The Kansas City highway shootings investigation and danger of false confessions

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good morning:

The Kansas City Star is reporting this morning that police arrested a suspect yesterday at 5:40 pm in connection with a series of shootings on highways in the Kansas City area commencing March 8th and ending April 6th.

According to the article, the man has not been charged. He is an African American.

I do not know if he is the shooter or if he has confessed to committing the crimes, but I do know something about the effects of community panic, pressure on police to solve a crime or series of crimes, and false confessions.

The police offered a $10,000 reward and set-up a tip line for people to call. That strategy created 10,000 reasons for people to report anyone who appears to be suspicious to them.

Loners, oddballs, minorities, the mentally ill, the unemployed, the homeless and young people with a history of being in and out of trouble are especially vulnerable to being suspected and reported to police during times like these.

The following quote in the Star regarding the suspect arrested by police bothers me:

Neighbors said the man kept to himself and would come and go at odd hours of the night.

“The dude was like a ghost,” said neighbor Kevin Cooksey. “In and out. I’m just glad they got him.”

Cooksey said the man would drive up in the car at night, turn out the lights and sit inside without getting out.

I do not see anything suspicious in that behavior and I am more inclined to believe that Mr. Cooksey is a neighborhood busybody who needs to mind his own business rather than believe the suspect is the feared shooter. I also suspect Mr. Cooksey is white.

On January 7th and 8th of last year, I wrote about false confessions and the Phoenix Buddhist Temple murders.

I wrote:

On August 10, 1991, nine bodies were discovered at the Wat Promkunaram Buddhist Temple in the West Valley near Tucson Phoenix, AZ. The nine victims were six Buddhist monks, a nun and two acolytes.

William Hermann of The Arizona Republic described the scene.

Investigators found nine victims lying face down and grouped together, their heads pointing inward like spokes in a wheel. Some had their hands clasped in prayer. The carpet was bloody from head wounds made by .22-caliber bullets and shotgun blasts to torsos, arms and legs.

Maricopa County Sheriff’s detectives spent six days processing the crime scene. They made numerous diagrams, collected all of the shell casings, tore down walls, and removed all of the carpeting. However, despite all of their efforts they did not identify any promising suspects until a month later when they received a phone call from a patient in a mental hospital named Mike McGraw. He told them that some of his friends had committed the murders.

After the phone call, the police picked up McGraw and four of his friends: Mark Nunez (age 19), Dante Parker (age 20), Leo Bruce (age 28), and Victor Zarate (age 28). Over the course of three days of grueling nonstop interrogations from 9 pm to dawn, they eventually obtained confessions from four of the five suspects by refusing to take “no” for an answer and, after breaking them down, they committed the additional sin of providing them with some details of the crime that only the killers would know so that their confessions would be self-authenticating. Only Mark Nunez Victor Zarate failed to succumb to their tactics, so they released him and then they held a big press conference where they triumphantly announced that they had solved the murders.

Six weeks later their case against the Tucson Four, who had subsequently recanted their confessions, fell apart when the crime lab announced that it had identified the murder weapon.

How did that happen, you ask?

On August 21st police had confiscated a .22 caliber rifle from two West Valley boys, Rolando Caratachea and Johnathan Doody, after stopping them at Luke Air Force Base. When the crime lab finally got around to testing the rifle, the analyst discovered that that it was the murder weapon.

The next day, detectives picked up Caratachea (the owner of the gun), Doody and a third boy, Alessandro Garcia, and subjected them to the same non-stop interrogation tactics. Two days later, Garcia confessed that he and Doody did the shootings. Doody admitted that he was present but denied shooting anyone. Caratachea denied being involved.

Three weeks later, Garcia confessed to another murder. Katharine Ramsland reports he told the police that two months after the temple massacre,

he and his 14-year-old girlfriend, Michelle Hoover, had murdered Alice Cameron, 50, in a campground. Garcia had goaded Michelle to do it, so she had pulled the trigger. They waited an hour to be sure the woman was dead and then stole her money, which amounted to $20. Michelle pleaded guilty and got 15 years.

As in the case of the Tucson Four, police had coerced an innocent man into falsely confessing to killing Hoover. He was released after serving more than a year in prison.

One month later the prosecution dismissed the charges against the Tucson Four and released them from jail.

