sawyer says detectives used his alcoholic past to convince him he had killed Staschak during a blackout.

After 16 hours, Tom Sawyer finally confessed to both rape and murder; it later turned out the victim hadn't been raped.

Did he believe he had killed her?" "I wasn't sure in my mind but I knew in my heart I didn't," he says.

Sawyer spent 14 months in prison until Judge Gerard O'Brien heard the interrogation tape. "How could the police themselves listen to this and claim it's a confession where it's not probable and realistic to believe his final confession made sense? It didn't," says O'Brien.

Although the Clearwater police still insist they had the right man, the case against Tom Sawyer was dismissed. Judge O'Brien ruled the confession was coerced and threw it out.

The judge believes the confession was false. "Absolutely," he says. "No doubts in my mind. It was totally false."