The Aresan Clan is published four times a week (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sun). You can see what's been written so far collected here. All posts will be posted under the Aresan Clan label. For summaries of the events so far, visit here. See my previous serial Vampire Wares collected here.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

False confessions

Slate had an article a few days about about false confessions, a surprisingly common problem. Of 250 cases of later DNA exoneration, 16% included false confessions, and that's just among cases definitely disproven by DNA evidence. False confessions are in fact a major problem in criminal investigation, which investigators have to be constantly wary of. Not only do police have to worry about people who confess for attention in high profile cases, but they also have to worry about the possibility of extracting false confessions through persistent pressure, which can escalate even to outright torture. The only check police usually have is to corroborate confessions with available evidence, but in some cases police will find ways to circumvent it or bend the rules.

It always reminds me of one of the most famous cases of false confession, the case of William Hierens, who is currently perhaps the longest serving prisoner in America, after he confessed to three murders in 1946 that he probably didn't commit. I should say at the outset that his case is controversial, and not everyone is convinced Hierens is innocent, but I think the evidence is compelling.

The three murders in question occurred in 1945-46 in Chicago. The first two, which occurred within a few blocks of each other were both middle aged women who lived alone, who had been stabbed repeatedly in their home. In the second case, a note had been scrawled in lipstick on the wall, reading: "For heavens sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself," from which the killer was dubbed the "Lipstick Kiler." The only evidence the police had was a bloody fingerprint left behind at the second scene, and one witness who saw a suspicious looking man about 35-40 years old leaving the second scene at about the time of the murder. The police tried to match the fingerprint to those they had on file, but came up empty.

The third murder, which occurred a few weeks after the second at a location several miles to the north of the first two, had a very different modus operandi and seems quite unlikely to be related. This time it was a six-year-old girl, Suzanne Degnan, who was kidnapped from her bedroom, taken into a basement, drained of her blood and dismembered, with body parts being left throughout various sewers. The only evidence was a ransom note that had been left behind in her bedroom and a handful of witnesses who described suspicious persons in the area, usually of an adult male alone, but in a couple of cases of a man and woman with a car. The ransom note was in a significantly different hand than the lipstick scrawl, and famous handwriting expert Herbert J. Walter, told the press that they appeared to be by different persons.

At this time, William Hierens was a 17 year old studying at the University of Chicago, who had already built up considerable history as a petty thief. He had broke into many houses and stole numerous small things, and had already been arrested twice for robbery and served two stints of juvenile detention. When he was caught in the act the third time, after fleeing from police, brandishing a gun to try and get away and being knocked out with a flower pot, he became an immediate suspect for the three murders.

Just before the arrest of Hierens, the police had found a very plausible suspect for the Degnan killing, a man serving a jail sentence in Arizona named Richard Russell Thomas, who was in jail for molesting his daughter. He had committed a previous crime which included a ransom note; his handwriting seemed to match the Degnan ransom note; he had medical training as a nurse, making him more competent to perform the rather difficult job of dismembering a body; and he'd confessed to it. Unfortunately, it was a case of bad timing, as the police dropped this suspect when they got a hold of Hierens.

The police questioned Hierens for days unrelentingly, administering severe beatings and exerting constant pressure. They were initially unable to connect him to the crimes: his handwriting, for one, didn't match the lipstick handwriting or the ransom note; their witnesses had all described an adult male not a scrawny teenager; they had been unable to get a fingerprint off the ransom note; and his fingerprint was already on file from his burglaries, so if it was to match the fingerprint at the second scene, it should've already been discovered immediately after the second killing. The police even told the press, at first, that Hierens fingerprints didn't match the print at the second scene. But the police were nonetheless convinced they had their man.

The police administered Sodium Pentathol, the so-called "Truth Serum," to Hierens and he gave a number of bizarre confessions about an alternate personality named George that compelled him to kill and steal. Sodium Pentathol is no longer used nowadays as a truth serum because its effectiveness as a truth serum is rather spotty. Sodium Pentathol sort of works like alcohol or hypnosis: it's a relaxant that reduces inhibition. It is used, in combination with other drugs, as an an anesthetic, creating a quick-acting, though short-living term of unconsciousness. In smaller amounts it creates a psychological state somewhat like being drunk or hypnotized, with a person both more unrestrained as well as, because of the relaxant quality, less resolved. Since the lack of inhibition can make a person more candid and since the lack of resolve can make a person more compliant under questioning, it was thought to be a good truth serum. The reality is, though, that the results are very unpredictable. If a questioner is trying to get an answer out of a subject, the lack of resolve makes that subject more likely to simply say whatever is desired. It increases suggestibility, making a person more likely to accept whatever is told to them. And the lack of inhibition can also make a person much more imaginative and unrestrained in creating made up stories. In short, sodium pentathol makes a person under interrogation much more likely to say what you want them to say, which is not really helpful if you've got a person who doesn't know anything.

