This is an excerpt from the John Grisham novel THE CONFESSION, about the murder of a young woman, and an innocent man who was sent to death row resulting from a false confession forced by brutal and unprincipled police interrogation. It shows that it is constitutional for police to use blatant lies during the prolonged interrogation to force the confession. It horrified me when I first read it, as it should you.
And why do these detectives do it? It was a hot crime, and they wanted to show the public that they solved it. And since they couldn’t catch the real killer, they just picked on an innocent person and forced him to confess. Case closed and they looked like heroes.
On Dec. 22, 1998, 18 days after the disappearance of Nicole Yarber, Detective Drew Kerber and Jim Morrissey of the Slone police department drove to the South Side Health Club, looking for Donte. The club is frequented by the more serious athletes in the area. Donte worked out there almost every afternoon, after school. He lifted weights and was rehabbing his ankle. He was in superb physical condition and was planning to enroll at San Houston State University next summer, then try out for the football team as a walk-on.
A approximately 5pm, as Donte was leaving the club alone, he was approached by Kerber and Morrissey,. who introduced themselves in a friendly manner, and asked \donte of he was talk to them about Nicole Yarber. Donte agree, and Kerber suggested they meet at the police station, where they could be relaxed and be more comfortable. Donte was nervous about this, but he also wanted to cooperate fully. He knew Nicole – he helped search for her – but knew nothing about her disappearance, and thought that the meeting at the station would take just a few minutes. He drive himself, in the family’s well-used green Ford van, to the police station and parked in a visitor’s slot. As he walked into the station, he had no idea that he was taking his last steps as a free man. He was 18 years go, had never been in serious trouble, and had never been subjected to a prolonged police interrogation.
He was checked in at the front desk. His cell phone, wallet and car keys were taken and put in a locked drawer for “security reasons”.
The detectives led him to an interrogation room in the basement of the building. Other officers were around. One, a black policeman in uniform, recognized Donte and said something about football. Once inside the interrogation room, more Morrissey offered him something to drink. Donte declined. There was a small rectangular table in the center of the room. Donte sat on one side, both detectives on the other. The room was well lit with no windows. In one corner, a tripod held a video camera, but it was not directed at Donte, as far as he could tell, nor did it appear to be turned on.
Morrissey produced a sheet of paper and explained that Donte needed to understand his Miranda rights. Donte asked if he was a witness or a suspect. The detective explained their procedures required that all persons interrogated be informed of their rights. No big deal. Just a formality.
Donte began to feel uncomfortable. He read every word on the paper, and since he had nothing to hide, he signed his name, thus waiving his right to remain silent and his right to an attorney. It was a fateful, tragic, decision.
Innocent people are much likelier to waiver their rights during an interrogation. They know they are innocent, and they want to cooperate with the police to prove their innocence. Guilty suspects are more inclined not to cooperate. Seasoned criminals laugh at the police and clam up.
Morrissey took notes, beginning with the time the “suspect” entered the room – 5:25pm.
Kerber did most of the talking. The discussion began with a long summary of the football season, the wins, the losses, what went wrong in the playoffs, a coaching change that was the hot rumor. Kerber seemed truly interested in his future and hoe that his ankle healed so he could play in college. Donte expressed confidence that this would happen.
Kerber seemed especially interested in Donte’s current weight-lifting program, and asked specific questions about how much he could bench press, curl, squat and dead-lift.
There were a lot of questions about him and his family, his academic progress, his work experience, his brief run-in with the law on that marijuana thing when he was 16, and after what seemed like a hour, they finally go around to Nicole. The tone changed. The smiles were gone. The questions became more pointed. How long had he known her? How many classes together? Mutual friends? Whom did he date? Who were his girlfriends? Whom did she date? Did he ever date Nicole? No. Did he ever try to date her? No. Did he want to date her? He wanted to date a lot of girls. White girls? Sure, he wanted to, but he didn’t. Never dated a white girl? No. Rumor has it that you and Nicole were seeing each other, trying to keep it quiet. Nope. Never met her privately. Never touched her. But you admit you wanted to date her? I said I wanted to date a lot of girls, white and black, even a couple os Hispanic. So, you love all girls? A lot of them, yes, but not all.
Kerber asked if Donte had participated in any of the searches for Nicole. Yes, Donte and the entire senor class had spent hours looking for her.
They talked about Joey Gamble and some of the other boys Nicole had dated through high school. Kerber repeatedly asked if Donte dated her, or were seeing her on the sly. His questions were more like accusations, and Donte began to worry.
