Jurors hear how an innocent person can falsely confess

Dr. Deborah Davis

Dr. Deborah Davis, professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, talks to the jury in the David Paul homicide trial about police interrogation techniques. Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO News

The latest witness to take the stand in the David J. Paul homicide trial said that interrogation techniques used by police are highly suggestive and are designed to elicit an eventual response, regardless if the person being interrogated is guilty or innocent of a crime.

Dr. Deborah Davis, psychology professor at the University of Nevada in Reno, was called to the stand by Paul’s defense on Wednesday, one day after jurors heard a previously suppressed interview in which Paul said that he accidentally dropped the baby Rian Orr. The four-month old died of complications resulting from brain injuries nearly three years ago.

Davis says the Innocence Project has counted false confession rates as high as 25-percent in cases which someone was wrongly convicted and later exonerated of a crime.

Research studies and lab studies have also documented how and when false confessions occur.

Davis said that an individual’s tolerance, stress and anxiety level, a desire to get away or protect someone else may prompt someone to make a false confession. A person may also be confused or have a bad memory and could be convinced that they committed a crime. The interrogation technique is designed to convince a suspect that confessing is a rational decision.

For a person to falsely confess requires that they believe it to be in their self-interest. That’s from the interrogation books. It’s akin to selling a person in the Yukon air conditioning in January. It’s not good for them. They don’t need it. It’s bad for them. But they have to believe it is good for them to get them to confess.”

She said that investigators already believe that someone is guilty before interrogating them. The idea is to draw out the crucial information during the interrogation that will lead to a conviction.

Davis said what’s called the Reid Technique is the predominate standard among police officers, garnering confession rates as high as 77-percent.

You’re trying to get people to say that they did this. If they’re guilty they’re more likely to say it if Reid is used on them and if they’re innocent they’re more likely to say it if Reid is used on them. It makes more difference in getting guilty people to confess than it does for innocent. But if you take a look at the difference at how likely an innocent person is to confess, (then) it can be way more than twice as likely to falsely confess.”

Some of the Reid Technique’s tactics include investigators acting like the suspect’s best friend to undermine resistance, being deceptive or lying about any evidence that investigators may have in a case, posing contrasting or alternative questions that may elicit the suspect’s explanation for the crime or offer less serious options to the person being interrogated, asking open-ended set-up questions about an outcome of a case, and making sympathetic offers to a suspect that may appear to minimize consequences.

Davis said the Reid Technique generally is not intended to create falcity or a false statement. It’s just a side effect of a subjective interrogation process.

It gives person you’re interviewing an idea of what you want to hear or what you think is true. Over and over, they say ‘I think this is what happened. The evidence says this is what happened and I want you to tell me that. Tell me the truth. If you don’t tell me this, that I think is the truth, then bad things are going to happen. If you do, then better things are going to happen.’ So, yes, it’s highly suggestive.”

Davis was not allowed to comment on the specific interrogation of Paul that was suppressed and prompted the eventual dismissal of the original indictment against him. She could only testify about general principals of interrogations and false confessions.

Davis said polygraph tests, whether real or performed as a ruse, are also commonly used as interrogation tools.

Also on Wednesday, public defender Eric Hedland returned to recordings of phone calls between Rian’s mother Jaki Orr and David Paul while he was jailed at Lemon Creek Correctional Center. The selected clips were intended to show his state of mind in allegedly admitting to investigators that he accidentally dropped Rian. Jaki Orr makes disparaging comments about Juneau police investigators, and how she expected to be arrested, but her hands were apparently too small to cause the baby’s rib fractures and chest bruising.

Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg told jurors that they could start deliberating in the case as soon as Thursday, or Day 18 of the trial. First, the defense may put on the stand any last witnesses, including Paul himself if he chooses to testify. Then, the prosecution and defense will present closing arguments before the case goes to the jury.

(Corrected: spelling of Reid)

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