On the other hand, the police were gathering hard evidence and the press was completely on their side, credulously reporting the guilt of Hierens. The police now found now that the bloody fingerprint did in fact match Hierens' fingerprint; they found that their witness who'd seen a 35-40 year old man at second scene was now willing to testify that he'd in fact seen the 17 year old Hierens; and the handwriting expert, Herbert J. Walter, who'd earlier said the ransom note and lipstick scrawl were by different hands, now changed his mind and said they were by the same author and that author was Hierens (the handwriting only appeared different since Hierens had made effort to disguise his handwriting).

With this evidence, the police pressured Hierens into confessing and pleading guilty, telling him that he would get the chair if he pleaded not guilty. This led to an odd flip-flopping, where Hierens first said he'd confess, and then he changed his mind and then the police pressed him again and he finally pled guilty and provided a full confession. He subsequently flip-flopped again, now saying he was innocent, but by then it was too late and he was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. Within days, Hierens despaired and tried to kill himself, but was discovered before he died. Some 65 years later, he's still in jail, still proclaiming his innocence and coming close to the end of his life.

As I said at the beginning, the case is a controversial one, with its share of defenders and detractors. But it's difficult to imagine that he would've been convicted in a fair trial. Any competent defense attorney would be able to poke holes in the fingerprint match, the eye-witness testimony and the handwriting analysis. About all the prosecution has to go on is a confession, which, admittedly, would be enough to convict, but considering the circumstances that led to the conviction and what we know about how common false confessions are, this is also questionable.

Based on what we know about the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, the eyewitness appears to be a case of a man who, after reading the constant press coverage proclaiming Hierens' guilt, became convinced that it was in fact Hierens he had seen. Similarly with the handwriting analysis. Handwriting is not an exact science and the degree to which two sets of handwriting are similar enough to be by the same person is not well-defined. Not to mention that the consensus among analysist that the two sources of writing were different from one another and from Hierens' handwriting and that it was only Walter that convinced himself that the superficial differences in writing were enough evidence to demonstration attempts to disguise his handwriting. Handwriting is inexact at the best of times, but to be able to link disguised writing to someone is going out on a limb.

The case for the Degnan murder is extremely weak. For one the murder is radically different from the other two. For example, William T Rasmussen tries to make the case that Suzanne Degnan was killed by a person also responsible for two other contemporaneous unsolved murders involving dismemberment (namely the Cleveland Torso Murders and the Black Dahlia murder). Now Rasmussen's evidence linking these three is rather superficial, but it certainly is the case that they have far more in common with each other than does the Degnan murder have with the other two. There are simply way too many differences. Serial killers are by no means slavishly faithful to a single MO, but a serial killer performing two completely different styles of murder on two very different types of victims within a matter of weeks is unprecedented. Not to mention that Hierens simply lacked the tools or the expertise really to perform a dismemberment as well as it was performed. It's simply not something that a person easily picks up on the first try. In fact, we have a very good suspect with none of these problems who confessed.

With the other two cases we can say that we have a better case against Hierens. Dismissing the handwriting and eyewitness testimony, we still do have a suspect with a history of home invasion and a bloody fingerprint that matches. Those who defend Hierens claim that the fingerprint was planted by the police. The suspicious change from Hierens not being a match to being a match lends credence to this argument. Nonetheless, though we can't say with as much certainty that Hierens didn't do it as with the Degnan murder, the case is weak and the level of doubt too high for a reasonable conviction.

What can we conclude? In high profile cases, the pressure for police to get a conviction at any costs can sometime completely interfere with normal standards of evidence. In this case, the pressure was intense. And combine that with the low probability of catching the culprit in such random killings like this, you have a recipe for police abuse and serious judicial error. The presence of a confession is simply not strong enough for a reasonable conviction and it's very likely William Hierens falsely confessed.

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