Roberta Drumm served dinner each night at 7 o’clock, and if for some reason Donte wasn’t there, he was expected to call. At 7 o’clock pm, Donte asked the detectives if he could leave. Just a few more questions, Kerber said. Donte asked if he could call his mother. No, cell phones were not permitted inside the police station.
After 2 hours in the room, Kerber finally dropped a bomb. He informed Donte that that they had a witness willing to testify that Nicole had confided to her close friends that she was seeing Donte and there was a lot of sex involved. But she had to keep it quiet. Her parents would never approve. Her rich father in Dallas would cut off his support and disinherit her. Her church would be scornful. And so on.
There was no such witness, but police are permitted to lie at will during an interrogation.
Dante strongly denied any relationship with Nicole.
And, Kerber went on with his tale, this witness had told them that Nicole was becoming increasingly worried about the affair. She wanted to end it, but that he, Donte, refused to leave her alone. She thought she was being stalked. She thought Donte had become obsessed with her.
Donte vehemently denied all of this. He demanded to know the identity of this witness, but Kerber said it was all confidential. You witness is lying, Donte said over and over.
As with all interrogations, the detectives knew the direction their questions were headed. Donte did not. Abruptly Kerber changed subjects and grilled Donte about the gree Ford van, and how often he drove it, and where, and so on. It had been in the family for years, and it was shared by the Drumm children.
Kerber asked how often Donte drive it to school, to the gym, to the mall, and to several other places frequented by high school students. Did Donte drive it to the mall on the night of December 4th, a Friday, the night Nicole disappeared.
No. On the night Nicole disappeared, Donte was at home with his younger sister. His parents were in Dallas at a weekend church convention. Donte was babysitting. They ate frozen pizza and watched television in the den, something his mother did not usually allow. Yes, the green van weas parked in the driveway. His parents had taken the family’s Buick to Dallas. Neighbors testified that the green van was wheren he said it was. No one saw it leave during thenight. His sister testified that he was with her throughout the night, that he did not leave.
Kerber informed the suspect that they had a witness who saw a green Ford van the mall parking lot around the time when Nicole disappeared. Donte said there was probably more than one such van in Slone. He began asking the detectives if he was a suspect. Do you think I took Nicole? He asked over and over. When it became evident that they did, he grew extremely agitated. He was also frightened at the thought of being suspected.
Around 9 o’clock pm, Roberta Drumm was concerned. Donte rarely missed dinner, and he usually kept his cell phone in his pocket. her calls to her was going straight to voice mail. She began calling his friends, none of whom knew his whereabouts.
Kerber asked Donte straight out if he had killed Nicole and disposed of her body. Donte angrily denied this, denied any involvement whatsoever. Kerber said he did not believe Donte. The exchanges between the two became tense, and the language deteriorated. Accusations, denials, accusations, denials. At 9:45 pm, Kerber kicked back his chair and stormed out of the room. Morrissey put down his pen and apologized for Kerber’s behavior. He said the guy was under a lot of stress because he was the lead detective and everybody wanted to know what happened to Nicole. There was a chace she was still alive. Plus, Kerber was a hothead who could be overbearing.
It was the classic good cop, bad cop routine, and Donte knew exactly what was going on. But since Morrissey was being polite, Donte chatted with him. They did not discuss the case. Donte asked for a soft drink and something to eat, and Morrissey went to get it.
Donte had a good friend by the name of Torrey Pickett. They had played football together since the 7th grade, but Torrey had some legal problems the summer before his junior year. He was caught in a crack-selling sting and sent away. He did not finish high school, and was currently working at a grocery store in Slone. The police knew that Torrey clocked out each weeknight at 10, when the store closed. Two uniformed officers were waiting. They asked him if he would voluntarily come down to the station and answer some questions about the Nicole Yarber case. He hesitated, and this made the police suspicious. They told him that his buddy Donte was already down there and needed his help. Torrey decided to see for himself. He rode in the backseat of the police car.
At the station, Torrey was placed in a room two doors down from Donte. The room had a large window with one-way glass so that officers could look in, but the suspect could not see them. It was also wired so that the interrogation could be heard on a speaker in the hall. Detective Needham worked alone and asked the usual generic, non-invasive questions. Torrey quickly waived his Miranda rights. Needham soon got to the topic of girls, and who was dating whom and who was fooling around when they were not supposed to be. Torrey claimed he barely knew Nicole, hadn’t seen her in years. He scoffed at the idea that his pal Donte was seeing the girl. After 30 minutes of questioning, Needham left the room. Torrey sat at a table and waited.
