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How Police Interrogation Techniques Fail People with Autism

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On April 25th 2023, the Virginia Supreme Court ignored a life-shattering mistake. Though he confessed under a lengthy interrogation, Michael Ledford did not set the fire that killed his son and horribly burned his (then) wife on October 10, 1999. That night, just after his wife and son had gone to sleep, Michael Ledford left for the fire station where he volunteered. About 20 minutes later, while he was at the station, 911 calls started coming in about a fire raging in, as it turned out, Ledford’s own home.

Years later, scientists proved that the scenario described in Ledford’s confession—a lighted candle thrown onto an upholstered living room chair—couldn’t have happened. Neither the burn patterns nor the timeline matched Ledford’s story. An evidentiary court accepted this, establishing it as legal truth—a huge victory for Ledford. And yet, the Virginia Court of Appeals, perhaps misunderstanding the finding, denied Ledford a writ of actual innocence. On Tuesday, the Virginia Supreme Court refused to consider the case. Ledford confessed—and that is difficult to undo.

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Ledford is autistic. He has been diagnosed by a University of Virginia Clinical and Forensic Psychologist as being “in the autistic spectrum or [having] a severe nonverbal learning disorder.” When his house was burning down, witnesses reported he didn’t try hard enough to run in. He didn’t scream or cry. He stood outside, dumbstruck. Ledford was never well-liked in the community, and he didn’t get along well with his wife’s family. He was abrasive, cold, quiet. He was awkward, a mess in social situations. Sometimes he had a temper, sometimes a deep gloom. To the police, this husband and father wasn’t performing a convincing husbandly or fatherly grief. He became their top suspect.

At 23, Ledford had just lost his one-year-old son and his (then) wife was in critical condition. But the police interrogated him for hours without a lawyer, using a brutal technique that left him powerless. This common interrogation method, known as the Reid Technique and what we casually call “the third degree,” allows police great leeway for intimidation and deception because it was originally intended to be used against hardened criminals. But according to Innocence Project lawyers, it’s often used to extract confessions from the most vulnerable—the young, the unrepresented, and those with spectrum disorders. According to the Innocence Project, of DNA exonerations since 1989, 29% included false confessions. Half of those were under 21 years old; 9% had mental health issues known at trial.

The Reid Technique is ubiquitous in police interview rooms. It begins with the interrogator’s unproven conclusion that the subject is guilty, a dangerous starting point. For this reason, it was intended not to extract a confession that might condemn the suspect on its own, but to uncover new, unknown details—intimate ones that could then be corroborated, a body, a weapon, some real proof. Its limitations and safeguards have since been abandoned by many badly trained cops who’ve learned most of the tactics haphazardly on the job, through trickledown precinct culture.

Read More: America Goes About Juvenile Crime Sentencing All Wrong

The technique works like this: as the interrogator, you go in, guns blazing, telling the suspect that their guilt is established, all evidence has been gathered, and there is nothing they can say to disprove them (this is often a lie). “All I want to know today,” says the interrogator, “is why.” The interrogator then blocks every attempt to claim innocence.

Then, the interrogator offers an enticing alternative—a more conscionable, socially acceptable reason for the crime. If the suspect confesses to that explanation instead of the heinous motive everyone now believes, the interrogator can help him. In Ledford’s case, the interrogator performed a kind-hearted desperation to help: “. . . You set the fire, you leave, maybe come in and be the hero. That’s fine and I, I can respect you for that.”

Pretending to be Ledford’s friend, his interrogator performs a constant theatrical handwringing about the overwhelming evidence (a lie), failed polygraphs (inconclusive), and a suspect who refuses to be helped. Watching the video of Ledford’s tedious 1999 interrogation, something else occurs to me : The officers seem to understand that Ledford has an undiagnosed disorder. He has trouble adjusting to context, gives irrelevant personal details, and makes far-fetched assumptions about the law. Later, forensics psychologists flag this exchange as the first clear sign in the interrogation:

Interrogator: Do you have any nicknames or aliases that you go by?

Mike: Well, the fire company called me Kamikaze one night. My wife calls me her big cuddly pooh-bear. Other than that, I don’t have any.

Okay.

Not too many people call me names. They usually call me Mike or Michael.

Okay. Do you prefer Michael?

I prefer Mike.

Mike?

Yeah. If the law says you have to call me Michael, that’s fine.

Despite the unwinnable power dynamic, Ledford is adamant: “I did not set the fire that took the life of my son and damned near took the life of my wife… If I deliberately set that fire, may God strike me dead now. I did not set the fire.”

