Aug. 2, 2023
An intense interrogation and a threat of life in prison leads to multiple coerced confessions, setting off a chain reaction that would result in 17 arrests. False confession experts Jim Trainum and Marissa Bluestine weigh in on why innocent people confess to crimes they didn’t commit—and explain the reforms needed to make it less common.
Voices & Sounds Heard in this Episode
- Calvin Alston, false confession tape
- Patrice Gaines, former Washington Post reporter
- Don Salzman, attorney
- Jim Trainum, former MPD detective and false confessions expert
- Marissa Bluestine, formerly with PA Innocence Project and false confession expert
- Russell Overton, one of the accused
- Timothy Catlett, one of the accused
Episode 3: False Confession Trap
Gabrielle Sweet: The following story contains descriptions of violence, sexual assault, and police misconduct. Listener discretion is advised.
Detective McGinnis: And what location was this?
Calvin Alston: 8th and H on the left hand side. They was all talking right there.
Narrator (Shannon Lynch): This is The Alley: DC’s 8th & H Case. My name is Shannon Lynch.
In the last episode, we talked about how Detectives Sanchez and McGinnis began pursuing their theory that a gang called the “8th and H Crew” was responsible for Catherine Fuller’s death.
They made their first arrest in the case—Alphonso “Monk” Harris—just days after the murder. Monk denied any involvement with the crime. But based on an anonymous tip and a questionable statement given by Clifton Yarborough, the police were able to arrest Monk and keep him in custody.
Police continued to express frustration over what they perceived as uncooperative members of the community. However, several members of the neighborhood had come forward with information, but their tips didn’t fit into the detective’s gang theory narrative, so they were written off.
During this time, other violent crimes against women were happening around 8th and H. A newcomer named James McMillian had been charged with 2 separate assaults and robberies on middle aged women in the same area where Mrs. Fuller was killed. Second, a woman named Ammie Davis gave a statement to police claiming she saw a man named James Blue beating Mrs. Fuller up in the alley the day of the murder.
Neither one of these leads was pursued extensively because these individuals did not fit into the detectives’ gang theory.
Part 1 - Building the Team
By November of 1984, detectives Sanchez and McGinnis had run into a dead end. There was little evidence to support their chosen theory that the 8th and H Crew was responsible for Catherine Fuller’s brutal murder. The community was growing frustrated with the lack of answers.
It was time to shake things up. In late October, Sanchez and McGinnis asked higher-ups to add Detective Donald Gossage to their team. Unlike McGinnis and Sanchez, Detective Gossage was familiar with the 8th and H area from patrolling in that neighborhood. He was known to drive around with teens and pre-teens in his cruiser, buying them food and pressing them for information. Detective Gossage is the same detective that harassed Alphonso “Monk” Harris for years, as mentioned in episode 2.
Patrice Gaines explained what she’d learned about him while working as a reporter for the Washington Post:
Patrice Gaines: When I began to question people in the community and elsewhere, even on the police force, I found him to be a much more troubled, shady, certainly questionable character. There were other officers, who would talk about him negatively, but no one wanted to speak on the record.
Narrator: Gossage was officially added to the investigative team in early November.
Around the same time, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerry Goren was assigned to prosecute the case. It would be his sole focus for the next year. Goren was a young, promising lawyer and a graduate of Harvard Law. In 1984, he’d been with the U.S. Attorney's Office for 5 years and he was generally liked by his colleagues. He’d just started trying murder cases earlier that year. This was was definitely Goren’s most substantial case thus far in his career. He was in it to win it.
It didn’t take long for attention surrounding the 8th and H case to explode. It quickly became a regular element of local TV and newspaper stories. News outlets as far away as LA published stories on it. The pressure was on. And it wasn't long before Detective Gossage proved to be an asset to the investigative team.
Part 2 - Cracked
On a night in late November, Gossage was patrolling near the Washington Coliseum, where a go-go concert was taking place. A fight broke out among attendees. Gossage stopped several of the concert goers to get information, one of which was a 16-year-old girl named Carrie Eleby.
