Coerced False Confessions During Police Interrogations
Michael Crowe's Forced Confession
On the morning of January 21, 1998, the Crowe family of Escondido, California awoke to a horrific nightmare. Family members found 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe lying on her bedroom floor drenched in blood. She had been stabbed approximately nine times at some point in the late evening or early morning hours. The police were immediately called to the scene. As word spread throughout the community, everyone wondered who was responsible for committing such a horrendous act. It didn't take the police long to answer that question.
After Stephanie's body was discovered, the police separately interviewed each member of the entire Crowe family. They specifically focused their attention on Stephanie's 14-year-old brother Michael, who was questioned for 27 hours over a three day period, Patricia Smith reported in a 2003 New York Times Upfront article. They also extensively interviewed two of his closest friends.
By the time the interrogations ended, the police had obtained a confession from Michael and one of his friends and "enough incriminating evidence from the third boy to file murder charges against them all," Edward Humes said in a 2004 Knight Ridder/Tribune Service article. Although the boys allegedly confessed, there was a great deal of doubt concerning the accuracy of their statements and the method used to get them. According to Humes, the police "used lies, false promises, isolation from parents and attorneys, even threats of adult prison and predatory older inmates..." as persuasive techniques to get a confession.
The manner in which the boys claimed to have been interviewed prompted an investigation to determine whether they were or were not coerced into confession. False confession expert Richard Leo analyzed the videotaped interrogations and came to a shocking conclusion. Leo determined that the interrogations were "textbook example(s) of how not to question suspects, finding that it amounted to a form of 'psychological torture' so coercive that the boys would have said almost anything to make it stop." Before the murder trial even began, all charges against the boys were dropped because it became evident they had nothing to do with Stephanie's murder. The boys' exoneration rested on one key piece of evidence.
Court TV's Harriet Ryan reported that on the eve of the trial, DNA tests conducted on a 28-year-old mentally ill homeless man's clothes revealed Stephanie's blood. The man, Richard Raymond Tuite, was seen wandering through the neighborhood and acting suspiciously on the day of the murder. Mark Sauer and John Wilkens reported in a May 1999 Union-Tribune article that six hours before Stephanie's body was discovered, they saw Tuite standing in the Crowes' driveway "looking up at their house." Another witness claimed she saw him "screaming and spinning around with his hands in the air" in the proximity of the Crowes' house that night, Daniel J. Chacon reported for the Union-Tribune. Tuite's bizarre behavior that night, which also included his peering into windows of neighborhood houses, led to his being picked up by police the next morning as a possible suspect
The police questioned Tuite about the murder. Sauer and Wilkens said that they took fingernail scrapings and clippings and photographs of him and also confiscated his clothing before releasing him. DNA tests conducted on the clothes later linked him to the murder. Many wondered: Why weren't the tests conducted earlier, and why wasn't Tuite held longer? Many believe that the police were in such a hurry to solve the crime that they failed to conduct a proper investigation or even an ethical interrogation of suspects.
Based on the new evidence, Tuite has been charged with Stephanie's murder. In May 2004, he was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 13 years in a state prison.
In the meantime, Ryan reports, the Crowe family has sued the police department and prosecutors for violating Michael's civil rights during his interrogation.