Garcia and Doody, who were juveniles, were charged with the murders. Their cases were transferred to adult court due to the seriousness of the charges and the prosecution announced that it would seek the death penalty against both defendants.

Garcia eventually entered into a plea agreement in which he agreed to plead guilty to first degree murder and testify against Doody in exchange for the prosecution agreeing not to seek the death penalty against him.

Doody was convicted. The judge declined to impose the death penalty because he was not certain whether Doody was more culpable than Garcia. He sentenced him to 281 years in prison. Garcia was sentenced to 271 years in prison.

In May, 2011, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Doody’s conviction on the ground that his confession was coerced. The Court remanded the case to the trial court for a new trial. The SCOTUS denied review.

His case has not been resolved.

The Tucson Four sued Maricopa County and the case settled for $2.8 million.

The man who falsely confessed to the Hoover murder also received a settlement.

Please do not misunderstand. I hope the police have arrested the right person in the Kansas City highway shootings case. I am merely using this arrest and the comment by the suspicious neighbor to illustrate how community pressure to solve a case and aggressive police questioning of a suspect in response to that pressure can create a false confession.

There will be a news conference later today, perhaps this morning, when police announce additional information about the suspect and the case against him.

If you are interested in reading more about false confessions, please google the name Dr. Richard Ofshe or go to

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24 Responses to The Kansas City highway shootings investigation and danger of false confessions

  1. MKX says:

    I find it troubling that a very fine documentary on PBS, based on a work by Ken Burns daughter about the Central Park 5, kind of sailed under the radar without much discussion on so-called progressive sites during a time when assumptions about the inherent criminality of black teens such as Trayvon Martin was all the rage. Note I do not mean this fine site which drew/draws stalwarts that I see on other web discussions.

    It is no surprise to me, though.

    These same sites had/have large contingents that claimed the knock out game was a real viable issue and that “spokesmen” for the “black community” needed to speak out.

    Is the “knockout game” any different from wilding?

    IOW, more urban legend designed to scare people to have negative views of the black community as a whole, thus leading to reinforcing self-confirmation bias?

    As I have said before. I grew up and had interaction with real thugs who, in my case, were as white as cream. They beat up people for sport. Those people could be of any color.


    Because they were bad.

    A logical mind would see that there are bad people in all the numerous arbitrary categories we use to classify them.

    For example, Mitt Romney, at the age of 17 along with friends, forcibly held down another boy and cut off his hair because they did not approve of its length.

    Unless I am stupid, that act is assault and subject to criminal prosecution.

    It is also an act that fits the thugs I grew up around who eventually ended up in Jackson Prison.

    Mitt, on the other hand, ran for President.

    Does anyone believe that Obama, if he had committed that thug act, could have run for anything?

    My point is that a spokesman for the “white community” is not called on to make an atonement for acts of bad individuals because it is not logical to assume all whites are bad based on the acts of the “bad apples”

    Why no such break for the “black community”?

    Until whites with no real experience having real black people as friends admit that they know zippidy do dah about black folk or what it means to be “black”, then we have our collective heads up our asses where the sunshine of truth never shines.

    The duality of white vs. black justice is clearly revealed by this event.

    If not for the honesty of Stuart’s brother, would Willy Bennett be known as the black thug who killed a white women?

    And how close did the Boston PD, under great pressure to solve this crime, come to “extracting” a confession?

    please delete the other post that I mistakenly used MDX

  2. MKX says:

    Two examples of how forced confessions led to gross miscarriage of justice are:

    The Guilford 4

  3. gblock says:

    I agree that the ways in which confessions are pressured out of suspects are an important problem with our criminal justice system. As with torture, a lot of people will crack if an interrogator keeps at them long enough and hard enough, just to get the whole ordeal to end. It is important for police interrogations to be recorded, in order to at least somewhat facilitate the finding of blatant problems in the specifics of interrogation.

    Another issue that concerns me is the increasing tendency for younger and younger kids to be charged as adults in murders. This might be a worthwhile issue for a future discussion on this blog.

    • Thank you for the recommendation. I will keep it in mind although it’s more than an “increasing tendency.” It’s pretty much automatic for every child over the age of 12 who is charged with committing an intentional murder with premeditated intent.

      Back in the late 70s, when I was a baby public defender representing juveniles, there always had to be a decline (of jurisdiction) hearing in juvy before the case could be transferred to adult court.

