Is Claude McCollum innocent?
When police officers arrest a serial killer, the first thing they do is start looking at unsolved murders that may fit the profile of the killer. In many cases, they are able to close out some of these cases either with the confession of the serial killer or through DNA or other forensic evidence. What they rarely do -- and what they should do -- is look at some of the "solved cases" that may also fit the profile of the serial killer. They should look at arrests or convictions of defendants against whom there was little forensic evidence or who gave confessions which were not corroborated. The reason for this is simple: there are 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 such cases, including those of Jerry Frank Townsend (cleared after the arrest of serial killer Eddie Lee Mosley), David Vazquez (cleared after the arrest of serial killer Timothy Spencer) and Stevie Ray Weaver (cleared after the arrest of Angel Maturino Resendiz). One such case which cries out for a second look is the case of Claude McCollum, a man who was convicted over a year and a half ago of the murder of Lansing Community College professor Carolyn Kronenberg.
On a Sunday morning in January 2005, 60 year old Barbara Kronenberg was murdered in a classroom at Lansing Community College. She was brutally beaten, leaving her with a skull fracture, and she died as a result of a severed artery at the base of her brain. She was also sexually assaulted with a remote control and strangled. Police could not lift any fingerprints from the remote control. DNA was recovered from hair taken from her fingernails, an indication that she struggled with the victim before being overcome.
Claude McCollum, a student, was taken into custody two days after her death, after police found him in a campus bathroom. McCollum lived with friends, relatives, and stayed in motels during this time period and at times would spent the night at the school when he dozed off while studying. Saddled with a low I.Q., McCollum often needed extra time to study while pursuing his business management degree at the college.
A year after Kronenberg's death, McCollum was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He always maintained his innocence. No DNA evidence linked him to the crime. DNA taken from under the victim's fingernails did not match McCollum but belonged to an unidentified male. McCollum was convicted on two pieces of evidence: 1) a single strand of fiber that experts said "might" have come from the victim's sweater; and 2) statements he gave to the police during an interrogation -- statements which he insists did not amount to a confession. In a two hour interview with Lansing Community College and Lansing police detectives, McCollum told police how he could have committed the crime while sleepwalking. Detectives never asked him if he committed the crime and McCollum only discussed the crime in "hypothetical terms." Because some of the crime scene facts seemed to match, he was charged and convicted.
A few weeks ago, Matthew Macon, was arrested and charged with at least six homicides dating back to at least 2004. He was out of prison and living in the Lansing area at the time. His latest string of homicides began after he was released from prison early this year.
Macon's crimes bear some similarities to the Kronenberg case. In at least three of the cases, the victims were severely beaten about the head and the face and in at least one of them the victim was sexually assaulted with a foreign object -- a stick.
In light of these revelations, Lansing authorities must reopen the investigation into the Kronenberg case. McCollum's non-confession is unreliable. The sleepwalking suggestion likely came from the police in the first instance, part of a tactic police use to minimize a suspect's responsibility for a crime and to explain why a suspect has no memory of committing a crime that police claim he committed. It is an effective tactic at getting suspects to confess but has been linked to many false confessions. The fact that McCollum's statements may have accurately described some of the crime facts also does not mean his confession is reliable. The key question is whether the information in the statements was non-public (was it in press accounts?) and whether the information was suggested to him by police in their conversations with him. In many false confessions, police inadvertently or deliberately suggest crime scene facts to suspects who then incorporate them into thier statements. At the very least, authorities must compare the DNA found in the victim's hands with Matthew Macon's -- such a test could prove once and for all if McCollum is innocent.
Lastly, McCollum, over the advice of his appellate counsel, gave an interview last week in the wake of the arrest of Macon. What is striking to me is how careful he is not to accuse Macon of the crime -- another sign that speaks volumes about his character and to me, supports his claim of innocence. When asked about Macon, McCollum told Kevin Grahsa, a reporter from the Lansing State Journal: "I don't want to go the route of slandering him, just for me to be innocent."