Unprompted, according to Gossage, Carrie claimed she had information to share about the 8th and H case. Several days later, at the homicide office, she told detective Gossage that a young man named Calvin Alston had confessed to her, saying he had snatched Mrs. Fuller’s pocketbook during the assault.
This was the crack in the case the detectives had desperately wanted.
They were excited to finally have some fresh information, even if their witness wasn't the most reliable. Carrie would later change her story several times over the following months. She was also a frequent PCP user.
As Detective Gossage himself would later admit, their case was weak without the tip from Carrie. He told a Washington Post reporter, ”Without Carrie, there would have been no case. There were no leads.”
On the evening of November 29th, Calvin’s mother answered the front door of her house that stood less than a mile from 8th and H. A wave of cops flooded her home, guns drawn. A helicopter was circling above. 19-year-old Calvin was cuffed and brought into the homicide unit office.
The detectives immediately pegged him as a weak link. Detective Sanchez said in an interview later that Calvin “acted feminine.” They felt confident they could crack him. As soon as Calvin waived his Miranda rights, detectives dug right in.
They told him they knew he had confessed to taking part in Mrs. Fuller’s murder. Calvin insisted that that was impossible. He had been painting a house the day of the crime, he told them. He felt confident he could prove his alibi if he just got the chance to talk to his co-workers.
The detectives weren’t buying it. They repeatedly called him a liar. They said they knew for a fact that he was involved and that his alibi was bogus. This, of course, was a lie.
What happened next would become a routine practice in interrogations throughout the course of the 8th and H investigation. Detective McGinnis pulled out a piece of paper and put it on the table in front of Calvin. He drew a circle with lines through it, like slices of a pie. He then shaded in one of the slices of the pie with his pen.
McGinnis told Calvin the pie represented the crime. According to them, Calvin only had two options: Either take a small slice of the pie or claim the entire pie.
Taking a slice would mean he’d have to confess his involvement, which would result in a short prison sentence, the detectives said. They assured him they’d be able to “help” him if he chose this option. The second option was to take the whole pie by continuing to deny his involvement. The detectives told Calvin he’d spend the rest of his life in prison if he picked this option.
Calvin was scared. He was alone in an interrogation room with two authoritative detectives. At this point, he could have stopped talking. He could have called a parent to come sit with him during the interrogation. He could have demanded a lawyer. But Calvin was young and unfamiliar with the legal rights he had. He wasn’t aware that he had options outside of the two detectives had presented to him. No matter what, he thought, he was going to prison.
In a last-ditch effort to save himself, Calvin cracked.
Calvin Alston (false confession tape from 1984): It was a struggle. They was punching the lady, she swung, and then the lady hit the ground. Then Monk, Levy, and Kelvin, Chrissy, and the other dude, they was kicking and punching on the lady.
Part 3 - How False Confessions Happen
A false confession is a statement given by a person that incriminates themselves in a crime they did not commit. This might happen for several reasons, including threats from police, physical violence, deceptive tactics, or a lack of understanding of the law. Oftentimes, it involves police lying to the suspect about what evidence they have, which is totally legal in the US.
It’s hard to understand why someone would confess to a crime they didn’t commit. But this is a surprisingly common occurrence. A study published in the Journal for Criminal Law and Criminology looked at hundreds of exonerations that occurred between 1989 and 2003. A staggering 42 percent of the exonerations involving young people had a false confession.
One of the most well-known instances of this phenomenon was seen in the Central Park 5 case, also known as the Exonerated Five. In 1989, five years after the murder of Catherine Fuller, 5 young Black and Latino men were arrested for allegedly raping a woman in New York City’s Central Park. Four of the five gave video-taped “confessions.” In every instance, only the “confessions” were recorded on video, but the hours of intense interrogation that led up to them were not. All five young men were convicted and sent to prison.
In 2001, convicted rapist and murderer Matias Reyes confessed to the crime. After Reyes’s DNA was tested against the semen that was left at the crime scene, it was confirmed he was the actual perpetrator. The Central Park Five had their convictions vacated in 2002.
