No One Found Guilty In Stephanie Crowe Killing
December 9, 2013 1:34 p.m.
KPBS Senior Editor Mark Sauer covered the Stephanie Crowe murder case since it happened in 1998.
Richard Leo, Ph.D., J.D., is a visiting professor at the UCLA Law School. He is widely recognized as an expert in police interrogation and false confessions and has testified in numeral trials, including the first Tuite trial here in San Diego.
Related Story: No One Found Guilty In Stephanie Crowe Killing
ALISON ST. JOHN: Our top story on Midday today, the Stephanie Crowe murder case appears to have finally ended with the acquittal on Friday of Richard Tuite. That left many questions still swirling around the case that left national headlines all those years ago and it means someone who killed has dodged justice. Before we get to my guests, just a brief recap of the case. Stephanie was 12 when her family found her stabbed to the death on her bedroom floor in 1988. Her 15-year-old brother Michael and his friends were soon arrested and charged with a crime. Police obtained confessions from them in what subsequently became a classic case of police interrogations eliciting false confessions. The case against the boys fell apart when drops of the girl's blood was discovered on the clothing of Richard Tuite, a mentally ill drifter. They were subsequently, the boys were subsequently exonerated and found factually innocent. Tuite was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in 2004 but that conviction was overturned on appeal. In the retrial that ended last Friday he was found not guilty. Tuite will now go free. Here to talk about all this is KPBS senior editor, Mark Sauer. Great to have you here, Mark .
MARK SAUER: Good to be here, Alison.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Mark covered the case since it happened in 1998, extensively. We also have on the phone Richard Leo who is a visiting professor at the UCLA law school. Leo, Richard, thank you for joining us.
RICHARD LEO: Great to be here.
ALISON ST. JOHN: And Dr. Leo is widely recognized as an expert in police interrogation and false confessions. And he's testified in numerous trails including the first Tuite trial in San Diego and the one last week. So Mark, let's just start with you. One of the things that underlies this whole tragedy is that police work that was botched from the beginning. Why did they set off on the wrong foot right from the start?
MARK SAUER: Well they had two 911 calls from fearful residents of night before, neighbors of the Crow family, they sent out to different police officers to try to catch Richard to it was clearly a prowler they were looking for and they didn't catch them. The next morning this girl shows up dead on her bedroom floor. They did a cursory examination. The house concluded the house was locked up tight. It really wasn't, and it must be an inside job and went off to see who in the house at that time could've done it and focused on Michael Crowe.
ALISON ST. JOHN: That's why they did these interrogations ultimately result in false confections.
MARK SAUER: Exactly. They picked up Tuite briefly, talked to him and they picked up his clothing which led to the revelation in the case.
ALISON ST. JOHN: The second trial which has resulted in the acquittal, the defense argues that the evidence was contaminated how did that come about?
MARK SAUER: It's interesting because they had the blood on two pieces of Richard to its closing, the red sweatshirt he wore the night of the crime Stephanie Crowe's blood as well as an undershirt he had so they had to show the police work to be incompetent and could have contaminated the shirts and rather than him getting the blood because he killed the girl and got it on him during the crime they had to show the police were incompetent and therefore contaminated somehow in the lab. Those theories were far-fetched I think on any objective reading.
ALISON ST. JOHN: A lot of the evidence was presented at both trials. People must be wondering why the outcome in the second trial resulted in an acquittal if the first one Tuite was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. What was different about the evidence?
MARK SAUER: It's a natural question. I covered the first-round and didn't cover this one. The first trial went 16 weeks, this trial went six weeks. Obviously a 10 week difference there, a lot more evidence was presented. A different prosecutor in the second trial, different jury. The standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, all these are factors that are and will be interesting to go through the transcripts to compare the trials but I haven't had time to do that.
ALISON ST. JOHN: One of the things in this trial was the court's finding of factual innocence for the boys and the settlement with the Escondido Police Department why wasn't that introduced?
