More on Michael Mermel, DNA, and False Confessions

Earlier this week, I wrote about Lake County, Illinois prosecutor Michael Mermel, who doesn’t seem to be all that impressed with DNA testing, at least when it has the effect of exonerating his suspects and undermining his convictions. Mermel’s most ridiculous dismissal of DNA testing to date was in the case of Jerry Hobbs, a man accused of killing his 8-year-old daughter and her friend.

When tests showed that the semen found in the mouth, rectum and vagina of Hobbs’ daughter came from someone other than Hobbs, Mermel argued that Hobbs was still his man, and that the semen could be explained by the fact that the girl often played in a woods where people have sex, even though the girl was found fully clothed. Mermel also pointed to Hobbs’ confession, which Mermel says included details that could only have been known to the killer. Well, the killer and the police officers investigating the case.

Steven Drizin, who heads up the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, wrote last month about the conditions of Hobbs’ confession:

Hobbs was taken into police custody at 10:00a.m. on May 9, 2005 and interrogated for at least 16 hours until police claim he confessed at 4:45 a.m. on May 10th. Hobbs had not slept the night before (he was out searching for his daughter) and did not sleep once in custody. While in custody, he was subject to the full battery of psychological techniques by teams of detectives in a tag team fashion. Hobbs’s interrogation was not recorded (a new law requiring recording had passed in 2002 but would not become effective for a month or so), although police did prepare a typed statement which Hobbs signed.

[...]

The confession closes with an apology for what happened, claiming that “things got out of hand.” (police are trained to write such expressions of remorse into their statements).

Prosecutors quickly announced that they were seeking the death penalty against Hobbs. Throughout the time he was in custody, Hobbs’s face was always on the news and reporters were talking about him as a “person of interest” or “being questioned by police” and detailing his criminal history. The confession is the only evidence the police have against Hobbs. There were no eyewitnesses to the crime and no murder weapon was recovered. Although Hobbs was wearing the same clothes when arrested as when he found the girls, no blood was found on him, his clothes or his shoes. Although some of the details in the confession are consistent with the wounds on the girls’ bodies, without a recording of the interrogation, there is simply no way to know whether these details were suggested to Hobbs by the police during the questioning, whether he knew the information because he saw the girls when he found the bodies, or whether he knew the details because he was there when they were killed.

As Washington, D.C. police Detective Jim Trainum wrote earlier this year in the L.A. Times, even well-intentioned police investigators can unintentionally elicit a false confession. They can also unknowingly impart details of the crime to the person they’re interrogating.

Here you have a confession made under duress, then quickly retracted. You have an interrogation that wasn't recorded. You have no physical evidence linking the suspect to the crime scene.  And you have the semen of a man other than the suspect all over one of the victim's bodies. Yet Mermel plans to forge ahead with his prosecution.

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  • ||

    Keep banging that drum Radley. Here's hoping that the new year will bring a new interest in government abuse of power.

  • Dello||

    "Hobbs was taken into police custody at 10:00a.m. on May 9, 2005 and interrogated for at least 16 hours..."

    "Hobbs's interrogation was not recorded (a new law requiring recording had passed in 2002 but would not become effective for a month or so)"

    A law requiring recording was passed in 2002, but wouldn't become effective until June of 2005?

    I've heard of the wheels of justice turning slowly, but DAMN!

  • Xeones||

    Yo, fuck Mermel.

  • creech||

    Apparently the only rational thing to do when asked by a police officer to answer some questions is to repeat "I want to consult a lawyer first." Say absolutely nothing else until your lawyer shows up.

  • robc||

    creech,

    Say absolutely nothing else until your lawyer shows up.

    FTFY

  • kinnath||

    One of the greatest episodes of the great Homicide: Life on the Streets had the TV guy recording all the detectives explaining the people should just shut up and refuse to talk to the police.

  • bill||

    I hope Mermel goes to prison when another little girl turns up dead with DNA matching this case.

  • ||

    You know, I bet it would be possible to kidnap Mermel and subject him to tag-team interrogation over several days, and thereby elicit a confession to the murder of Hobbs's daughter. Not that I would ever advocate such a thing. Heavens no, that(as Richard Nixon once said) would be wrong.