The phenomenon of false confessions isn’t limited to just civilians. An attorney named Don Salzman, who was involved in the 8th and H case in more recent years, told me about a case he worked on known as the Norfolk Four.
In an interview, Salzman explained the case to me:
Don Salzman: Four innocent Navy sailors falsely confessed to a crime that they did not commit. A brutal crime in Norfolk, Virginia, that occurred just off of the naval base. So it was being investigated and prosecuted by civilian police and the regular state justice system in Norfolk. The crazy thing about the Norfolk Four case is that the police knew that these four Navy sailors did not match the DNA because after my client, Daniel Williams, confessed to this rape and murder after a highly coercive interrogation where the police told him that he failed a polygraph, when he actually passed the polygraph, and when the police told Daniel that they had a witness who saw him coming out of the victim's apartment after she had last been alive, which was not true, Daniel confessed. And then a couple of months later, DNA came back and proved that he was not the person who had raped the victim and left his semen.
Narrator: Rather than acknowledging they’d made a mistake, the detectives reasoned Daniel must’ve had an accomplice that was responsible for the DNA left at the scene.
Don Salzman: And they arrested his roommate and interrogated him. And he confessed. And then they arrested another person when his roommate's DNA didn't match. And it just kept going on and on. And the confessions changed from Daniel Williams confessing wrongly falsely, that he committed this crime by himself to the next person, saying that the two of them had done it together to the next person saying that there were three people, to the next person saying that there were four people, and eventually they got a confession from one of these men that seven people were involved, all of those people, the DNA did not match them.
Narrator: Eventually, in their 8th arrest, the police identified the person that had actually left the semen sample at the crime scene. But again, rather than admitting they’d gotten it wrong with the first 7 arrests, they prosecuted all 8 of them.
Don Salzman: And it took 15 years from the time we got involved in that case before our clients were fully exonerated and their names were cleared and they were compensated for the wrong that was inflicted on them.
Narrator: The Norfolk Four, like the 8th & H Crew, were victims of investigators holding onto a theory and refusing to let go. Even when they gathered evidence that contradicted said theory.
So… How do false confessions happen?
Jim Trainum is a former DC homicide detective and expert in the area of false confessions. In an interview with me, he described the method of interrogation detectives widely use in the U.S., which is called the “Reid technique” or the ”Reid method.” He argues this technique is what makes false confessions more common in the States than in other countries that don’t use these tactics:
Jim Trainum: Here in the U.S., law enforcement uses what I refer to as the accusatory approach when they interrogate suspects. And it's taught all over the country. It basically all boils down to what is commonly known as the “Reid technique.” Even though detectives say that, oh, I was never trained in Reid, if you look at what they're doing, it's basically the Reid technique.
Narrator: Jim really broke down how the Reid technique works:
Jim Trainum: The Reid technique is a two-part process. The first part is what they call a behavioral analysis interview. They teach you that with like a 30-minute interview of the subject, and by using behavioral analysis, by listening to the way that the person responds to a question. You have a series of like 17 questions that you ask them and based on their response you're supposed to be able to tell whether or not they're being deceptive or even if they're guilty with over 80% accuracy. That’s what Reid teaches.
Narrator: The problem is, though, that’s all junk science.
Jim Trainum: The research that is out there, the real scientific research shows that a lot of the things that Reid says are signs of deception are actually signs of truth-telling. And you know, people like juveniles, people with intellectual or developmental disabilities often exhibit these signs as manifestations of their youth or of their disability.
Narrator: For example, fidgeting, problems with eye contact, or closing their eyes to think.
Jim Trainum: And so we're making judgment calls as to whether or not somebody is lying to us or a suspect based on junk science. But it's on that basis that we then decide whether or not we're going to go to the next stage, which is interrogation.
Narrator: I asked Jim to give me an example of what this would look like in real life.
