On the night of March 9, 2000, after 14 hours of interrogation over two days, 19-year-old Donovan Allen confessed to two Longview police detectives that he strangled and bludgeoned his mother, Sharon Cox, with a rifle.
Twenty days later, he recanted the confession, but a jury in 2002 sentenced him to life in prison. Last year he was exonerated by new DNA evidence, and the way police obtained his confession is now under scrutiny.
“Something happened on the date of Feb. 7, 2000. Can you tell me what happened?” Detective Jeff Davis asked Allen gently on March 9, 2000, according to an audiotape of the police interrogation The Daily News obtained through the state Open Records Act.
“I’m tryin’. I’m tryin’,” Allen said after a long pause. “We got into an argument. Things got out of hand and I accidentally killed her. … I didn’t mean for it to happen. It just did.”
Allen went on to tell the detectives that an argument began in the living room of his mother’s home near the Bridgegate Apartments in Longview. Cox was the manager there and hired Allen to do maintenance.
“Everything blew up in my face,” Allen told police in a soft, low voice. “I totally went blank. I went ballistic. I had no control. I should have.”
Allen told the detectives that he and his mom argued loudly. Cox, Allen said, told him if he didn’t get his act together and come to work on time, he’d lose his job and put his unborn son and fiancee out on the streets. They pushed each other through the living room, the bathroom, the halls, the kitchen, where, Allen confessed, he grabbed a telephone cord.
“I strangled her with it. … I wrapped it around my fist,” Allen said through tears.
“This is tough, isn’t it?” Detective Sgt. Dan Jacobs asked Allen.
“Very tough,” Allen replied in a small, quivering voice.
He was released in December after new DNA evidence from the crime scene identified another man, Allen’s adopted cousin Brian Del Kitts, as a murder suspect. Kitts goes to trial May 23. There’s still a possibility Allen could be recharged with Cox’s murder. Police are reinvestigating the case and still consider Allen a suspect.
But Allen’s exoneration raises a central question: If he is innocent, how did the interrogation get it wrong? It’s a question that has been raised at a national level, after a University of Michigan School of Law study found that of 149 exonerations nationally in 2015, 27 of the initial convictions (18 percent) involved false confessions.
Fewer than half of the exonerations achieved by the Innocence Project Northwest involve false confessions. The University of Washington-based program was instrumental in winning Allen’s exoneration.
Its petition to retest DNA evidence in Allen’s case included an April 2015 memo by Steven Drizin, a Northwestern University law professor and expert in false confessions. It’s critical of the interrogation methods Longview police detectives used with Allen.
Drizin says that Allen’s learning disabilities and mental health problems made him vulnerable, that LPD detectives’ fed Allen facts of the crime and interrogated him for too long, causing unnecessary stress and possible sleep deprivation.
Police interviewed Allen several times before his confession March 9. Interrogations are more confrontational and accusatory than interviews, which are primarily for fact finding rather than obtaining a confession.
Drizin quotes extensively from an interrogation manual written by former Chicago police officer and polygraph expert John Reid and his colleagues, who in 1947 started pioneering interrogation techniques that are now used nationally. Longview police have used Reid techniques in the past to train officers on interrogation techniques.
Drizin argued that police fed Allen facts so he could recreate the crime for them in his confession. Detectives showed him photos of the crime scene, led Allen to identify the murder weapon as a .22 Marlin rifle and told Allen how many pieces the rifle was broken into at the crime scene in the form of a question during his interrogation, Drizin wrote.
Police generally do not reveal crime scene details or evidence to a suspect. A 2012 Reid company memo highlights the reason: “Withhold information about the details of the crime from the subject so that if the subject confesses he can reveal information that only the guilty would know,” the memo advises interrogators.
Drizin also said Allen was vulnerable to making a false confession because he had learning disabilities, suffered childhood abuse and had severe depression and anxiety.
Because LPD is reinvestigating the Cox case, the department declined to address Drizin’s criticisms. Sgt. Chris Blanchard and Chief Jim Duscha, however, agreed to speak generally about interview and interrogation techniques at LPD.
Blanchard said Longview interrogators try to be aware of suspects’ mental health troubles.
“At a minimum, if there’s an obvious indication of mental health (troubles) when an interrogator is speaking to an individual, that could change how they speak,” Blanchard said, adding that it would also depend on how the mental illness manifested itself during the interrogation.
He declined to comment on Drizin’s criticism about so-called fact-feeding by Longview interrogators. He did say, however, that there are no set rules about the length of interrogations. Each depends largely on how productive an interrogation is. The Reid technique encourages interrogators to stop if they believe someone is innocent.
Blanchard said police are open to someone’s innocence, but he emphasized that “if you’re at an interrogation, you suspect ... that the individual has committed an offense.”
LPD doesn’t have its own policies on interrogations, which Blanchard said are often guided by best practices officers learn from their training.
Voice ‘stress tests’
Before his confession, Allen was put through three “stress tests” using a Computerized Voice Stress Analyzer, or CVSA. A CVSA test tracks a constant inaudible vocal tremor. When a person is truthful, that tremor strengthens. When he lies, the tremor weakens.
Allen failed the last two of his three stress tests. (Police scrapped the first because Allen was so stressed and requested a redo.) Allen answered “no” to police questions about whether he harmed or killed his mom or knew who did. The CVSA registered him as deceptive.
Allen requested the third CVSA just before confessing, telling police he may have blacked out when he killed Cox but that he still wanted to prove his innocence. After he failed the test, he confessed.
News that he had failed his last CVSA test was what broke Allen, Drizin argued.
“Donovan was looking to the CVSA as a truth-telling machine, a life preserver that would clear up his memory,” Drizin wrote.
Longview police Chief Jim Duscha said police never rely solely on CVSAs results to prove that a suspect is guilty. They’re always paired with strong interviews and interrogations, he said.
Longview police began using CVSAs in 1998, and about 1,800 law enforcement agencies around the nation now use the technology. Duscha, who is on the national board for the company that created the CVSA and administered Allen’s second stress test, argued that CVSAs are accurate up to 98 percent of the time.
However, judges generally prohibit voice stress tests and polygraph test results from trials, largely because they debate their accuracy. Voice stress tests have come under growing scrutiny, and critics have questioned the maker’s claims of accuracy.
According to FindLaw.com, “experts are split as to whether the technology is reliable. In a strongly worded study published by (the) Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice, voice stress tests are said to be ‘no better than flipping a coin when it comes to detecting deception.’ “
Anna Tolin, Allen’s lawyer at the Innocence Project NW, said that CVSAs aren’t reliable.
“We have learned from studying false confessions that individuals who are innocent are more likely to submit to lengthy questioning and agree to things like CVSA’s or polygraphs” because they don’t think they have anything to hide and trust the accuracy of tests such as the CVSA, she wrote in an email.
Tolin acknowledged, though, that there’s reason to believe false confessions may become less common as police improve interrogation techniques.
“While false confessions certainly still happen, there are many investigators and police who are aware of the risks and have implemented improved training and practices in their departments,” including some departments that require mandatory recordings of interviews and interrogations, Tolin wrote in an email. LPD doesn’t record all of theirs, depending on the location of interviews and interrogations, and whether an interviewee is comfortable being recorded.
But improvements still are necessary, she said.
“Nationwide, (nearly) one in four individuals exonerated by DNA gave a false confession, and this remains an area in need of reform,” Tolin wrote.