Meanwhile, in “the choir room”, Donte was getting another jolt. Kerber informed him they has a witness who was willing to testify that Donte and Torrey Pickett grabbed the girl, raped her in the back of the green van, then tossed her body off a bridge over the Red River. Donte actually laughed at this lunacy, and his laughter rankled Detective Kerber. Donte explained that he was laughing not about a dead girl but at the fantasy that Kerber was putting together. If Kerber really had a witness, then he, Kerber, was foolish for believing the lying idiot. The two men called each other liars, among orther thing. A bad situation became even uglier.
Suddenly Needham opened the door and informed Kerber and Morrissey that they had Torrey Pickett “in custody”. This news was so exciting that Kerber jumped to his feet and left the room again.
Moments later he was back. He resumed the same line of questioning and accused Donte of the murder. When Donte denied everything, Kerber accused him of lying. He claimed to know for a fact that Donte and Torrey Pickett raped and killed the girl, and if Donte wanted to prove his innocence, then they should start with a polygraph. A lie-detector test. It was foolproof, clear evidence, admissible in court, and so on. Donte was immediately suspicious of the test, but at the same time thought it might be a good idea, a quick way to end this foolishness. He knew that he was innocent. He knew that he could pass the test, and in doing so, he could get Kerber off his back before things got worse. He agreed to an exam.
Under the stress of police questioning, innocent people are far likelier to agree to a polygraph. They have nothing to hide and they’re desperate to prove it. Guilty suspects rarely consent to the exams, and for obvious reasons.
Donte was led to another room and was introduced to a Detective Ferguson, who’d been at home asleep an hour earlier when Detective Needham called. Furguson was the department’s polygraph expert, and he insisted that Kerber, Morrissey, and Needham leave the room. Furguson was extremely polite, soft-spoken, even apologetic for putting Donte through the process. He explained everything, ran through the paperwork, rigged up the machine, and began asking Donte about his involvement in the Nicole Yarber matter. The went on for about an hour.
When Furguson finished, he explained that it would be a few minutes before he could digest the results. Donte was taken back to “the choir room”.
The results clearly showed that Donte was telling the truth. However, the law, as decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, permits the police to engage in a wide range of deceptive practices during interrogations. They can lie at will.
When Kerber returned to “the choir room”, he was holding the graph paper from the test. He threw it at Donte, hitting himn in the face, and called him a “lying son-of-a-bitch”! Now they had proof that he was lying! They had clear evidence that he snatched his ex-lover, raped her, killed her in a fit of rage, and threw her off a bridge. Kerber picked up the graph paper, shook it in Donte’s face, and promised him that when the jury saw the result of the test, they would find him guilty and give him death. You’re looking at the needle, Kerber said over and over.
Another lie. Polygraphs are so famously unreliable that the results are never admitted in court.
Donte was stunned. He felt faint. He bewildered and struggled to find words. Kerber relaxed and took his seat across the table. He said that many cases involving horrible crimes, especially those committed by good, decent folks – non-criminals – the killer subconsciously erases the act from his memory. He just “blocks it out”. This is quite common, and he, Detective Kerber, because of his extensive training and vast experience, had seen this many times. He suspected that Donte was quite find of Nicole, maybe even in love, and did not plan to harm her. Things got out of control. She was dead before he realized it. Then he was in shock at what he’d done, and the guilt was crushing. So he tried to block it out.
Donte continued to deny everything. He was exhausted and lay his head on the table. Kerber slapped the table violently, startling his suspect. He again accused Donte of the crime, said they had the witnesses and the proof, and that he would be death within five years. Texas prosecutors know how to streamline the system so that they executions are not delayed.
Kerber asked Donte to just imagine his mother, sitting in the witness room, waving at him for the last time, crying her eyes out, as they strap him down and adjusted the chemicals. You’re a dead man, he said more than once. But there was an option. If Donte would come clean, tell them what happened, make a full confession, then he, Kerber, would guarantee that the state would not seek the death penalty. Donte would get life with no parole, which was no piece of cake, but at least he could write letters to his mom and see her twice a month.
Such threat of death and promises of leniency are unconstitutional, and the police know it. Both Kerber and Morrissey denied using these tactics. Not surprisingly, Morrissey’s notes make no reference to threats or promises. Nor do they accurately record the time and sequence of events. Donte did not have access to a pen and paper and, after five hours of interrogation, lost track of time.
