Audio version now available here: https://fbwat.ch/1gkdUbikOuIWMFqD
Welcome back, again! Hopefully, you have processed everything we’ve discussed in part one, and ready to gain more knowledge. Knowledge is power as the saying goes. We are going to jump right back into false confessions.
Arnett Gaston a clinical psychologist and criminologist at the University of Maryland College Park, on voluntary type false confessions, “Voluntary false confessions often arise from a toxic psychological brew of obsession, delusion, guilt, or self loathing.”
Dr. Jack Vaeth, a psychiatrist with the Sheppard Pratt Health System, said “Another common reason people own up to crimes they didn’t commit is a sense of guilt about something they did do.”
The most common type of false confession is the coercive compliant form directly resulting from an interrogation with law enforcement. Voluntary false confessions are harder to find, because if they are doing it to cover up for someone else, why tell anyone? If they are doing it because they feel guilty, why tell anyone? If they falsely confessed because of self loathing, why tell anyone that? I am sure you get the point. There could be many voluntary false confessions by innocent types of individuals in prison right this moment. Coercive compliant false confessions are the most commonly heard of type, because usually the confession is recanted, they fought in a trial, or the verdict is/was appealed. In other words, they were proven to be innocent later. A cognitive psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, explained the persuaded type of false confessions with a perfect analogy, “False memories are like a Wikipedia page that can be edited by you, and others.”
Further she said, “Once people believe something to be true, their imagination kicks in, and they begin to visualize the situation using past experiences from themselves, others, even movies. When the patchwork of memories get stitched together and internalized, truth and fiction become indistinguishable.”
Still think you would never confess to something you didn’t do? College aged students participated in a (Shaw 2015) study, and 70% of the participants were able to be convinced they committed a crime. Not only did they confess, but also gave a full blown detailed account of the crime.
That’s quite scary, especially when you take into account everything we’ve discussed at the beginning of part one of this series. We are all very different people who handle and respond to matters, situations, and circumstances, in vastly different ways. Why is it that despite that, so many participants came to the same conclusion? Makes you wonder how many people are sitting in a prison cell right now who still believe they committed the crime they were convicted for, but are entirely innocent! The persuaded type of false confession.
Going with the theme of sayings, you all should know, “Eye for an eye” right? Some people are convinced in this concept, and others are fully opposed to it. Charging and convicting someone for a murder is an attempt to take their life in exchange for taking someone else’s. This can happen either through a long term prison sentence, life without parole, or the death penalty. Eye for an eye. Ironically, in the coerced false confession type category, law enforcement are allowed to lie to seek a confession, which then results in the suspect lying to police. Doesn’t make any sense, does it? Lie to gain a lie, both sides creating one spinning tale of lies, all while seeking a life for a life during an interrogation. Seems in an interrogation room, and courtroom you are guilty until proven innocent, and once you confess you are guilty until you jump through rings of fire to prove your innocence.
Let’s say someone gave a false confession to a murder, whether coercive, voluntary, or persuaded. The case went to trial, their confession was the biggest piece of evidence, and the innocent was convicted. They were given life in prison without possibility of parole, or death sentence. Stan V. Smith, a forensic economist & expert on compensation for exonerations said, “In some respects, the wrongly convicted may actually suffer a loss greater than death. It’s not just the years they lost and the mental anguish of being incarcerated wrongfully. Your earnings are going to be impaired for life. It’s also like being thrown into a time warp.”
The next statement on the list from part one was, “He is not covering for Shanann, a person would never go to prison for rest of his life for someone else.” Well, the voluntary false confession proves this statement wrong. As mentioned earlier, this is one of the very reasons for voluntary confessions. It happens enough to have made it to a list of types of false confessions, only three types, but that’s just off cases experts were eventually made aware of. How many voluntarily go to prison for someone else who take the truth to their grave? How can we know if the entire point is to cover for someone else’s crime? Why would someone want to cover for someone else’s life, and sacrifice themselves? I, personally can think of few reasons: love, guilt, regret, fear, self loathing, or repaying a favor or debt. Technically, if someone gave any type of false confession and was convicted, they went to prison for someone else’s crime. This is a little different than intentionally and deliberately choosing to lie with the motive to cover for someone else.
