I was not surprised to learn that Joran Van der Sloot retracted his confession a few days after his arrest for the murder of Stephanie Flores. The transcripts include details about how and why he strangled and suffocated her in his hotel room. “There was blood everywhere,” he is reported to have said. “What am I going to do now? I had blood on my shirt. There was also blood on the bed, so, I took my shirt and put it on her face, pressing hard, until I killed Stephany.”
There is so much evidence of Van der Sloot’s guilt that I expect he will use a psychiatric defense at trial. He certainly seems to fit the criteria for antisocial personality disorder. I discussed this issue in my blog post, “Is Van der Sloot a Psychopath?” http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-measure-madness/201006/is-van-der-sloot-psychopath-0
Van der Sloot has not exactly recanted his statements. He has, however, claimed that he confessed under duress and was not provided with proper legal representation. In a jail interview he told De Telegraaf that he was promised he would be transferred to the Netherlands if he cooperated with the police. “In my blind panic I signed everything, but never knew what was written on them,” he said. “I was framed.”
Would Van der Sloot’s confession be ruled admissible in court? So much rides on the confession. Jurors are powerfully swayed by a defendant’s statement. They typically believe it to be genuine. The layperson is convinced that no one would confess to a crime they did not commit. Research has proven, however, that this bit of common sense is flawed. Confessions given by a mentally ill or mentally retarded suspect are of special concern, which is what makes a psychological forensic assessment so important.
In my work as a forensic psychologist I have examined hundreds of videotaped statements. I am often asked if defendants were unable to understand their rights or whether they were coerced into giving the confessions. The United States Supreme Court ruling in the precedent-setting case of Ernesto Miranda identifies procedural safeguards known as Miranda warnings. If the prosecutor is unable to show that the warnings were given and the defendant waived his Miranda rights, “no evidence obtained as a result of the interrogation can be used against him.” The suspect must “knowingly and intelligently waive these rights and agree to answer questions or make a statement.”
In cases involving disputed confessions I routinely administer personality and intelligence tests to determine whether the defendant is mentally retarded or severely mentally ill. There is an extensive body of research showing that many suspects do not understand the Miranda warnings or are psychologically vulnerable to police interrogation tactics
I described a particularly startling case in my book, The Measure of Madness: Inside the Disturbed and Disturbing Criminal Mind. This defendant confessed to the killing of a complete stranger by pushing her on to the subway tracks in front of an oncoming train. In his videotaped confession, for no observable reason, he began giggling and talking to the corner of the room. No one was there. This was the only video confession I’d ever seen in which the suspect was actually hallucinating during the interview.
Is Van der Sloot mentally ill? I do not believe he has any history of psychiatric treatment. His mother, Anita van der Sloot, confessed in an exclusive interview to De Telegraaf that her son was about to be admitted to a psychiatric facility and had gone to Peru to avoid hospitalization.
A psychological examination was ordered shortly after Van der Sloot was arrested. In the report admitted to the judge, the psychologist concluded that Van der Sloot had a low frustration tolerance and was “emotionally immature.” The psychologist concluded that Van der Sloot "does not tolerate when someone tries to contradict him. It generates in him a challenging attitude." The report also notes, "He reflects a certain dominance over the opposite sex. He doesn't value the female role."
It came as no surprise that the Peruvian psychologist concluded that Van der Sloot has traits of antisocial personality disorder yet "doesn't show any psychopathological trauma that impedes him from perceiving and evaluating reality." (CNN Wire Staff, June 22, 2010). This meant that Van der Sloot was competent to stand trial.
Van der Sloot’s defense attorney, Maximo Altez, put in a motion to have his client’s confession excluded because the attorney present was state-appointed. A preliminary hearing took place a few weeks ago and, as I expected, the Peruvian judge Wilder Casique ruled that Van der Sloot’s confession was admissible.