  • ||

    Seriously: Never talk to a police officer without representation. This YouTube video of a law professor explains it nicely:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8z7NC5sgik

    There's a follow up to that where one of his students, a former police interrogator, explains his tactics, including the "letter of apology" confession.

    The bottom line is this: Whatever you say to an officer can be used *against* you, but nothing you say can be used in your defense. Just shut up and get a lawyer.

  • ||

    The bottom line is this: Whatever you say to an officer can be used *against* you, but nothing you say can be used in your defense. Just shut up and get a lawyer.


    Bingo. Keep in mind, this applies to "questioning" only as well. IOW, you do not need to be currently under arrest for your words to be used against you at a later time (obtaining a search/arrest warrant, trial, etc.). Again, simply state that you "want a lawyer and are exercising your right to remain silent", then do just that.

    Flexyourrights.org has a load of good information and while it is drug centric, the laws and tactics used are the same for any police action.

  • ||

    This reminds of a (Texas?) DA who is trying to keep a man in prison despite DNA exoneration, under the theory that even if the DNA doesn't match, it proves nothing because the convict could have had an accomplice. This is despite the fact that the prosecution pursued a lone perpetrator theory of the crime during the original trial. The state supreme court has so far seen fit to deny the appeal because it does not prove the defendant's innocence.

    It is obvious, of course, that under this legal standard anybody, anywhere on the planet can be prosecuted for any crime. No evidence? You must have had an accomplice! Guilty as charged! Since under this legal standard evidence can be used to uphold a conviction, but lack of evidence can't be used to exonerate, no appeal can ever be sustained.

  • ||

    Here you have a confession made under duress, then quickly retracted. You have an interrogation that wasn't recorded. You have no physical evidence linking the suspect to the crime scene. And you have the semen of a man other than the suspect all over one of the victim's bodies. Yet Mermel plans to forge ahead with his prosecution.

    How could that even get past a grand jury, much less lead to a conviction? Couldn't any defense attorney with half a brain point out that the physical evidence outweighs a confession made under dubious circumstances (and retracted soon after)? This isn't even close to "proof beyond a reasonable doubt".

    It almost seems like it would be enough to get a judge to dismiss the case, but maybe judges are reluctant to do that most of the time.

  • ||

    I have many years of law enforcement experience (hate the game, NOT the player!).

    i was in an interrogation class, and the instructor claimed that the purpose of an interrogation was "to get a confession within the bounds of the law".

    i told him - no, it's not. the purpose of an interrogation, just like any evidence gathering technique, is to get evidence, to get to the truth. the goal can't be to get a confession, because that goal conflicts with the fact that the person may in fact be innocent. and getting a confession from an innocent is... bad.

    but there are plenty of cops who think this way about confessions. false confessions are rare, and a GOOD interrogator can do many things to help lessen the probability of one, and/or recognize it when it happens.

    but if one's GOAL is to get a confession, that taints the process.

  • ||

    What about players that love the game? If the good cops don't report the bad cops, they are part of the problem. Sure we use generalization when discussing the issue but if good cops don't take a stand against bad cops, is it really generalization or round off error?

    Bad things will be commonplace when good cops fear the bad cops. It will continue to be so until the bad cops fear the good.

  • ||

    the idea you shouldn't talk to the cops is absurd - unless yer guilty as fuck that is. in that case, you better be rather smaht and shady. in those cases you can often lead them astray. but that's a tough game.

    probably average a dozen or more field interviews/interrogations a week. scores of people help themselves by talking to police, but those cases don't make H&R because there is no issue. they don't write about people who don't get arrested, or who get nolle pros'd early in the process.

    iow, it's selection bias. i've been a criminal suspect before on a terry, and i gave a quick explanation and was on my way.

    and i was a long haired surfer dood when that happened (surfer profiling!)

    i once even had a lawyer give an awesome statement during interrogation that got the prosecutor to not charge him because he outlined that he had acted in self-defense in a brandishing case. if he hadn't talked, he surely would have been charged since all we had to go on was the 'victim's" account.

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