Speaking of, “Taking it to grave” which is another known saying:
The new study, released in 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed 1 in 25 sentenced to death in the U.S. are innocent. “Tells you that a surprising number of innocent people are sentenced to death,” said Samuel R. Gross, the lead author, in an interview with Newsweek. “It tells you that a lot of them haven’t been exonerated. Some of them no doubt have been executed.” In his study it showed that more than half of the innocent people sentenced to death in the past 41 years are unaccounted for. Probably wondering why I am bringing up wrongful convictions when we are talking about false confessions. Well, if you recall in part one I listed the following statistical finding: 25% of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA involved also false confessions. In that post, it was also listed that false confessions are the leading cause of false convictions in homicides. How many are sitting on death row who gave any type of false confession? How many took it to their graves? How many fought all the way to their grave, or the defeat gave them no more will to live?
We will never know. But, someday it could be someone you know.
The next statement on the list from part one of this blog series was, “I would never take a plea deal if I wasn’t guilty.” It actually flabbergasts me when I stumble on these comments in discussion groups. Where does one even begin with this? How about starting with a statistic: 97% of criminal cases end in plea deals. That leaves only 3 % of criminal cases going to trial. Never say never.
The reason this statement flabbergasts me is, because they seem to think there’s no reason one would take a plea deal if innocent. When there are many reasons why, and for some people it’s multiple reasons not just one sole reason. As we’ve discussed, we simply cannot know what we would do in a circumstance where a plea deal is even being considered. Let me do another comparative to the Watts case, then I’ll list reasons why others may take plea deals.
-Chris had 9 charges stacked against him. Prosecutors charge individuals with as many charges as they can, so it keeps the assumed perpetrator in jail. It is also done to leave wiggle room for bargaining a deal later. They charged Chris with every possible thing they could. Fighting 1,2,3 charges is a whole lot more feasible than, 4,5,6,7,8,9 of them. If Chris’s defense would have been exactly as his confession then, he already owned 5 of those charges. That still left 4 charges to fight! When you admit you did more than half of the charges against you, how difficult is it to prove to a jury you didn’t do the rest? I would imagine not easy at all.
-Chris had public defenders, and they work for the state. Basically it is state versus state. We know Chris was broke financially at the time of his arrest, and his family did not have the funds needed to supply him with a criminal defense lawyer. When a case is so widely known the price of a defense lawyer can skyrocket, even more if you want a prominent one who has a good track record of acquittals. With a private criminal defense lawyer you have more defense possibilities, resources, and an array of experts. They also tend to have more experience to handle cases of this magnitude.
-It would have been years before his case went to trial if it had been a death penalty case, which would have been years of proceedings for both families, witnesses, and friends.
-Waiting around for his trial would have left him in the Weld County jail, where his presence was definitely well known. His own life was in danger there from other inmates, to the point he had to be entirely secluded during his 4 month stay. Waiting, again, would have resulted in years of isolation from any human contact except, guards & lawyers. Can you imagine? Any clue what that must feel like? For weeks, months, the idea of doing that for years?
-We have discussed over, and over, that Chris is/was submissive, passive and avoided conflicts at all cost. That’s not really up for debate, even Shanann recognized this in him. A weak personality would not be able to handle the long trial process. It takes a very strong individual to fight. It’s you versus basically everyone else. For a man who wouldn’t fight with his wife, not even when she tried to provoke him, why would anyone expect him to fight against the jury, judge, prosecution, and public? In hindsight, it makes total sense why someone like Chris took a plea deal.
-Chris was in solitary confinement for a lot of his stay in the Weld County Jail. Anything is better than solitary it seems, and we will get to solitary confinement soon.
Now let’s discuss why people in general take plea deals. Obviously, some do because they are in fact guilty. Tara Burke, a psychology professor at Ryerson University said, “Sometimes the accused may feel the evidence against them is insurmountable, or may not want to cause further harm.”
For those who are innocent, the stacked evidence could just be circumstantial, not irrefutable concrete proof. The fear that the circumstantial evidence would be enough to convict you, and not wanting to take that chance, is a reality for many.
“The cost of defending yourself against serious charges is very, very high. There are a lot of people who are just not able to do that” says Sandy Garossino, a former prosecutor.
Maddy DeLone, Executive Director of Innocence Project said, “Our system makes it a rational choice to plead guilty to something you didn’t do.”
