It's been a long hot summer in Phoenix as local law enforcement officers, now joined by the FBI, are desperately trying to catch two different serial killers, with two different modus operandi, who have been terrorizing the city for months. One serial killer, dubbed the "Baseline Killer" (because his early attacks occurred near Baseline Road) is believed to be responsible for at least 19 attacks and five homicides in Phoenix since last summer. The second suspected predator, dubbed the "Serial Shooter," has been definitively linked to the Dec. 29 wounding of one man and authorities believe he could be responsible for a total of five shooting deaths.
Tempe police thought they had solved one of the murders, originally not thought to be linked to the serial killings. James DeWayne Mullins, a Kentucky man, confessed to Tempe police in January that he shot and killed Georgia Thompson, a 19 year old who was found dead in her parking lot in September 2005. Mullins told police he drove with a friend to Arizona for a drug deal and after days of drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, he and at least two of his friends went to the Skin Cabaret, a Scottsdale strip club where Thompson worked. There Mullins claimed he met Thompson at the club and solicited her for prostitution, then met her three blocks away from Skin, where he said she pulled a gun on him and attempted to rob him before he grabbed the gun from her and shot her. (Notice the warning signs here of a possible false confession -- the use of alcohol which can explain the failure of memory and the use of minimization -- in this case, self-defense -- which can explain why Mullins may have confessed).
But Phoenix police have now proven that Mullins' confession is false. Sgt. Andy Hill, Phoenix police spokesman, has said forensic evidence ties Thompson to the Baseline Killer and excludes Mullins from the crime spree. Mullins is still being questioned as a possible link to the Baseline Killer but don't be surprised if murder charges are dropped against him in the next few days. Police are already talking about charging him with obstructing justice by giving police a false confession (as if police had no role in soliciting the confessions throught their interrogation tactics).
In the annals of false confessions, there are numerous examples of false confessions that have arisen in the context of police investigations of serial killers. Serial killings often bring voluntary false confessors out of the woodwork in droves -- these are attention seeking and often mentally ill persons who like the limelight -- and who take credit for crimes they did not commit without any police coercion. But there are also numerous examples of police induced false confessions in the context of serial killing investigations. Serial killings send panic and terror among citizens like few other crimes and the pressure on police to solve them is intense. This, in turn, can lead law enforcement officers to bring some of that pressure to bear on suspects, which can be a recipe for false confessions. In our law review article, The Problem of False Confessions in the Post-DNA world, Richard Leo and I discuss several variations of this theme, including cases where: (1) police officers labeled innocent men as serial killers after obtaining false confessions from them to multiple killings, only to learn later that the true perpetrator was a serial killer who had remained at large (Jerry Frank Townsend/Eddie Lee Mosley, David Vazquez/ Timothy Spencer, Stevie Ray Weaver/Angel Maturino Resendiz; (2) police officers obtained "true confessions" to murders and rapes from suspects and then attempted to close cases by pinning other unsolved crimes on the suspect (Andre Jones/Glennon Engleman, Hubert Geralds/ Andre Crawford). James De Wayne Mullins may soon be the next false confessor to join this ignonomous list.