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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: How to Get a Confession

From Washington Lawyer, September 2002

By Jacob A. Stein

spectatorThere is talk now of using truth serum to get the truth from a terrorist. Does truth serum work? Who knows. There is also talk of using the tried-and-true method of getting confessions—moderately severe torture.

This brings to mind the apocryphal remark of the Calcutta policeman who said rubbing red pepper into the eyes of the poor devil until he confesses is more efficient than looking for witnesses in the noonday sun. Mad dogs and Englishmen and all that.

The law is skeptical of confessions made outside the courtroom. People may confess for reasons known and unknown and be innocent. The temptation to extort confessions is strong. Unless it is resisted it will push out the traditional means of getting the evidence. The balance in our legal system that discourages the use of questionable means is a delicate adjustment. “Take but degree away. Untune that string, and hark! What discord follows.”

In the 1940s Fred E. Inbau (1909–1998), of Northwestern University Criminal Law Department, was fascinated by and wrote frequently on the subject of criminal interrogation. His book, Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, urged the police to use any kind of artifice, deception, and trick to get a confession. According to Inbau, anything goes. Inbau was before the Amanda (sic) warning.

There is a story that has been told of a Chicago criminal lawyer who knew Inbau and his techniques and who went Inbau one better.

We shall call the criminal lawyer Fred Bellows. His son, Cliff Bellows, was killed in an elevator accident. Cliff was in an office building elevator with five other passengers. The elevator went out of control and took a free fall from the 10th to the basement floor. The passengers were badly injured and were trapped for six hours before the rescue team hammered and drilled through the elevator top and freed them. Cliff was found dead. It was assumed the cause of death was his severe injuries. However, the autopsy disclosed something strange. Cliff Bellows had a bullet in his heart.

The police learned that Cliff carried a gun because of threats made against his criminal lawyer father. Thereafter the police declared that Cliff’s death was a suicide. Cliff was so badly injured he decided, so it was thought, that if he survived life would not be worth living. He must have shot himself with his own gun. The fact that the others in the elevator were unaware of the gunshot was explained by the hammering and banging by the rescue crew.

Cliff’s father had trouble with the way the police closed the case as a suicide. Cliff was not the type to commit suicide. Bellows decided to conduct his own investigation.

He learned that one of the persons on the elevator could have known Cliff because they worked for the same company and they may have gotten on at different floors. Bellows discovered evidence that pointed to a particular person on the elevator who may have had a motive to kill Cliff based on disagreements at the brokerage firm where they worked. But the evidence was weak, certainly not strong enough to interest a prosecutor. Bellows needed a confession.

A year after Cliff’s death Bellows invited the occupants of the elevator to his home for dinner. The invitation said each would learn something new about the elevator accident.
On the evening in question they all showed up. Dinner was served promptly. After dinner Bellows said to the group that he was skeptical that his son committed suicide. He believes Cliff was killed by his own gun but the gun was used by somebody else who was in the elevator.

“The person who killed my son is now in this room. That person has been served a meal different from the meal served to the others. His meal and his alone contained poison. A poison that takes effect in 10 minutes.”

Bellows then said, “He knows who he is. He is free to leave the room right now, and my chauffeur will take him to the hospital in time to save his life. If he doesn’t want to leave, he can save himself by eating from the bowl of custard dessert that is now being placed in the center of the table. The dessert contains the antidote to the poison that was in the meal. But he must act quickly.”

One of the persons had been drinking too much. He made fun of the whole ceremony. He said it was like an old 1930s movie that he had seen or maybe a Sherlock Holmes story he read. When nobody else took any of the dessert, he scooped out a generous portion and ate it.

Bellows said to him, “Sir, you waited too long. I don’t think the antidote will work.”

The person who had eaten the dessert looked startled, and then collapsed. In a few minutes he was unconscious.
Bellows said to the group, “Gentlemen, I deceived you. When I said there was poison in the dinner of the person I suspected of murdering my son, I was lying. And when I said that the dessert contained an antidote to the poison, of course that was a lie.
    “Then you may ask why this man is stretched out unconscious on the floor. It is because the dessert did have something in it. Not an antidote but a strong soporific. He is sleeping and in time he will wake up.
    “I tricked him into giving what in law is called an implied confession. It is a confession implied by the circumstances. My case against him has moved from the speculative to the presumptive.

“I don’t want to leave it there. When he gets up you will see a demonstration of the art of cross-examination. Now that I have this implied confession, I will work backwards to get at the motive. That is what interests me. Why did he murder my son?

“While we wait for the subject of our inquiry to wake up, let’s have some dessert, some dessert that I will eat with you. How about chocolate cheesecake? I will eat the first slice.”

Jacob A. Stein may be reached by e-mail at jstein@steinmitchell.com.