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“I Did It”

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Frank Sterling's videotaped confession. Patrick Crough is on his right, Thomas Vasile on his left.  

At 11:20 p.m., another interrogator came to see Sterling. Patrick Crough, a young, confident detective, had worked just two homicide cases before the Manville murder, but he had already shown a natural talent for bonding with suspects. Crough spoke softly and leaned in close to Sterling, taking his time explaining his theory of the case. He talked about the love Sterling must have had for his brother and the anger he must have felt about his not being home for Thanksgiving. He told Sterling he thought he might have bottled up his anger about Glen being in jail. Maybe, Crough said, it was the reason for his upset stomach, his bad teeth.

Sterling admitted to Crough that he was angry enough to have “killed the bitch”—and threw his lighter across the room, saying, “I didn’t kill her, but I sure as hell could have.” Still, as midnight approached, Sterling maintained his innocence—and even asked to be hypnotized to prove he wasn’t hiding anything. At about 12:45 a.m., Sennett returned and suggested what he called a “relaxation technique.” He had Sterling lie down on the floor and keep his feet elevated on his chair. He told him to take four deep breaths, then slid his own chair up to Sterling and held his hand. He asked Sterling if he could picture himself on those railroad tracks, running into a lady with white hair, arguing with her, seeing her lying naked in the bushes. He asked him how he felt about seeing her this way. “Happy,” Sterling said.

Seconds later, Sterling jumped to his feet and snapped, “This is a bunch of bullshit! I didn’t do nothing!”

“You’re right, this is bullshit,” Sennett said before walking out of the room. “I think you killed this lady, and I’m going to prove it.”

Sterling was trembling now, verging on hysteria. He had been in the small room for close to eight hours. Crough came in again at 2:40 a.m. and started rubbing Sterling’s back. “I was whispering,” Crough said later, “simply that we would not dislike him, that we were here for him, we understood—we felt he should tell the truth to get it off his chest.” Crough’s partner, Thomas Vasile, held Sterling’s other hand, and the two detectives huddled around him for a long time, gently reassuring him. Finally, according to the police report, Sterling blurted out, “I did it … I need help.”

Just before dawn, at 5:22, Sterling made a videotaped statement. Onscreen for just over twenty minutes, Sterling can be seen speaking in a slow, defeated monotone, the ash of his cigarette burning to the nub. With Sennett working the camera, Sterling nods and agrees to every detail Crough and Vasile ask about—the BB gun, the naked body—breaking into sobs now and then as the two officers console him. He mentions the purple color of Manville’s jacket—a crime-scene detail police said no one else could have known. Sterling’s motive, he explains on the videotape, is exactly what Crough had said: “I was already upset about not having my brother home for Thanksgiving. Turned out later she was that one my brother was in prison for. She said the wrong thing at the wrong time. Things transpired … After she said, ‘Your brother got what he deserved,’ I hit her.”

Without witnesses or physical evidence linking him to the crime scene, prosecutors made the videotaped confession the centerpiece of their case. On September 29, 1992, Frank Sterling was convicted of murder and later sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, and sent to the state prison in Elmira. And several days after the trial, when a number of people in Hilton came forward saying that a 19-year-old man named Mark Christie was telling everyone he knew that he’d just gotten away with murder, the police didn’t pay them much attention. The killer, after all, had confessed.

In the criminal-justice system, nothing is more powerful than a confession. Decades of research on jury verdicts have demonstrated that no other form of evidence—not eyewitnesses, not a video record of the crime, not even DNA—is as convincing to a jury as a defendant who says “I did it.” The police, of course, understand the power of confessions and rely on interrogation techniques to produce them quickly so they can clear their cases. This is the stuff of countless TV procedurals—the small interrogation room with a bare table and two-way mirror; the good-cop-bad-cop routine; the deployment of outright lies like “You failed the polygraph” or “Your prints are on the knife.” As a society, we have come to view these as acceptable, if blunt, tools of justice. We count on the integrity of police and safeguards like Miranda rights to prevent abuses, and we take it on faith that innocent people would never confess to crimes they haven’t committed.


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