The standard length of an interrogation is 30 minutes to two hours. After six hours, an interrogation is considered undeniably coercive. Watching Michaels’ video, it seems to me like the officers are using those guidelines not to temper themselves, but as a kind of legal stopwatch. The officers push an exhausted Ledford for nearly five hours. Finally, Ledford gives in, but he can’t think of why. He loved his wife. He didn’t know about any insurance policies. The officers try to help him think of a motive, offering a list of possibilities (maybe he was trying to get out of his lease? No, Ledford says, the lease was up. Was it all pent-up frustration? Was it a joke?)

If I was going to set a fire as a joke… I’m not going to do it in the same building as I live in…

I don’t think you did want to hurt your family. I think you wanted to save your family.

Why would I have started a fire in my own apartment?

…You tell me.

I am telling you, I did not start the fire.

People do it because they do it… And only you can answer that. So you tell me.

I didn’t start it.

Who did?

I don’t know, but it wasn’t me.

They land on heroism. Earlier, Ledford confided to the officers that his wife’s family expected a lot of him. Now they decide: Ledford wasn’t trying to kill; he threw a candle into a chair thinking he’d save his wife and live up to his in-laws’ impossible standards. The interrogator assures him “I can understand that, dealing with the father-in-law …” After many hours, Ledford succumbs to this imagined scenario. He writes out a confession, fuelled by imagination and at odds with previous evidence. With the confession secured, the officers relax. They’ve done their job. When he follows up on the promise of being sent to a mental health facility, they say they’ll go to bat for him, though (suddenly) they don’t have the authority to promise anything.

Near the end of the video, with Michael broken, the interrogator seems to realize that he hasn’t been thanked.

“Mike, do you feel better?” he asks.

“Yeah,” Mike mutters.

“Good,” says the interrogator.

Another officer chimes in, “I saw relief on his face, before I did. Uh, uh, it’s just like somebody took a burden off of him.”

The police report is then amended to reflect the shaky details (the candle) extracted from Ledford. It now matches the confession. There is no further investigation to corroborate those details, as the Reid Technique requires. Instead, the confession itself is used to convict Ledford, a clear misuse. At trial, the confession and the amended report are the prosecutor’s only proof of guilt. Having collected no physical evidence tying Ledford to the fire, they characterize Ledford’s autistic behaviors (asking deadpan, sometimes insensitive questions about his wife’s life support, for instance) as something sinister. He is convicted and sentenced to 50 years.

On display here is much that’s wrong in our justice system: In America, interrogators can claim to have evidence they don’t have; they can offer phantom leniency, even present fake evidence—made-up charts and scans and lie detector tests. Interrogators can make the suspect believe that confessing is their best option. To an autistic person such as Ledford, for whom only the literal exists, fake evidence in the hands of a police investigator is unfathomable. Without explicit training, anyone on the autism spectrum would similarly break.

Proponents of the Reid Technique argue that an innocent person would never confess to a crime they didn’t commit, even under such conditions. Yet people do just that, all the time. Sometimes, it is the only rational response. In my home country, Iran, many political prisoners confess to lesser crimes because they understand that they’re in the hands of an absurd captor, a Kafka villain who will harm their loved ones.

If the Reid Technique is being performed upon you, your only aim is to survive it without confessing. There is no better outcome. In practice, this technique is performed mostly on the poor, the uneducated, those who trust in the ruling systems. The vulnerable don’t realize (as the privileged often do) that they can stop the interrogation with four words: “I want a lawyer.”

Along with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, Andrew George, Jamie Lynn, and Jana Seidl of Baker Botts have led a team representing Ledford since 2016. That year, Ledford’s lawyers ordered rigorous experimental burns at a fire testing lab in Nova Scotia. The tests proved the details of Ledford’s confession impossible—the fire couldn’t have started with a candle on the chair or while he was at home (given the fast-burn time).

Ledford’s lawyers filed for a writ of actual innocence. Their evidentiary hearing before a trial court in November 2021 went splendidly for Ledford: the trial court accepted his experts’ conclusions. Ledford’s confession couldn’t be true. His freedom was all but assured. But in April 2022, the Court of Appeals suddenly dismissed the case. Ledford’s lawyers appealed the dismissal to the Supreme Court of Virginia but, in April 2023, they issued an order refusing to hear the case.

Though a court has found that the fire could never have happened as he confessed, Ledford now finds himself condemned to another 27 years in prison. His last option is clemency. His lawyers can appeal for a pardon from the Governor of Virginia, before whom they will face a familiar challenge (one faced by many advocates for the wrongfully convicted): getting people with low bandwidth and mired in bureaucracy to “dial into the substance” and to reckon with the truth—that false confessions happen, that our judicial system, rigged against the vulnerable, may be unable to undo its own greatest mistakes.

Adapted from Who Gets Believed? When the Truth Isn’t Enough by Dina Nayeri. Copyright © 2023 by Dina Nayeri. Reprinted by permission of Catapult Books.

To learn more about the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, click here.


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