COLUMBIA — Now, Chuck Erickson says he is a liar, not a dreamer.
Erickson has recanted testimony implicating Ryan Ferguson in the death of Columbia Daily Tribune Sports Editor Kent Heitholt.
In a case that lacked physical evidence connecting Ferguson and Erickson to the murder, the revelation has stunning implications: Erickson’s confession and subsequent testimony were the gravitational center of the prosecution’s case against Ferguson.
For armchair psychologists and professional experts alike, the latest glimpse into Erickson’s mind has produced more questions than answers.
“(Erickson’s testimony) was suspicious from the get-go,” said Elizabeth Loftus, a false memory expert who testified at Ferguson’s trial in 2005. “This just adds to it.”
Loftus, who teaches at the University of California-Irvine, said she believed Erickson might be experiencing false memories — the recollection of a past that never occurred. False memories are a product of “external suggestion,” Loftus said; someone who doesn’t have a strong recollection of events is likely to be susceptible to others’ accounts.
At the trial Loftus testified that, in interrogation videos she watched, police appeared to have planted details in Erickson’s memory during their interview sessions with him.
In an interview with the Missourian on Monday, Loftus also suggested false memories could come from “auto-suggestion,” a process in which someone can convince himself he did something he didn’t really do.
Erickson’s statement appeared to fit Loftus’ theory of auto-suggestion in explaining why he originally implicated Ferguson: “I could not accept in my conscious mind that I was the sole perpetrator and aggressor, so I put a lot of the blame on Ryan. … I don’t think that much of it was even consciously done. It was just too hard to admit to myself and others that I killed someone. I could not even accept the possibility of it.”
Yet Erickson’s newly revised confession left Loftus befuddled and is not likely to erase the doubts of those who believe Ferguson and Erickson weren’t even at the scene of the crime.
“I don’t even know what to think,” Loftus said. “He’s had four years to come to this new version of the story.”
Still, if Erickson’s reversal is surprising for some, to others, the veracity of confessions is often in question.
History has had its share of notables: many of the Puritans implicated at the Salem witch trials confessed to sorcery; more than 200 people claimed responsibility for kidnapping Charles Lindbergh’s son in 1932. The false confession continues to happen today.
“It’s more common than people think,” said associate professor Sean O’Brien at the University of Missouri-Kansas City law school, who is also a board member of the Midwestern Innocence Project. O’Brien said that, according to an analysis conducted by the Innocence Project, a large portion of convicts who have been exonerated by new DNA evidence gave false confessions. The causes were legion.
“Sometimes (suspects) get tricked, sometimes they get scared into confessing, sometimes they have psychological or cognitive disabilities,” O’Brien said. “They may have some private motivation to confess, or it may be some self-destructive impulse.”
But O’Brien chalked up many such confessions to overzealous interrogators and susceptible subjects, checking off warning signs for a false confession induced by police: “Does the confession match the physical evidence? Are the details of the crime correct? How much of the interrogation is tape-recorded or videotaped?”
O’Brien also noted that false confessions have been such a problem that the law has slowly evolved to combat them: including the outlaw of torture-induced confessions in 1936, and later the implementation of Miranda rights in 1966, stemming from a case where the court was concerned about unfair psychological interrogation techniques.
The law has continued to develop because interrogators can usually be counted on to push the law to the limit, O’Brien said.
“The law lets them go pretty far,” he said. “You can lie to a suspect about whether you’ve got their DNA.”
And once someone gives a confession, it can be hard to overcome in court. A jury — let alone the public — can have trouble understanding the reasons why someone would confess to a crime they might not have committed.
"Most of us can't conceive that," O'Brien said.