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“I Did It”

Patrick Crough in Rochester, this summer.  

Sterling’s team decided on a new tactic. On January 22, Potkin visited Christie again, this time with a polygraph and interrogation expert named Richard Byington who worked for the leading company in the field: John E. Reid & Associates. Neufeld had been waiting for the right case to ask the Reid people for pro bono help—a sort of Nixon-in-China move—and the company’s president, Joseph Buckley, had agreed. The hope was that Byington, an experienced and highly regarded interrogator, could persuade Christie to confess.

At first, Christie appeared to relish the visit. He boasted to Byington that he had stolen a copy of the Reid-Inbau manual from the Hilton library to try and beat the polygraph he’d been asked to take after the Manville verdict. Of course, he’d aced it. Byington spent several hours trying to get Christie to warm up to him. Eventually, Christie seemed to grow impatient. “What do you want?” Byington remembers Christie saying.

Byington turned more aggressive. “I said, ‘Listen, here’s the deal. There’s no doubt that you committed the Manville murder. The physical evidence says it, and the DNA basically says it. Now you need to do the right thing so Frank, who hasn’t done anything, can go home.’ ” But Christie, who still harbored thoughts of getting out one day, still wasn’t inclined to talk. “Why should I say anything?” he told Byington.

Then Byington played another card. In a strange coincidence, the detective who had procured Christie’s confession in the Kali Ann Poulton case was Patrick Crough, the same man who had gotten Frank Sterling to confess. Byington pulled out a copy of a newly published memoir Crough had written about child-abduction cases called The Serpents Among Us and pointed to the page where Crough calls Christie not just a child-killer but, he believed, a child molester. Christie became furious. After thirteen years in prison, he had no real sense of how well he was remembered in the outside world, and he had hoped Kali Ann’s murder, and his role in it, might have been forgotten. Now he saw that Crough was working to keep the case alive—and accusing him of raping the young victim as well. He knew he’d never lead a normal life outside of prison now.

“You know more about this than you’re telling me,” Byington said to Christie. And shortly after, Christie’s confession began.

Earlier this year, on April 28, Frank Sterling was set free. He wept at the courthouse, hugged Don Thompson, and expressed disbelief. Peter Neufeld took a shot at the cops who interrogated Sterling eighteen years earlier. “There’s no question that in this case,” Neufeld said, “the police officers had tunnel vision.”

In the early days of DNA exoneration, even the lawyers working the cases didn’t know what to make of the surprising number of false confessions they came across. “It wasn’t until the late nineties that we began to see patterns emerge,” says Neufeld. “But still, it was running against 25 years of my own experience. Why would an innocent person confess?”

That question was eventually taken up by a handful of researchers, including the University of San Francisco School of Law’s Richard Leo, Berkeley sociologist Richard Ofshe, John Jay College’s Saul Kassin, and Northwestern Law School’s Steven Drizin. False confessions now are generally understood to break down into three categories. There are voluntary false confessions, in which innocent people come forward on their own. Some, like John Mark Karr in the JonBenet Ramsey case, do it for the attention—others to self-punish or because they’ve lost touch with reality. Then there are what Leo calls “persuaded false confessions,” in which people are convinced by the interrogator that they actually committed the crime. In New York, 17-year-old Marty Tankleff famously falsely confessed to killing his parents in 1988 after being convinced he must have blocked it out. Finally, there are “compliant” false confessions, in which the suspect is psychologically coerced to confess even while believing he’s innocent. They do it, Kassin writes, “to escape a stressful situation, avoid punishment, or gain a promised or implied reward … often coming to believe that the short-term benefits of confession relative to denial outweigh the long-term costs.” This appears to be what happened in the infamous Central Park jogger case. It also seems to explain Frank Sterling’s confession.

Critics say the Reid technique is a major source of the problem. What was once seen as the vanguard of criminal science, they argue, is nothing more than a psychological version of the third degree. Even beyond the Reid method, the courts have given police “carte blanche in the interrogation room for any tactics shy of physical abuse,” says Drizin. Others believe police shouldn’t be able to mislead suspects with lies or manipulate them by suggesting that what they did isn’t so bad. Great Britain’s police aren’t allowed to employ those tactics, and Kassin says the best available data suggest the efficacy with which they arrest and convict criminals isn’t diminished by that.