False Confessions, Part II


This morning in Clearwater a man named Stephen Lamont plead guilty to a 1986 murder. The remarkable thing about this case is that another man, Tom Sawyer, had already confessed to the crime back in 1986. Sawyer’s confession was thrown out after the court ruled that it was coerced.

Sawyer, the neighbor of the victim, was arrested for the murder during the police’s initial investigation. He was deprived of food, sleep, and denied an attorney. After 16 hours of interrogation he confessed, but made inconsistent statements in his confession. As a result, the trial court judge threw the confession out after a lengthy hearing.

In 1990, the appellate court ruled that there was “overwhelming, substantial evidence that Sawyer’s confession resulted from psychological police coercion.” The police also “ignored two requests for counsel and refused to stop the questioning when Sawyer insisted he no longer wanted to talk and said he needed to sleep.”

What’s interesting about the appellate court’s opinion is that it details sixteen phases of the interrogation. Here’s the rundown as quoted from the appellate court’s decision:

  1. There was a preliminary family or psychological profiling effort made by the detectives to find out who Sawyer was.
  2. The detectives instituted a guessing game of questions not unlike “charades,” the “scenario,” that used leading questions to nudge the defendant to adopt the facts as known to or believed to be known by the police about intimate details of the crime.
  3. There was a progressive process of accumulating what the detectives called “elimination evidence,” whereby they got the suspect freely to supply fingerprints, footprints, hair from the scalp, pubic hair, blood, saliva, and the keys to his apartment and car, without his knowing or appreciating the fact that he was the prime murder suspect.
  4. There was a disarming dialogue proceeding the Miranda warnings, so as not to let Sawyerknow he was a prime suspect, but to imply that instead this was a monotonous legal ritual that really meant nothing.
  5. [Detectives used] a shock, an accusatory approach where Sawyer was now told he was the murderer.
  6. Sawyer was plied with repeated efforts to get him to accept a confession based on an accidental, unintentional killing.
  7. There were the pre-polygraph buildup and Sawyer’s emphatic denials of guilt.
  8. The police attempted an intense accusatory effort to avert the polygraph test (that Sawyerthought would prove his innocence), which was probably done to “prime” Sawyer to fail the test.
  9. Sawyer was given a last-chance opportunity to accept the proposed “accident” approach, called “the rope” technique, prior to handing him the bad news of having failed the polygraph test.
  10. The police made a sudden shift to first degree murder instead of accidental killing.
  11. The “hallway” meeting occurred, off the record, where a deal may have been made to admit “the truth” in return for favored overtures to the state attorney’s office.
  12. There was the “I don’t believe I did it” phase where Sawyer was losing contact with his own belief system and wondering if he could kill and not remember.
  13. The “blackout” theory was substituted by all concerned, a substitution of theory for reality.
  14. The confession in the first person took place.
  15. The interrogation was renewed by yet another detective.
  16. Sawyer explosively denied the entire confession after the effects of sleep deprivation had worn off.

It was a grueling, manipulative ordeal designed with only one objective in mind – to get a confession. What’s also remarkable about the appellate court’s decision is this statement:

We wish to commend the Clearwater Police Department in its practice of maintaining a record of interrogations through the use of tape recording and express hope that this policy will continue.

Without a full tape of the interrogation it’s very possible that the confession would not have been thrown out. Why? Because the court would not have had access to the questions the detectives asked, the way they asked it, or the multiple times they ignored Sawyer’s requests for an attorney or to stop questioning.

Now, nearly 20 years after the murder and Sawyer’s confession took place the real murderer has pleaded guilty. He had escaped from prison in Alabama and was hiding out in the Clearwater area. DNA evidence from the victim’s body matched Lamont.

Sawyer was in court this morning to watch Lamont’s confession. According to the news report he approached the prosecutor (the same one who tried to prosecute him based on his false confession) and told him “You learned and you’re doing better.” Let’s hope so.