Photo by Lane Christiansen of the Chicago Tribune
At a press conference after his office agreed to dismiss the charges against Jerry Hobbs, Lake County State's Attorney Mike Waller insisted that the detectives from the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force (LCMCTF) had done nothing wrong and were not to blame for Jerry Hobbs' decision to falsely confess to the murder of his 8 year old daughter Laura and her 9 year old friend Krystal Tobias. According to Waller, his detectives were exonerated of any wrongdoing when Judge Fred Foreman denied Hobbs' pre-trial motion to exclude his confession from the trial. He told reporters to read Foreman's 36 page decision, even had copies made to hand out for them. It was a clever ploy. He must have known that the reporters could not read and digest the decision quickly enough to question him at the press conference or even to read the decision in time to meet their deadlines. He probably also banked on the fact that most reporters were not lawyers and therefore, were not in a position to understand why Judge Foreman's decision does not clear his officers. End of story. Case closed. Time to move on to the next case.....
Not so fast. I read Judge Foreman's decision again over the weekend. From my perspective, the decision does not clear the LCMCTF. If anything, it explains precisely why so many law enforcement officers screwed up so badly in this case.
There are at least three common errors that occur in virtually every police-induced false confession: 1) the misclassification error (police erroneously conclude that an innocent person is guilty); 2) the coercion error (they subject that person to an accusatory, confrontational interrogation and turn up the heat in response to the suspect's denials); and 3) the contamination error (they feed the details of the crime that they know to be true to the suspect and pressure him to incorporate these facts into a confession which they often script for the suspect to sign). All three are present in the Hobbs case but the most immediately recognizable error -- the one that practically leaps off the pages of Judge Foreman's decision -- is the misclassification error.
The LCMCTF were confident from the very beginning of their investigation that Hobbs was guilty. Their confidence in his guilt only grew during the 21 hours he was in custody. But why were they so convinced an innocent man was guilty?. It was not based on hard evidence. Hobbs also had no motive. It was based on nothing more than intuition, hunches, junk science, and faulty police training that makes police think that they can tell that a suspect is lying based on an analysis of the suspects verbal and non-verbal responses (his body language). In short, it was based on nothing more than speculation.
John E. Reid and Associates, the leading interrogation training firm in the United States, spend days instructing officers on how to detect deception and boast of accuracy rates of over 85% for its graduates. They call it the Behavioral Analysis Interview (BAI). LCMCTF detectives are all Reid-certified or are trained by Reid-disciples such as Wicklander and Zulawski. But study after study has demonstrated that Reid-trained investigators (and police officers generally) are not human lie detectors. They are no better than you or I at detecting deception and we are right about as much as we are when guessing whether a flipped coin will come up heads or tails. The training, however, makes them overconfident in their ability to detect deception and it is this overconfidence that causes them to both coerce confessions and contaminate them in order to force suspects to accept their pre-conceived theories of how the crime occurred.
Let's review the evidence that police had against Hobbs that led them to insist he was guilty and to keep him in custody until he broke down and told them what they wanted to hear.
- Hobbs was the father of one of the victims. So what. While it is true that police almost always consider family members "persons of interest," this is not evidence of guilt. There are plenty of cases involving strangers who abduct, sexually assault, and murder children.
- Hobbs discovered the victims' bodies. Again, so what. This is not evidence of guilt. Hobbs had been searching for the girls throughout the evening. The fact that he located them on the day after their disappearance is worth noting. But that's about all it is worth.
- Hobbs stated that he saw the girls's bodies from 20 feet away, that they were red, and pink, and blue, that they were very bloody, that he could tell they were not breathing, and that they did not look human. Police expected Hobbs to rush over to the girls, to check if they were still breathing. That's the way they believed a grieving father should have acted. But people grieve in different ways. They react differently when they are traumatized or in shock. His failure to act as the police expected is not evidence of anything.
- Hobbs had a criminal background which included some violence (he had threatened a mobile park owner in Texas with a chain saw) and had some physical altercations with his wife prior to his incarceration and he told the police this during the interrogation. Again, while a prior history of violence is noteworthy, Hobbs had nothing in his background to suggest he would stab his own daughter to death and murder her friend. Hobbs' wife told the police that he never laid a hand on the kids -- his anger was only directed at her, usually after he had been drinking.
- At one point Hobbs stated "I did not kill them girls." Police are trained to believe that the fact that a suspect refuses to name the victims is suspicious. But this is nothing more than mythology.
- Police viewed Hobbs's moaning and crying as inauthentic. Again, even the best trained psychologists cannot discern the difference between real tears and crocodile tears.
- His emotions did not "carryover" to other lines of questioning. Maybe these lines of questioning were not as emotional.
- The rest of the reasons for suspecting Hobbs were straight out of the BAI. Hobbs was guilty because he "covered his face with his hands", he "turned away from detectives when they asked him about the girls," he slid to the end of his chair, placing himself as far away as possible from the officers at one point, he would "drop his hands" when the detectives switched topics from the girls to another subject.
- Hobbs's wife disputed parts of Hobbs' alibi, claiming that he was not playing video games with his son Jerry in their bedroom when he said he was.
After 21 hours of interrogation, this is all the police had upon which to base their belief that Hobbs was guilty. Stunningly, Judge Foreman found that Hobbs was not "seized" by the police prior to his confession, i.e., that a reasonable person in Hobbs' position would have felt free to leave the police station. Even if he was "seized," Judge Foreman made the even more incredible finding that the police had probable cause to arrest Hobbs based on the above facts. He found that it was reasonable for police to infer that Hobbs had committed the crime based on his behaviors and the police interpretation of them. In a sense he gave his blessing to to largely discredited notions -- that the police are able to intuit a suspect's guilt based upon "behavior analysis" and that they are reliable human lie detectors.
What happened here is that the police zeroed in on Hobbs, not based on any real evidence, but a combination of police mythologies and body-language bunk. They refused to consider the possibility that he was innocent, either ignored facts suggesting his innocence (no murder weapon, no blood on Hobbs's clothes, no motive, the fact that Hobbs willingly gave his blood and other evidence to the police and consented to a search of his home, and that he was willing to subject himself to a lie detector test) or manipulated them to confirm their guilt-presumptive bias. It's a classic case of police tunnelvision, one that continued for four years and would have continued until police convicted him and almost certainly sentenced him to death, if not for the fact that DNA found inside Laura Hobbs's vagina (DNA missed by the State's forensic experts) was linked to another suspect with a prior history of sexual deviancy.
The fact that Judge Foreman denied the defense motion to suppress is no defense for the LCMCTF. Few judges are willing to suppress confessions in murder cases. The political repercussions for state court judges (who are elected) are simply too high. This is especially the case where judges, like Judge Foreman, do not have an electronic recording of the interrogation of Jerry Hobbs. Without a recording, judicial decisions concerning the voluntariness and reliability of confessions are notoriously unreliable. In virtually every DNA exoneration involving a false confession (more than 40), judges denied defense efforts to suppress the confessions. Here, the pre-trial motion was based solely on the testimony of the police officers. These are professional witnesses who are prepared by the prosecution and their testimony almost always comes across as credible and consistent. Without a recording, there is little the defense can do to challenge the police officers' sanitized accounts of what transpired during the interrogation. The defense could have countered the police testimony by putting Hobbs on the stand but the risks of such a strategy were clearly outweighed by any of the benefits. Judges rarely believe suspects over police officers.