Jim Trainum: Let's say I'm investigating the theft from a cash register. All I know is that five different people had access to that cash register. I don't have any other evidence that they took it or they didn't. But I interviewed them using my pseudoscience. And I determined that, you know, this person is the one who did it. So I leave them alone in the interrogation room and I let them sit for ten or 15 minutes, increase their anxiety, and then I'll come back in and I'll have a big folder with me with all kind of papers and it's all blank, you know, because I'm just making all this up.
Narrator: Here’s where the confirmation bias really sets in.
Jim Trainum: What I do is I stand over top of you and I tell you, our investigation has proven that you were the one who stole the money. There is no doubt about it whatsoever. The evidence is there. You cannot say anything that will convince me otherwise. All I want to know is why. And then I'll start throwing out potential excuses as to why. It may be something like, Did you take the money because the cash register drawer was open and anybody would be tempted. Did you take the money because you were in debt and under a lot of stress? But it's a monologue. I'm doing the talking. Now, you may try to say, well, wait a minute, I didn't do it. Or try to explain something. I block you. I don't want to hear. Look, we know you did it. Now did you do it because…? I can lie to you and tell you we have five witnesses who saw you do it. And the thing is, I'm doing this over and over and over. This is where confirmation bias sets in because I am not looking for information. I am looking for you to confirm.
Narrator: If the interviewee doesn’t break, at this point, the interrogator gives what Jim called a “false choice.”
Jim Trainum: I tell you, look, we've been at this for three hours. We know you did it, no doubt in our mind. Now, you either did it because you are a dope fiend who doesn't care about anybody or you took the money because you were under a lot of stress and you were going to pay it back anyway. So it's one or the other. If it's the first one out of here, the judge do what they will. But if the second one, let's work with that.
Narrator: Often, either real or implied threats come in. The investigator will say things like:
Jim Trainum: What do you think the judge is going to do with somebody who lies versus somebody who tells the truth? Do you think the jury is going to think kindly of you sitting up there and lying when we have all this evidence? You know, leniency could be, look, if you cooperate, you know, things could go better for you, you know, that sort of stuff. And a lot of times it's not direct, but it's just implied. But like I had mentioned before, it's over and over and over and over again.
Marissa Boyers Bluestine is an Assistant Director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. Previously, she worked with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project to reverse 14 wrongful convictions. Marissa explained how the Reid method easily allows detectives to feed information to suspects:
Marissa Boyers Bluestine: When I was trained, I was told, you come into the room with a folder filled with documents. Doesn't matter what it is. It's a big folder meant to imply that we have all this evidence against you. In the process of that conversation. Nope, nope, nope. I didn't do it. Then the police very often will use evidence from the case to try to convince the person that they did. Then explain to us why we have you on surveillance coming out the back door. Tell us why we've got your DNA on the ligature around her neck. Explain the broken window. And what did I just do with all that? I told the person in front of me details about the case, about how the person got it, about how the victim was killed.
Narrator: A well-known, more recent example of this is seen in the popular Netflix series “Making a Murderer.” The interrogation of Brandon Dassey is a master-class in coercion.
Marissa Boyers Bluestine: I think most of us have probably seen that video of Brandon Dassey being interrogated by the police officers. There's one moment where they say to him, “Brandon, we know you guys did something to her head. What did you do to her head?” And he says, “We cut her hair.” “No, that wasn't it. What did you do to her head?” “We hit her.” “Nope, wasn't that either.” And he takes several more guesses. And finally, the police just say, “All right, we're going to tell you she was shot.” “Who shot her?” “Oh, Steve did.” So what did they just do? They gave him information about the case, and that's how it happens.
Narrator: Marissa also told me about things that make false confessions more likely.
Marissa Boyers Bluestine: First of all there are dispositional factors. So factors about the individual that might make them more susceptible to giving a false confession. Juveniles, people who are elderly, people who are addicted, people who are ADHD has an almost direct causal connection with people who are susceptible to giving false confessions. So those are things about the person. And then there are issues about the situation, which are referred situational factors. How long did the interrogation go on? What kind of questions were used? Where did it occur? And there have been a lot of studies that have shown that the longer that interrogation goes on, the more likely the statement that gets resulted is false.