Around midnight, Detective Needham opened the door, and announced, “Pickett’s talking”. Kerber smiled at Morrissey, then left in another dramatic exit.
Pickett was alone in his locked room, fuming because he’d been forgotten. He had not seen of spoken to anyone in over an hour.
Riley Drumm found his green van parked at the city jail. He’d been driving the streets and was relieved to find the van. He was also concerned about his son and what kind of trouble he was in. The Slone City Jail is next door, and attached, to the police department. Riley went to the jail first, and, after some confusion, was told that his son was not behind bars. He had not been processed. There were sixty two prisoners back there, none by the name of Donte Drumm. The jailer, a younger white officer, recognized Donte’s name, and was as helpful as possible. He suggested that Mr. Drumm check next door with the police department. This he did, and it too proved confusing and frustrating. It was 12:40 am and the front door was locked. Riley called his wife with an update, then he pondered how to get inside the building. After a few minutes, a patrol car parked nearby, and two uniformed officers emerged. They spoke to Riley Drumm, who explained why he was there. He followed them inside and took a seat in the lobby. The two officers left in search of his son. Half an hour passed before they reappeared and said that Donte was being questioned. About what? Why? The officers did not know. Riley began waiting. At least the boy is safe.
The first crack occurred when Kerber produced a color 8×10 photo of Nicole. Weary, alone,frightened, uncertain, and overwhelmed, Donte took one look at her pretty face and began crying. Kerber and Morrissey exchanged confident smiles.
Donte wept for several minutes, then asked to use the restroom. They escorted him down the hall, stopping at the window so he could see Torrey Pickett sitting at a table, hold a pen, writing on a legal pad. Donte stared in disbelief, even shook his head and mumbled something to himself.
Torrey wrote a one-page summary in which he denied knowing anything about Nicole Yarber’s disappearance. The summary was somehow misplaced by the Slone police department and has never been seen.
Back in “the choir room”, Kerber informed Donte that his pal Torrey had sinned a statement in which he swore, under oath, that Donte was seeing Nicole, that he was crazy about her, but she was worried about the consequences in trying to break up. Donte was desperate and stalking the girl. Torrey was afraid he might hurt her.
As Kerber deslivered his latest series of lies, he read from a sheet of paper, as if it was Torrey’s statement. Donte closed his eyes, shook his head, and tried to understand what was happening. But his thoughts are much slower now, his reaction time deadened by fatigue and fear.
He asked if he could leave, and Kerber yelled at him. The detective course him and said no, he could not leave, because he was their prime suspect. He was their man. They had the proof. Donte asked if he needed a lawyer, and Kerber said of course not. A lawyer can’t change the facts. A lawyer can’t bring back Nicole. A lawyer can’t save your life, Donte, but we can.
Morrissey notes made no reference to the discussion about lawyers.
At 2:20 am, Torrey Pickett was allowed to leave. Detective Needham let him through a side door so he would not bump into Mr. Drumm in the lobby. The detectives in teh basement had been warned that the defendant’s father was in the building and wanted to see him. This was denied under oath at several hearings.
Morrissey began to fade and was replaced by Needham. For the next 3 hours, while Morrissey napped, Needham took notes. Kerber showed no signs of slowing down. As he hammered away at the suspect, he seemed to energize himself. He was about to break the suspect, solve the case, and become the hero. He offered Donte another crack at the polygraph, this one to be limited solely to the question of his whereabouts on Friday, December 4th, at approximately 10 pm. Donte’s first reaction was to say no, to distrust the machine, but such wisdom was overridden by the desire to get out of the room. Just to get away from Kerber. Anything to get the psycho out of his face.
detective Furguson hooked him up to the machine again and asked him a few questions. The polygraph made its noises, its graph paper slowly rolled out. Donte stared at it without a clew, but something told him that the result would not be good.
Again, the results proved he was telling the truth. He was at home that Friday, babysitting, and he never left.
But the truth was not important. While he was away, Kerber moved his chair to a corner, as far from the door as possible. When Donte returned, he took his place and Kerber pulled his chair close so that their knees were practically touching. He began cursing Donte again, telling him he had not only flunked the second polygraph, but “severely flunked it”. For the first time, he touched Donte, by jabbing his right index fuinger into his chest. Donte slapped his hand away and was ready to fight, when Needham stepped forward with a TASER. The detective seemed anxious to give ti a try, but did not. Both cops cursed and threatened Donte.