MARK SAUER: That's right. The finding of factual innocence which was cut by the crows attorney [Milt] Silverman is not, cannot be used in any other legal proceeding and the judge properly excluded that as well as the roughly 9,000,000 in settlement the Escondido police and others who were sued for false arrest and imprisonment that could not be brought to this jury either because of the law that was rightfully excluded. So the jury didn't learn of those incidents.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Richard let's come to you. The police did latch on to the teenagers first and interrogated them and obtained confessions that were subsequently thrown out. How egregious was this case of all the cases that you have researched?
RICHARD LEO: We've researched, I've researched thousands of interrogations and confessions going back to 1990 and unlike then, in the last decade most of the interrogations are electronically recorded, although Michael Crow's was, Josh Treadway's was.
ALISON ST. JOHN: It was on video.
RICHARD LEO: In 1980 this is one of the most egregious. There's no question there's over 40 hours of interrogation. Michael Crow was interrogated for 8 to 10 hours on a couple of occasions part of it was recorded. If you watch Michael Crowe's interrogation, the first jury did, the second jury didn't, there's no question it's child abuse, it's torture, it's psychological torture. They break him down. There were threats. There were lies. These interrogations were beyond the pale in almost every way including their length. So, this is textbook egregious.
ALISON ST. JOHN: So one of the reasons this is back in the news is because of the big New Yorker article last week looking at police interrogations producing false confessions. How common is it for this practice to continue today?
RICHARD LEO: Well, we do not know how often false confessions occur because nobody collects the data on interrogations leading to false confessions. And so most of the cases we don't hear about. So there is no way scientifically to come up with an estimate. Is it one in 10? One in 100? We don't know. But there are numerous cases, hundreds cases have proven false confession where you can prove as in Michael Crowe's case that the person who confessed is factually innocent.
ALISON ST. JOHN: According to this article more than a quarter, more than 300 people were exonerated through postconviction DNA testing, which is what happened in this case, had made false confessions. So it seems like it's not unusual.
RICHARD LEO: No it is not and actually Michael Crowe and Joshua Treadway and Aaron Houser all excluded by DNA on appeal of the evidence as Mark alluded to they are not part of every 300 at the innocence Project because they were never convicted. Tuite was convicted but had they been convicted and subsequently exonerated they wouldn't be part of the database. So those cases mentioned in the New Yorker article that the Innocence Project has on their website that we hear a lot about, those are only for people who have been convicted. And in fact, Crowe and Treadway and Houser were exonerated prior to conviction. And there may be many more of those than postconviction DNA exonerations. This is a very common and widespread phenomenon. From the data that we do have.
ALISON ST. JOHN: According to this article, the company that has developed the technique, the interrogation technique which I believe is called the Reid technique, they claim that gets people to confess 80% of the time. And, that's a pretty high motivator for police who are looking to find a guilty suspect.
RICHARD LEO: It certainly is. I mean you have to realize that police interrogators and certainly Reid and Associates you know, they are in the business of manipulating and lie to suspects and spinning, so the 80% number doesn't come from any scientific research. They've invented it, essentially. But it is high. It may not be 80%. It may be 65%. 55%. It's very high. Confessions not only, the police are good at eliciting confessions from the guilty and sometimes also from as in this case an innocent. But confessions trump other forms of evidence and they usually lead to convictions and relatively they are easy to get compared to other types of evidence. So there's great incentive to elicit confessions to solve cases.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Are police legally allowed to lie to suspects about evidence while they are interrogating them?
RICHARD LEO: Yes they can and it happened in this case. Detective [inaudible] repeatedly to Michael Crow about a so-called computer voice stress analyzer and the results of it and its truth value. So police overtime in their interrogations totally suspect we've got this evidence, DNA, that evidence, you failed the polygraph, fingerprints, witnesses who said they saw you do it and that's considered perfectly legal in America.
ALISON ST. JOHN: In fact this might've resulted in the conviction if it hadn't been for the DNA that was subsequently discovered on the shirt right, Mark?