Narrator: One thing I want to make clear here is that many detectives that get false confessions out of people aren’t necessarily intending to do so. The Reid method just makes it very easy for this to happen. Jim Trainum told me about a time he got a false confession, and how it really changed his perspective on interrogation techniques.
Jim Trainum: I actually had a suspect that we developed. You know, I'm not a yeller or a screamer at all. I'm not one of these guys that bangs my fist on the table and all. But after hours using the interrogation techniques that I was taught and that would pass muster in any court in the country. We finally did convince her that it was a good idea. And she did. And she gave us those details that, as we love to say, only the true perpetrator would have known. So we thought we were in pretty good shape.
Narrator: But things started to go south when they really started to look into her alibi.
Jim Trainum: We ran across her alibi and it was unshakable. She was living in a homeless shelter for families at the time. And so when I went to get the log to sign in/sign out log, which you were very strict about. I found that she was out some of that night, but there was no way that she could have been out during the critical moments.
Narrator: Jim wanted to understand how he could have mistakenly elicited a false confession from someone. Luckily for him, there were tapes of the entire interrogation.
Jim Trainum: The way that we judge whether or not a confession is true is by the number of true details that the person can tell us about the crime. Well, that doesn't work if we happen to tell them those details beforehand, either in very subtle means or even directly, or showing them crime scene photos, and we completely contaminated it. It wasn't blatant, but it was little things that she was able to pick up on as the interrogation went on that allowed her to create the story. A lot of it was outlandish, but it contained enough for us to believe that she had inside knowledge about it. So that's when I began coming up with training programs for my coworkers to try to help them understand that, you know, this is the small print, that they don't teach you about.
Part 4 - The Trap In Action
Calvin Alston was definitely a victim of the deceptive tactics of the Reid method. Police lied to him, saying they had definitive evidence of his involvement. Seeing only two options—to confess and get a lesser sentence or deny involvement and get life in prison—Calvin chose the former. Initially, he told detectives that he’d only acted as a lookout during the crime, manning the 8th Street end of the alley.
Next, according to police records, he began to explain his version of events. Calvin said Mrs. Fuller was walking up 8th street when Levy Rouse, Russell Overton, Alphonso “Monk” Harris, Kelvin Smith, and Clifton Yarbourough pushed her into the alley. Levy hit her on the back of the head with a “two-by-four-like stick,” and she fell. They grabbed her arms and feet and carried her up to what he referred to as the little cut in the alley. Then, he said Cliff picked up her money and ran off towards 9th Street. There was no mention of the sexual assault.
Detectives Sanchez and McGinnis were excited, but it technically wasn’t enough. They needed Calvin to admit to being an active participant in the murder. And they really needed him to drop more names to fit into their theory that a gang upwards of 20 young people committed the crime. They told him they’d need more information in order to “help” him.
What happened next is something you see often in false confessions. McGinnis gave Calvin an outline of what he thought the version of events were. He was feeding him details. According to Calvin, they went over this version of events again and again for the next hour and a half. It was a rehearsal. Only then did they started videotaping.
In the video, Calvin said a group of young men had been hanging out at the park at 8th and H, talking about robbing someone. Then they crossed H Street, grabbed Mrs. Fuller, and pushed her into the alley.
Calvin Alston: They follow the lady down the street. Charles and Levy pushed the lady into the alley.
Narrator: Next, he said the group carried her down the alley.
Calvin Alston: They picked her up and took in his garage back in the cut on the alley.
Narrator: According to Calvin, Kelvin Smith, Timothy Catlett, Russell Overton, and Chris Turner were beating Mrs. Fuller. He said Levy hit her “as hard as he could” in the back of the head. Then, he said the group took her clothes off and sodomized her with a four- to five-inch pole.
Calvin Alston: Like Levy say, shoved this up in her and they was pushing, and I heard someone say shove it some more.
Detective McGinnis: Who said shove it some more?