The general public who have never been in the position to decide whether or not to take a plea deal cannot comprehend how it is a rational choice. Plea bargaining is also a coercive process that makes innocent people feel they have no choice. Going to trial is a tremendous risk, and it’s completely unpredictable what the result will be. Some people are gambling addicts, while others find the concept of gambling to be risky, and imperil.
Many states that have capital punishment use sparing a person’s life as a threatening means to try to seal a plea deal. Taking death off the table as a tool shows there’s more concern for a notch on their belt, instead of facts, and truth seeking justice. Randomly, I stumbled upon this article about Colorado using removal of death penalty in plea bargains when researching plea deals. Here’s the link: https://www.enddeathpenaltyco.org/plea-bargain and also found a Colorado timeline on the death penalty history in Colorado: https://coloradosun.com/2019/03/04/timeline-the-death-penalty-in-colorado/
From website Fairtrials.org, “Trial waivers is a process not prohibited by law under which criminal defendants agree to accept guilt and/or cooperate with the investigative authority in exchange for some benefit from the state, most commonly in the form of reduced charges and/ or lower sentences.” Otherwise know as a, plea deal. They go on to say that trial waivers have a place in our justice system, but without any safeguards can cause injustice. Here’s some points they further shared against trial waivers/plea deals:
-An estimated 20,000 innocent people are in prisons after taking a plea deal.
-There is an inequality of “arms” and a lack of transparency when deals are made behind closed doors.
-Public trust in justice can be undermined.
-Gives up your rights to have the case against you tested by an impartial court and to have the actions of the police scrutinized. Without fair trial protections, you can end up with a stacked deck in favor of the prosecution.
Here are two interesting info graphics from their site:
To relate this to the Watts case, Chris had the death penalty taken off the table during the bargaining phase. Here’s the problem though, in Colorado with the state of the government he would have not been put to death for a very long time, if ever. On the day of Chris’s plea deal it was actually Election Day, and one of the governors who was leading in the polls is adamantly against the death penalty. At the press conference after the hearing, the prosecutor said there was an original offer to which he countered that he wouldn’t take anything less than all the charges. In exchange, he would remove death penalty. Wow! We have never seen that original offer. After Chris was sentenced, two weeks later, there was another press conference. The prosecutor was questioned about the two plea deals, and his answer was there was only one. This confused a lot of people, because that contradicted the previous press conference. He was right though, it was only one plea deal. A deal meaning the terms that Chris agreed to, and signed. There was bargaining, but that isn’t a deal until it’s hashed out and made official. This seems to have been left out of a lot of discussions about the case, overlooked, even ignored, or maybe some weren’t paying close enough attention. We should all wonder what Chris originally wanted to plead guilty to for the prosecutor to have to counter with the fact that he wouldn’t take anything less than ALL the charges. Oh, and that person leading in the polls that is against the death penalty, is now Governor.
What deal did Chris really get in taking a plea deal? Sure he had death penalty removed, but that was never really something that would have become a reality. Chris actually gained a lot by not gambling. For one, he saved loved ones further harm, time, and stress having to deal with the court proceedings for years. He avoided a conflict of mass proportion which is a huge gain for a man who avoided conflict, no matter the cost; like the cost of the rest of his life spent in prison. Just a few short weeks after Chris was officially sentenced, he was transported out of state, away from the Weld County Jail which had become his own personal hell. That’s a lot to gain, and likely made the deal very appealing.
Throughout the Watts case, Chris’s family has been under a lot of scrutiny, and criticism. I am not gonna get heavy into that, but I bring it up for a reason. One of the things often said is that the Watts are in denial. We have no idea if they are in denial, simply because we are not them. Further, how can anyone deem them in denial when the truth has not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt? On the other hand, from a different view, isn’t a plea deal a form of denial? Meaning, isn’t a plea deal denying the facts to be put forth at trial? Those facts that would possibly lead to the truth? Especially after everything we’ve now learned about plea deals, interrogations, and all the facets that lead to plea deals.
As far as Shanann’s family, the District Attorney told the public that her mother asked him, “Why didn’t you accept it already” when speaking of the offer on the table. Their daughter had been accused, by Chris. Accusations against their daughter and eagerness to put an immediate end to the case, and avoiding any aspect of truth coming out in a court of law, can be seen as a form of denial. Denying that the statements he made originally couldn’t possibly be true. But, what if it is? Now, I am not saying either family is in denial, please don’t misunderstand me. What I am saying is; how can we deem only one side of being in denial, when the entire plea deal process is denial of true justice in & of itself, from all parties involved?
