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False confessions and the lessons of the Fairbanks Four

Detective Aaron Ring was just hours into his investigation of the vicious beating of John Hartman on a street corner in downtown Fairbanks when patrol officers arrested an Alaska Native teenager. The teen, Eugene Vent, had been found stumbling down the street about four blocks from the location of the attack. Ring had no evidence identifying a suspect in the assault, which ultimately caused the death of Hartman.

Vent had been drinking all night. Around the time of his arrest, he had a blood alcohol level of .158. He was 17 years old, still drunk, tired and hungry as he was brought into an interview room. It was around 5:30 in the morning. Vent had been up all night.

Detective Ring had a decision to make: whether to interview or interrogate Vent. Ring chose the latter -- a decision that would have profound implications for the investigation into the murder of John Hartman, which just resulted in the reversal of the murder convictions of Vent and the other members of the "Fairbanks Four" after 18 years of incarceration.

"Interrogation" and "interview" are not synonyms; they have very different purposes and employ very different tactics. Interviews are used in an investigation to gather information -- objective facts -- by asking open-ended questions and allowing the witness to supply the evidence. Police conduct interviews when they don't yet know the answers to the questions they are asking.

Interrogations, on the other hand, are designed to extract confessions where police already have other concrete evidence connecting the suspect to the crime. Most officers are trained in specific interrogation techniques that are intended to be used against seasoned adult criminals. Because interrogations are so coercive, there's a danger in using them, rather than an investigation, to solve a crime: They can produce false confessions that blind officers to other objective evidence. According to the Innocence Project, one out of four people who have been wrongfully convicted and later exonerated through DNA evidence made a false confession or incriminating statement.

The statistic is even higher for teens, who are particularly vulnerable to the pressures of coercive interrogation techniques. This vulnerability is categorically shared by every teen, no matter how intelligent or mature because it is rooted in physiological differences in their brains. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls decision-making and judgment, is far less developed in the teenage brain, making it much less effective in regulating impulsive behavior by putting a brake on reactions to fear and stress. In a high-stress environment like an interrogation, a teen is far more likely to say anything -- true or not -- just to get it to stop, ignoring the long-term consequences of that decision.

That's why groups like the International Association of Chiefs of Police advocate strict limitations on the interrogation of teenagers. They recommend, for example, that teens should only be interrogated for an hour before a substantial break; that a friendly adult, such as a parent, guardian or child advocate, should be present; that interrogations should not occur in the middle of the night; that police should not resort to deception about the evidence; and that they should not feed the suspect facts about the investigation.

Detective Ring violated every single of one these recommendations. His interrogation is like a textbook study on how not to question a teenager.

During the first hour or so of the interrogation, Vent insisted over and over that he had nothing to do with the beating of John Hartman: that he was not in the area, that he'd never seen Hartman before. But Ring refused to accept his denials, repeatedly telling the exhausted, drunk teen that he was not telling the truth and that the interrogation would only end when he did. Here's a sample of that technique from the transcript of the interrogation:

Vent: You got it all backward.

Ring: Well straighten me out then here.

Vent: I already tried, and you don't believe me (inaudible) you don't believe me, you don't even believe me, (inaudible) tell you the whole story when you don't believe.

Ring: 'Cause it's not true. That's why people don't believe you.

Vent: OK, don't believe me then.

Ring: The truth is much easier.

Vent: (inaudible)

Ring: Well I will, OK.

Vent: I hope you do that.

Ring: But first I'd like to have you tell me the truth, that's all. Then we can be done. OK? It's as simple as that. It's not hard. OK. It's not hard at all. This is much harder.

But the "truth" required Vent to adopt a lie. To pile on pressure, Ring told Vent that his footprint had been found in the victim's blood and that this was incontrovertible evidence that he had been present at the scene of the assault. This was not true. In a publication titled "Reducing Risks: An Executive's Guide to Effective Juvenile Interview and Interrogation," the police chiefs association says the use of false evidence "may cause an innocent juvenile -- even one who initially had a clear recollection of not committing a crime -- to mistrust his memory, accept that the evidence proves his guilt, and eventually confess to a crime that he did not commit."

As is evident from the transcript, eventually, Vent began to doubt his own memory and believe Ring's lie:

Ring: Let me show you a photo of the guy (Hartman) and you tell me who it is. OK.

Vent: I haven't met him, man.

Ring: Well, that's the person whose blood you stepped in, so I think probably (inaudible) who it is. Unless you were just down there taking his stuff, I don't know.

Vent: I don't know who that is, man. I might've been there, but I don't know who that is.

Ring: What do you mean you might've been there, but you don't know who that is?

Vent: If I stepped in his blood, I was there, but I don't know who that is right there.

Ring: Oh.

Vent: He, he doesn't look familiar and I certainly …

Ring: Oh, this is a stranger to you?

Vent: Stranger, yeah.

But since Vent had no actual memory of the beating, Ring had to feed him all of the facts. This is yet another hallmark of false confessions: All of the facts are supplied to the suspects by officers, not the other way around. Ring ultimately provided Vent with every fact in his "confession." He told him that Hartman had been beaten, the location of the attack, that Hartman had been kicked in the head, that there was more than one attacker, that the attackers arrived and fled in a car, even the identities of the others allegedly involved.

For example, Vent had been found by officers walking down the street. But here is a portion of the interrogation where Ring convinced him that he'd actually been in a car:

Ring: Were you guys in a car driving on Ninth?

Vent: No.

Ring: Are you sure?

Vent: I could be, I just (inaudible) walking.

Ring: Well think about that a little bit. You guys drove up there in a car and hopped out.

Vent: (inaudible)

Ring: Cause I've got some skid marks and (inaudible) actual skid (inaudible). OK, figure it out that way, but I'd rather hear it from you if you guys were in a car.

Within minutes, Vent told the detective that he was in a car. Ring had convinced Vent that his own memory could not be trusted, and the teen was willing to adopt whatever Ring suggested. But because Ring was basing his suggestions on a mere assumption that Vent was one of the attackers, rather than on hard evidence, his investigation failed to identify real culprits.

Unfortunately, unlike many jobs, mistakes made by those who investigate, prosecute or defend crimes like homicides can have severe consequences, even when they are made in good faith. When interrogations produce false confessions, not only do innocent people lose years of their lives, but police also fail to identify killers who may continue to do great harm. Two of the individuals now suspected in the Hartman case, Bill Holmes and Jason Wallace, have been convicted of three subsequent unrelated murders.

Whenever there is a catastrophic failure of justice, it's tempting to want to move on as quickly as possible. The state Department of Law leveraged the freedom of the Fairbanks Four for a deal where the state does not have to admit that anyone -- police or prosecutors -- made any mistakes. But failing to learn from the mistakes of the Fairbanks Four case would be a disservice, not only to those young men who lost their youth to Alaska's criminal justice system, but also to the safety of our community.

Marcelle McDannel has been working in criminal law for almost two decades, both as a prosecutor and as a criminal defense attorney. She currently practices criminal defense statewide. Her crime fiction blog can be found at askmsmurder.net, where you can also find more information and excerpts from the Vent interrogation transcript.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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