Calvin Alston: Monk said shove it some more.
Narrator: He claimed Kelvin Smith took her rings, Clifton Yarborough took her cash, and then everyone left.
There were several issues with Calvin’s “confession.” According to police records, the first statement he made—before they turned on the video recorder—didn’t include anything about the sodomy. If he had been truly present, he surely would have included this most horrific detail.
Second, some of the facts about Mrs. Fuller’s autopsy simply don't line up with Calvin’s statement. He said Mrs. Fuller was carried down the alley. But her autopsy showed one side of her back was torn up, consistent with being dragged several yards across concrete, not carried.
Calvin said Levy hit her very hard in the back of the head. But Mrs. Fuller had no injuries on the back of her head whatsoever. He also said that the group took off her clothes and “threw her bra.”
Calvin Alston: And then they start taking... they took off her bra and threw it.
When Mrs. Fuller’s body was found, she still had her sweater and her bra on, pushed up to her armpits.
Calvin described the pole that was used to sodomize her has being 4 to 5 inches long. But Mrs. Fuller had injuries that were indicative of a pole that was at least 11 inches.
There’s a reason for these inconsistencies: Calvin’s “confession” was complete bogus. He simply regurgitated information that was fed to him and filled in the blanks in an attempt to save himself.
Many years later, under oath, Calvin explained how he was fed information by the detectives. Here are some quotes directly from court transcripts, read by my colleague Joe Wilkes:
Attorney: Had you said anything … about a garage before Detective Sanchez said that?
Calvin: No, sir.
Attorney: Had you said anything to any of the detectives about a pole being stuck in her when you gave the lookout statement?
Calvin: No, sir.
Narrator: I reached out to Mr. Alston to see if he wanted to participate in this podcast, but I didn’t receive a response.
Part 5: Reforms
There are several things that can help prevent false confessions from happening in the first place. One is changing the type of interrogation training police receive, moving away from the Reid method.
In some places, as Marissa Boyers Bluestine explains, new interrogation tactics are slowly being implemented:
Marissa Boyers Bluestine: I've seen it in trainings with law enforcement from Wichita, from departments in Arizona, South Carolina, in my own home state of Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, where law enforcement are learning to do it differently. Learning in a non-coercive, respectful, rapport-building environment of how to interrogate somebody. The key to that is the autonomy and agency of the person who is being interrogated or interviewed. Rather than treating them as an object from which to extract a confession, you treat them as a person who has information, or potential information about a crime, and learning to speak with them in a way that brings that out more.
Narrator: Second, interrogations should be videotaped from the moment the suspect walks into the interview room. Such videos serve as a fact checker, as Jim Trainum described in his experience. Most jurisdictions don’t record video at all. And for the few that do, they often only video the “recap” statement after rehearsing beforehand with detectives, as was the case for Calvin Alston.
Lastly, we should make it illegal for police to lie to suspects during interrogations. In all 50 states, it is perfectly legal for a police officer to lie about what kind of evidence they have against suspects over the age of 18. When it comes to juveniles, only three states—Oregon, Illinois, and Utah—have made it illegal to lie to underaged suspects during an interrogation.
There’s a reason this practice of deception is illegal in many countries, like Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Germany, Norway, and parts of Canada. Lying about having evidence that proves a person’s guilt doesn’t always lead to the truth, but it can definitely lead to a false confession.
Unfortunately, none of these reforms were put in place when Calvin Alston was interrogated by MPD at the end of November in 1984.
Calvin believed the detectives when they said—either implied or directly—that he could go home soon if he told them what they wanted to hear. But It was too late. He had admitted to being an accomplice in a murder. But he didn’t fully understand that at the time. In the coming weeks, police would use Calvin's statement to justify many more arrests of young Black men in the area, and Calvin wouldn’t go home for a very, very long time.
Russell Overton: It was a big knock at the door. Boom, boom, boom. So I went to the living room and looked out the window. I seen police cars. See the whole walkway lined up with police.
Narrator: That’s next time on The Alley: DC’s 8th and H Case.