Now let’s discuss solitary confinement. Whether for weeks, months, or years it can lead to severe symptoms and issues. I saw one case while researching solitary confinement of a man who spent 44 years in solitary confinement, and was then released. Can you imagine going from solitary confinement to the outside world? Especially without being weaned back into society slowly? Anyway, there is extensive research that has been done, and here is some of what one may experience in solitary confinement:
-Isolation panic or anxiety
-Question who they are
-Declining cognitive functions including memories and concentration
-Hypersensitive to large places, sounds, and touch once out of solitary
-Negative overwhelming thoughts
-Shrinks parts of the brain, including the hippocampus which is responsible for memory, spatial orientation, and control of emotions. Per Sandra Schank, a psychiatrist
-Active imaginary life (vivid mental imagery) per David Pearson, a cognitive psychologist
-Obsess uncontrollably as if their mind didn’t even belong to them over tiny details or personal grievance
Here’s some health symptoms: headaches/migraines, sweating, dizziness, heart palpitations, hypertension, weight loss sometimes to the extreme, digestion issues, and abdominal pains
Just like with anything else, not everyone will experience all of these issues listed, some will experience many of them, others a few, some maybe none at all. I think 23 hours in a small cell that is as long as your bed would definitely cause some form of suffering or harm, even if minimal. Now, let’s say you are in that cell and are one of the people who are experiencing some of those symptoms that are listed. Are you imagining? Then a plea deal is offered to you. That plea deal will get you out of your current circumstance, not right away, but eventually. Maybe, you are experiencing memory or cognitive issues. You take the deal, because you are not in the right mental frame of mind and cannot process such a life altering decision.
Dr. Richard Smeyne , a professor of neuroscience at Thomas Jefferson University said about solitary confinement, “Looking at the areas of the brain involved in the sensation and motor behavior the neurons shrunk after one month by about 20%, and by three months, 25%.”
Terry Kupers of the Wright Institute, and prominent critic of solitary confinement said, “What we’ve found is that a series of symptoms occur almost universally . They are so common that it’s something of a syndrome. I’m afraid we are talking about permanent damage.” He likened the symptoms to those seen in soldiers suffering from PTSD. The conditions are so similar, and from studies about soldiers, show it severely alters pathways in the brain.
From USA Today, “Even more harmful to the ideas of justice is holding someone in isolation prior to trial. This has a powerful effect of forcing innocent people into taking a plea of guilty, as some will do anything to stop the torture.”
Seems one tragedy can lead to another tragedy.
Chris Watts took a plea deal, and was sentenced in November of 2018. The entire case was wrapped up in three months. It’s not common for a plea deal to be in place, especially before even making it to a preliminary hearing. In fact, it’s practically unheard of. By the beginning to the middle of December, Chris had already been transported out of Colorado. It appeared to the public that the case was finalized, and nothing more would come from it. February 2019, on Presidents’ Day, the lead detectives from three different agencies (FBI, CBI, FPD) who had worked on Chris’s case appeared in Wisconsin where he was located. This has always left my mind to wonder if there had been a discussion before they made the trip. For three different agencies to put forth the expense and time to fly several states away for a closed case just doesn’t add up when they have many open cases. Chris was under no legal obligation to speak with any of them. Oftentimes plea deals require allocution, but Chris’s deal did not require that of him. For those who do not know what allocation is, it’s when a defendant explicitly admits, specifically and in detail, his actions & reasonings for reduced sentence. Prosecutor Rourke said they waived allocation, because they all agreed they would never believe what he had to say.
Never say never.
Suddenly, there was a change of heart and the three detectives flew out there to hear what he had to say. Isn’t that interesting? It is almost as if they knew for sure Chris would talk to them. They likely didn’t fly all the way there to hear Shanann killed the kids again, especially not after his plea deal. Chris maybe recognized that as well, because what would be the point in traveling there if he stuck to the original story. Although, there are people who do believe the purpose was for that, and that they wanted more details about the first confession. Then there are others who think they went to see about an accomplice. I’m convinced they didn’t go out there to hear that Shanann killed the kids again. All of this to say, that meeting was another form of an interrogation. Imagine having to go through that, again! Sit and listen to the audio of that meeting, it was very interrogative, besides the giggling exchanges towards the end. We had one interrogation in August, and had another in February for an additional almost five hours. Cheryln Cadle also did a form of interrogation for her book when she met with him for six hours over two occasions not long after he already gave a second confession. Then add in any calls they exchanged in between the two meetings, and of course his supposed letters too.
