Courts may re-examine man’s murder confession

The Virginian-Pilot, Nov. 26, 2002
http://www.pilotonline.com/
By LOU MISSELHORN, The Virginian-Pilot

NORFOLK — Before convicting Derek E. Tice two years ago of raping and killing Michelle Moore-Bosko, jurors heard a convincing piece of evidence: an audiotape of Tice’s confession.

He implicated himself and others in the death of the 18-year-old Navy wife, who was strangled and stabbed in her Ocean View apartment in July 1997. Tice, who later withdrew his confession, received two life terms in prison.

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But in May, the Virginia Court of Appeals overturned Tice’s capital murder and rape convictions and granted him a new trial, which will start Jan. 27.

Today, Tice’s lawyers will ask a Norfolk judge to allow an expert witness to testify that Tice’s confession was false, unreliable and possibly coerced.

Prosecutors declined to comment, and defense lawyers couldn’t be reached, but legal watchdog groups say the case may be part of a burgeoning problem in the justice system: A small but growing number of people are being convicted on the weight of false confessions.

Critics lay the blame on overzealous investigators, whose psychologically sophisticated interrogation methods not only snare the guilty but trap the innocent. Resigned, they wind up telling police what they want to hear.

An ongoing study by The Innocence Project, a not-for-profit law clinic in New York, shows that 27 of 111 people convicted and later exonerated by DNA evidence — about 25 percent — had falsely confessed to the crimes. Most of them, exonerated since 1989, had been accused of rape or murder.

To the average person, it’s not reasonable to confess to something you didn’t do, said legal expert Rob Warden. But it happens more than the public might think, said Warden, director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School in Chicago.

Warden’s group said more safeguards are needed to protect the rights of the innocent.

Police interrogations can last for hours, and investigators can legally lie about evidence or threaten accused killers with the death penalty if they don’t cooperate, he said.

And once investigators have a confession, suspects face an uphill battle with juries, he said.

“People believe that someone is guilty as immediately as it’s asserted that the person confessed,” Warden said.

Experts say false confessions can be avoided by mandating that police record on video the entire interview of a suspect. Only Minnesota and Alaska now require it.

The Center on Wrongful Convictions also believes that prosecutors should prove that the confession matches the evidence of the case before it can be heard by a jury.

“We should be asking: `Why can this happen and what can be done to prevent it?’ ” said Richard A. Leo, an expert on false confessions who teaches at the University of California at Irvine.

Tice’s attorneys want Leo to testify on their client’s behalf to refute his confession.

Among the better-known cases that have happened nationally:

– Former Virginia death row inmate Earl Washington Jr. was freed from prison last year after DNA evidence showed he couldn’t have raped and murdered a 19-year-old mother of three in 1982. Washington, who is mildly retarded, confessed to the crime and served 17 years in prison before being released. He now lives in Virginia Beach.

– Another Virginia man, David Vasquez, was convicted in 1985 of murdering an Arlington County woman and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Vasquez, who is borderline mentally retarded, confessed to the crime and served five years before being exonerated because of DNA evidence.

– In January 2001, Christopher Ochoa was released after serving 12 years in prison for the murder of an Austin, Texas, woman in 1988. He confessed to avoid the death penalty. DNA evidence exonerated him.

False confessions “may be rare like airplane crashes,” Leo said. “But when they happen, they destroy people’s lives.”

Joshua Marquis, a board member for the Alexandria-based National District Attorneys Association, said errors happen but are infrequent and not an epidemic within the justice system.

Give officers better training, if needed, Marquis said. But mandating that suspect interviews be recorded on video creates another set of problems.

When would the interview begin? Marquis asked. On the street? At the door of police headquarters?

“Our job isn’t to convict innocent people,” Marquis said.

Tice’s attorneys have said the evidence against their client doesn’t jibe with his confession.

Tice told police that he and others used a claw hammer to get into Moore-Bosko’s apartment, but there was no damage to the door, his defense attorney James O. Broccoletti said in a television documentary about the case produced by The Learning Channel.

Tice confessed that he and several others took turns stabbing Moore-Bosko, but the autopsy shows the wounds all to be of the same depth from the same general angle, Broccoletti has said.

Tice also told police that he had raped Moore-Bosko, but his DNA wasn’t found at the crime scene.

“Parts of the statement are not true, and cast doubt upon the entirety of the statement,” Broccoletti has said.

In Tice’s trial, his confession weighed heavily in his conviction, the jury foreman said in the documentary.

Warden said Tice’s confession may not have told the whole story.

“We really need to know,” he said, “what led up to the confessions.”

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