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Why Is it So Hard for Police to Admit They've Messed Up?

Psychologists explore why it's hard for law enforcement to admit their mistakes.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Fisun Ivan

 
 
 
 

After honor student Stephanie Crowe was stabbed to death in her bedroom in Escondido, California in January 1998, police briefly questioned (and collected clothes from) Richard Tuite, a drug-addicted, mentally ill transient who had been spotted prowling nearby the previous evening and scaring the Crowes’ neighbors. But the first person to get the third degree by detectives was Stephanie’s 14-year-old brother Michael, who weathered 10 hours of grueling interrogation without his parents or attorney present.

Michael was told – falsely – that his 12-year-old sister’s blood was found in his room, that his hair was discovered between her fingers and that his voice stress analyzer test showed deception. Eventually, Michael cracked. He told detectives he had no memory of the crime, but he would be willing to make something up for them.

The desperate teenager’s taped confession is now infamous, heavily interspersed with red flags like: “OK, here is the part where I’ll stop lying.” At one point, veteran detective Ralph Claytor asked him, “How many times did you stab her?” “It’s going to be a lie,” Michael responded. “Three times.” “How many?” Claytor repeated. “Three,” said Michael. “It’s a lie.”

The teen quickly recanted and wouldn’t sign a written “recap” statement. But now-retired Detective Claytor had no doubt that he had his killer. After all, the investigator observed, Michael seemed less grief-stricken than his family and while at the police department, during lunch the boy watched cartoons and played a video game.

Michael was arrested along with friends Joshua Treadway and Aaron Houser. After 13 and a half hours of videotaped interrogation, Treadway confessed that the trio plotted to kill Stephanie. The three boys were charged with murder and spent almost six months in juvenile hall.

But after a judge reviewed those videotapes and questioned the interrogations’ legality, the boys were released. Michael’s and Treadway’s confessions were judged to have been coerced and the judge threw them out. Still, San Diego County prosecutors wanted to try the boys for Stephanie’s murder.

A year after Stephanie’s death, DNA testing identified three blood drops on transient Richard Tuite’s stained red sweatshirt as belonging to Stephanie Crowe. Later, blood drops were also found on Tuite’s undershirt. In 2004, Tuite was convicted of killing Stephanie and sentenced to 13 years for voluntary manslaughter. In 2011, Tuite was awarded a new trial over a prosecution witness whose credibility the defense was not allowed to question.

Blood or no blood, Claytor remained steadfast that the boys were responsible. In a deposition he gave five years after the murder as the Crowe family sued the city of Escondido over Michael’s ordeal, he said “Joshua Treadway and Michael Crowe said they did it,” said Claytor. “So I’d have to say that, since they’re the ones who told me they did it, they’re the ones who did it.”  The Crowes eventually settled for $7.25 million, and in May, Michael Crowe – now married and a first-time father – got his wish to be declared “factually innocent.” While all three boys were exonerated in 2002, Crowe pushed for this unusual declaration to remove any lingering doubts about their innocence.

According to psychologists, the intransigence on the part of the lead detective and others in the Crowe case was, as it was in the Marty Tankleff case both predictable and understandable. No matter if science can debunk old “evidence” used to win a conviction, no matter if overwhelming information is uncovered to prove an innocent was wrongfully imprisoned, some key players – detectives, prosecutors, fire marshals, et al – will cling to their long-held certainty about a suspect’s guilt.