      If the kid was amenable to treatment and the juvenile court had sufficient resources to successfully treat mental, emotional, sexual, drug or alcohol problems, the court would retain jurisdiction. If the kid was too close to 18 to git ‘r done, the court would extend jurisdiction over the kid to age 21.

      Kids with difficult to treat behavioral disorders, where there was little likelihood of amenability to successful treatment by age 21, were declined and their cases were transferred to adult court.

      Violent teenage gang activity, racism, mass school shootings like Columbine, the politically popular wars on crime and drugs together with the related demand for accountability and harsh punishment, instead of treatment and rehabilitation, transformed juvenile court into a kind of mini-adult court with shorter sentences, but no right to a jury trial.

      Many states like Massachusetts have laws that automatically require prosecution of kids 14 and over in adult court for murders committed with premeditated intent. Philip Chism is an example and since the rape is part of the premeditated series of acts that culminated in her murder, it stays attached to the murder and will be tried with it in adult court.

      • gblock says:

        It is abhorrent to me to handle cases this way. A child under age 16 is in no way an adult and should not be treated as one in court, no matter what he or she has done. The focus needs to remain on rehabilitation as much as possible. I do see the need for the laws to allow a transfer to adult jurisdiction to take place after a certain age, in some situations.

  4. Not sure what to think about this case since I have no specific information to review yet.

  5. Here’s the latest from ABC News:

    Mohammad Whitaker, 27, is accused of shooting into at least nine cars, injuring two of the drivers, in incidents dating to the beginning of March.

    Kansas City prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said at a press conference today that police first realized there might be a serial shooter on the loose on April 7 when an analyst with the police department pointed it out. The department quickly mobilized an investigation involving other area police departments, the FBI, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

    Witness reports helped point police toward Whitaker, whom they surveilled during the last week, authorities said.

    Police arrested Whitaker Thursday night in Grandview, Mo., using SWAT teams to surround his house before taking him into custody.

    Whitaker is charged with two class A felonies for shooting and injuring someone in a car, seven class B felonies for shooting into cars, and nine charges of armed criminal action. He is being held on $1 million cash bond.

  6. frsandoval says:

    Sorry. I meant Leonard Peltier.

  7. frsandoval says:

    Hello Fred & Rachel:
    Very interesting case and commentaries. No doubt we will never reach perfection in such matters. Nevertheless, not intending to change the subject by a long shot, one case that has bothered me for the last two decades is the Robert Peltier arrest in connection with the incident at Oglala. It would interest me to read your view point and thoughts on our culture in that regard.

  8. Apparently, the suspect has not confessed to the shootings, or he would have been charged first thing in the morning and a press conference to announce that they had charged him would be all over the news by now.

  9. Well, the news conference that was promised for this morning hasn’t happened.

    Not sure what to make of that.

    The police do not need to complete the investigation before charging their suspect. They only need to have enough evidence to constitute probable cause (reasonable grounds) to believe the suspect committed a felony to hold him while they complete their investigation.

    I’m wondering if they’re wondering if they have the right guy.

  10. ed nelson says:

    It’s going back to stuff like… “if you sink and drown your not a witch, but if you float and swim ok, sure sign your guilty!”

    The cops will ask you… ”will you agree to take a Lie Detector test?”, well, we learned in elementary school that that is psuedo science, so how should you answer, especially if you’re likely to feel nervous and jumpy, well, no thank you ocifer… !

  11. bettykath says:

    Gee, if shutting off my car and just sitting in the dark for awhile is suspicious behavior, I’m guilty. Sometimes I’m listening to something interesting on the radio or sometimes I’m just thinking. When I lived in an unfriendly environment, I was just procrastinating.

    • Crane-Station here. I know, huh. What the actual fuck is the neighbor doing, taking notes on what everyone other than himself is doing, in the neighborhood?

      Sometimes I do the laundry, at night. I walk back and forth to the laundry room, and I even take walks, around the block, while the clothes are drying. I love the quiet, and the night sky. Does that activity make me the Freeway Sniper???

      Plus, notice how mainstream media is not even bothering with “alleged” shooter? No. The crime is solved. Shooter’s convicted. Everyone is safe.

      Unbelievable. Maybe they have the right person and maybe they do not. But the man has not been charged, he has no lawyer, and yet…he is the convicted Sniper.

      As for sitting in the car after parking? I am guilty as sin. It’s called Books on Tape, Mr. Busybody Neighbor!

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