MARK SAUER: That's right that confessions the interrogations were largely thrown out pretrial going right up to jury selection Josh Treadway was the first woman the barrel in the revolution came from a very distinguished lawyer up in the Bay Area that the blood was found on Richard to its closing and that halted the trial and hold the prosecution yes Marilyn entered the defense attorney for Josh Treadway and the boy said that could have resulted in a conviction.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Richard you feel like there's any change happened in terms of policy since the case and this particular case which was a national case in terms of how much people rely on force confessions coming out of that kind of interrogation?
RICHARD LEO: I think the national changes the movement toward electronic recording of interrogations. In 1988 when they were interrogated two states had electronic recordation statutes. Alaska and Minnesota. Now it is 17. You may remember that in 2007 2008 Gov. Schwarzenegger then Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed to bipartisan bills passed by both houses of the state assembly that put forward mandatory electronic recording in all felony cases in California. So we almost had it here, but now there were 17+ the District of Columbia. That may be coming back to California. So it was great that they recorded the Crow and Treadway and Hauser interrogations largely in 1998 perhaps the only thing that Police Department did write in the case, but this is an important reform. And but for those recordings the outcome could have been different even with the DNA results that Mark had just mentioned.
MARK SAUER: And it's a good thing of course the Escondido police did record these interrogations of San Diego police in the serious homicide cases do routinely record them and it's invaluable because he could go back and see what happened in the interrogation room.
ALISON ST. JOHN: And you in fact the temperature quite a lot of research on this kind of interrogation even before the DNA. You sort of question this. Why were the boy so vulnerable?
MARK SAUER: That's right and I wanted to ask Richard that I was researching a book at the time of the Crowe case that knew quite about it with [inaudible] she it was the expert there and had read much of Dr. Leo's work as well and I wanted to ask you, which suspects does the research, Richard that are most vulnerable to be subjects of coerced and false confession?
RICHARD LEO: Well juveniles, particularly juveniles 15 and below. This has to do with their psychosocial maturity and the development of their judgment and reasoning processes. We know that children tend to be more vulnerable to suggestion, more callable, more focused on the moment, less on long-term consequences, more easily led and manipulated.
MARK SAUER: It should be noted none of these boys had attorneys are present certainly.
RICHARD LEO: Right, yeah.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Is there any difference on how police are trained in interrogation and particularly this particular technique?
RICHARD LEO: Well the Reid method started advocating electronic recording for many years that had opposed it. I think it thousand four 2005, after writing a book promoting it that they were able to sell too many police and police departments. They have a chapter now on false confessions in their training, which is a good development.
ALISON ST. JOHN: That's good.
RICHARD LEO: The chapter largely consists of bashing of experts that they do not like, including me and is not always complete or accurate description of the research. But it is a fair start and I'm told by colleagues who've taken their courses that they give almost no mention to false confessions in their actual training but at least it is in a chapter of their book. That subject has grown in importance that police are at least talking more about it in their training.
ALISON ST. JOHN: San Diegans are pretty familiar with it from everything they've learned over the years about this case. So Mark, here we are now Mark perhaps this is the end
MARK SAUER: It looks like the end. The prosecution cannot appeal by law [inaudible] in the Crowe's favor, this is the end of any trial for Richard Tuite. Obviously these boys will never be looked at or charged and the prosecution has defended them all these years I would say friendly with hesitation know that this is the end of the case.
ALISON ST. JOHN: And John Wilkins wrote an article in UT San Diego
MARK SAUER: John Wilkins wrote a marvelous piece in Sunday's UT it talks about a different angle on this case how the Crowes feel about it, what their reaction is to it and how resigned they are to this tragedy just to have been compounded by the police actions.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Right and it sounded like they were more over it than the general public. Trying to adapt.
MARK SAUER: That's true in some of us involved in it, that's right.
ALISON ST. JOHN: I'd like to take both my guest Richard Leo is visiting professor at UCLA Law school thank you so much for your rich insights into police interrogation
RICHARD LEO: Thank you
ALISON ST. JOHN: And KPBS Senior editor Mark Sauer, thank you for being here.
MARK SAUER: Thank you.