I was diligently writing this post, and to my surprise I received Chris’s intake form from Dodge Correctional Institute dated January 2019. It was just a few pages, but only one section stood out to me seen here:
The documents quoted Chris as saying, “Honestly, I am still trying to piece it all together myself.”
This intake form was done a month prior to his meeting with the three detectives when they visited him in Wisconsin. During that second confession, Chris told the detectives he knew right away what happened and had told his lawyers the truth. If he was still trying to piece it together months later, how did he tell his lawyers anything? January there’s a claim he was still trying to piece it all together, February he met with detectives, and in April he told Cadle an entirely different story. I would say this explains why his story keeps changing, because he maybe hasn’t pieced it all together or does not remember.
Next sentence says, “He is trying to distance himself as much as he can right now from that moment.”
As I just said above, but also he went on to talk to detectives about that moment for five hours, and agreed to an entire book about that moment with Cadle.
Next section about his current attitude says, “He has been told to appeal it but is not in the right frame of mind to do this right now.”
If Chris was not in the right frame of mind after being sentenced, how was he in the right frame of mind to agree to a plea deal to begin with?
“He doesn’t want to make people go through the process for just 2-3 years.”
Wait, if he is fully guilty, why would he even try to fight it? See how he also weighed the options? Put families through the process to save himself 2-3 or just take the deal so everyone including himself can heal.
There was one other statement not in the screenshot above that stood out to me. It says, “When discussing his current offenses with Mr. Watts he showed emotions at the mention of the victims and appears to still be processing the crime.”
How many times have people said Chris has never showed emotions? Even during his sentencing with tears rolling down his face there were many who claimed he had no emotions. We have seen Chris a handful of times since the tragedy occurred, and have no way of knowing what emotions he shows when not in front of a camera. This statement discredits all the opinions that say he has no emotions.
When I discuss false confessions I don’t take the information and only apply it to false confessions during interrogations. False confessions can be held all the way through conviction, even to death. Apply the information to all three of Chris’s confessions. Yes, there are three total confessions. The idea pushed by Cadle that her book was just an extension of his second confession is false. Second confession, was a snapped rage domino effect type murder spree explanation. That is not what her now deemed non-credible book entailed. Three confessions, one man, one confession on video, one in audio, and one in written form. Which are you suppose to believe? I am going to end this series with some information from a website called, Police Watch Magazine. Keeping all three stories at the forefront of your mind and viewing his confessions of “interrogations”. Here’s some rather fascinating statements from the website, and the link: https://www.policechiefmagazine.org/i-did-it-confession-contamination-and-evaluation/
“False confessions come about through a combination of factors, including vulnerability of the suspect, the interrogation tactics and questioning style that are used, and, most importantly, tunnel vision on the part of the investigator.”
“Contamination is a concept well known to law enforcement. Officers wear gloves at crime scenes and separate witnesses so they do not share information…contamination has been identified as the third step in obtaining false confessions.”
“Contamination is usually found in cases where, due to the investigator’s sincere belief in the suspect’s guilt, tunnel vision and the accompanying verification bias kicks in. In other words, the interrogator begins to focus on signs of guilt, ignoring or explaining away any evidence to the contrary.”
Recall in Chris’s second confession, there really didn’t seem too much focus on Nichol Kessinger. Yes, he did speak of her, and they did ask about her. In Cadle’s book though, Nichol seemed to be the primary focus, and guess what Cadle believes? If you guessed she believes Nichol is at fault or involved, you are correct. Tunnel vision. You know when Chris used the word “nutgate” in the second confession? Remember him talking about how his family had told him about Shanann’s text messages? How his lawyers told him what Nichol said in her interview? Those examples all show contamination at some point between the first and second confession. I am sure there was more disclosed to Chris’s ears between the second and third confession too.
Here’s my favorite part of the article: “Since confession evidence can be so powerful, and tunnel vision plays such a huge role in many false confessions, an evaluation should be performed by someone outside the immediate investigation. A “devil’s advocate” should be assigned the specific role of challenging any assumptions made by the investigators, and their interpretations of the evidence.” And, on that note . . . . . . https://truecrimecaseanalysis.home.blog/2019/12/29/all-in-one-place/