Detective Jim Trainum on the simplicity of obtaining false confessions and why videotaping interrogations is imperative
As both a former cold case homicide detective and the head of the DC Metropolitan Police Department’s Violent Crime Case Review Project, Jim Trainum has proven to be a cop on a mission. He’s hunted murderers and arrested rapists, ensured confessions and sealed convictions. But unlike many, he’s also spent over a decade working toward a future where every murderer will match the gun and every rapist will have forced the attack, where every confession will hold water and every conviction will be rightfully earned. He’s been willing to put his ego aside and his reputation at risk to instate life boats in the police force so when accidents do happen—as they do in every field—an innocent life isn’t lost to the unforgiving nature of our justice system. And although he’s now technically retired, he still has many years of fight left in him.
Well shoot, I’m a dinosaur. I got a high school education, and came on to the police department in 1983 after working as a paramedic in Arlington. I was on the repeat offender project, and I worked as a burglary detective in the 5th district—and when I accidentally solved a case, they dragged me down to homicide kicking and screaming. Literally.
In 1994, I was working on one of my first cases, a fairly high -profile case, and I obtained a false confession. But of course I didn’t know it was false at the time. She had failed both a polygraph and voice stress test. She had no signs of mental illness and had a perfectly normal IQ. We were pretty convinced of her guilt, until we later found out that her alibi, which she failed to present us, was pretty unshakeable.
It caused me take pause. Forced stress tests are total B.S., but later on, she had flunked that full-fledged polygraph and she was of sound mind. Anybody [like her] who gets involved in street stuff and all that is going to have their issues, but she had no obvious mental health issues and was of above-average intelligence. And we didn’t yell; we didn’t scream; we didn’t say we’re going to put you in jail for life. We insinuated that it was in her best interest to tell us what we wanted to hear. That the short term benefits outweighed the long term consequences.
It wasn’t until years later when I started to read about false confessions that I read about the stuff that I had done. So I just became an advocate of interrogation reform, of videotaping interrogations from start to finish because I think those could prevent false confessions. I think those could allow you to go back and review the entire process. And I’ve always been an advocate of fixing bad police practices. I still believe in identification as an important tool, but if they’ve shown that eyewitness identification is a problem, let’s find a better way of doing it. If you choose to use interrogation techniques, those techniques should be under extraordinary scrutiny.
In our case, we had unintentionally fed her almost the entire case over a several hour period. And Kimberly—the woman—she would guess. She would guess a lot. And sometimes the guesses were right. And we wouldn’t see the ones that weren’t because ‘She was being evasive.’ ‘She was protecting someone.’ So that’s how we wrote that off. I mean, not that cops have big egos. We’re trained not to have them … [laughs] … ok fine, we’ve got the biggest ones out there. But fortunately, we had accidentally let the tape continue to run, and we captured the whole thing on video. But if we hadn’t had that video, we never would have been able to go back years later and catch our mistakes. It went right over our heads.
For a cop, I think the hardest part is sorting through the half truths that are out there, because everybody has something to hide, and we’re trying to determine what part of your story you’re keeping away because of some personal interest. You look back and you go, ‘You dummy,’ but when you’re in the mix, it’s so hard. Sometimes you get a confession in my department, and it doesn’t fit. It doesn’t make sense. And I tell them, if this guy came in your office and said ‘I was a witness and this is what I saw,’ you’d throw him out on his ass. But because he said ‘I did it and this is what I did,’ all critical thinking goes out the window.
I actually went to a seminar on law enforcement control and avoiding wrongful convictions, and the presenter used a phrase that I think all law enforcements should use: The right guy, the right way. Once we think we got the right guy, and we start cheating on the right way, that’s when we get the wrongful convictions.
Michael Howard’s case, for example, that was one I worked on at the request of the US Attorney’s office, and that was one in which the witness had come forward and given a false confession. But they were able to get all the documentation and build a timeline to show how the investigation got off track: everybody kept saying 3 shooters, 3 shooters, 3 shooters, and then this witness popped up and said 4. And then the investigation got off track. And this witness was so full of it from the beginning, but the detectives on the case just bought it—hook, line, and sinker.
You know, the biggest misconception about wrongful convictions is that they don’t happen. That there are so many checks and balances that it’s impossible to happen. And the biggest misconception about false confessions is that you have to be crazy to confess to something you didn’t commit.
…But that’s how interrogation works. We box you into a corner, and then we show you the light.
–As told to Rachel Cicurel