The jabbing continued, along with the nonstop accusations and threats. Donte realized he would not be allowed to leave until he gave the cops what they wanted. And maybe they were right after all. They seemed so certain about what happened. They were convinced beyond any doubt that he was involved. His own friend was saying that he and Nicole were involved in a relationship. And the polygraphs – what would the jury think when they learned that he had lied? Donte was doubting himself and his own memory. What if he had blackout and erased the terrible deed? And he really didn’t want to die, not then, not five or ten years down the road.
At 4 am, Riley Drumm left the police station and went home. he tried to sleep but could not. Roberta made coffee and they worried and waited for sunrise, as if things would clear up then.
Kerber and Needham took a break at 4:30 pm. When they were alone in the hallway, Kerber said, “He’s ready.”
A few minutes later, Needham opened the door quietly and peaked in. Donte was lying on the floor, sobbing.
They took him a doughnut and soft drink and resume the interrogation. A revelation slowly came over Donte. Since he could not leave until he gave them their story, and since he would, at that moment, confess to killing his own mother, why not play along? Nicole would turn up soon enough, dead or alive, and this would solve the mystery. |The police would look like fools for verbally beating a confession out of him. Some farmer or hunter would stumble over her remains, and these clowns would be exposed. Donte would in vindicated, freed, and everyone would feel sorry for him.
Twelve hours after the interrogation began, he looked at Kerber and said, “Give me a few minutes, and I’ll tell you everything.”
After the break, Kerber helped him fill in the blanks. He had sneaked out of the house after his sister was asleep. He was desperate to see Nicole because she was pushing him away, trying to break off their affair. He knew Nicole was at the movies with friends. He drove there, alone, in the green Ford van. He confronted her in the parking lot near her car. She agreed to get in. They drive around Slone, then into the country side. He wanted sex, she said no. They were finished. He tried to force himself on her and she fought back. he forced her into sex, but it wasn’t enjoyable. She scratched him, even drew blood. The attack turned ugly. He flew into a rage, began to choke her, and he couldn’t stop. Didn’t stop until it was too late. Then he panicked. He had to do something with her. He yelled at her in the rear of the van, but she never responded. He drove north, toward Oklahoma. He lost track of time, then realized that dawn was approaching. He had to get home. He had to get rid of her body. On the Route 244 Bridge over the Red River, at approximately 6, on the morning of December 5th, he stopped the van. It was still dark, she was still very dead. He tossed her over and waited until he heard the sickening splash below. He cried all the way back to Slone.
For three hours, Kerber coached him, prodded him, corrected him, cursed him, reminded him to tell the truth. The details had to be perfect, Kerber kept saying. At 8:21 am, the video camera was finally turned on. A wiped out, stone-faced Donte Drumm sat at the table with a fresh soft drink and doughnut in front of him, visible so that their hospitality could be shown.
The video ran for 17 minutes, and would send him to sdeath row.
Donte was charged with abduction, aggravated rape, and capital murder. he was taken to a cell where he promptly fell asleep.
At 9 am, the chief of police, along with the district attorney, Mr. Paul Koffee, held a press conference to announce the Nicole Yarber case had been solved. Donte Drumm, had confessed to the murder. Other witnesses verified his involvement. Sympathies to her family.
The confession was attacked immediately. Donte recanted and his attorney, Robby Flak, went public with a scathing condemnation of the police and their tactics. Months later, the defense lawyers filed motion to suppress the confession, and the suppression hearing lasted for a week. Kerber, Morrissey, and Needham testified at length, and their testimony was hotly challenged by the defense. They steadfastly denied using threats, promises, or intimidation. They specifically denied using the death penalty as a mean to frighten Donte into cooperating. They denied verbally abusing the suspect or pushing him to the point of exhaustion and collapse. They denied that Donte had ever mentioned a lawyer, or that he wanted to terminate the interrogation and go home. They denied any knowledge of his father’s presence at the station and his desire to see to see his son. They denied the fact that their own polygraph test showed clear evidence of truthfulness, but instead testified that the results were “inconclusive”, in their opinions. They denied any trickery with the alleged statement of Torrey Pickett. Pickett testified on Donte’s behalf and denied telling the police anything about an affair between Donte and Nicole.
The trial judge expressed grave concerned about the confession, but not grave enough to exclude it from the trial. She refused to suppress it, and it was later shown to the jury. Donte watched it as of he were watching a different person. No one has ever seriously questioned the fact that it guaranteed his conviction.
The confession was attacked again on appeal, but the Texas court of criminal appeals anonymously affirmed the conviction and death sentence.
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