Unsolved Murder and the Seductions of Focalism

Investigators can get so immersed in a case that their logic frames someone.

Posted Jun 18, 2018

K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

In the news last month was a feature about high school kids in a sociology course attempting to solve the so-called Redhead Murders. (I wrote about them here.) They think they’ve figured it out, calling their unknown suspect the “Bible Belt Strangler.” They used information from the Doe Network to develop a list of victims who’d been treated in a similar fashion. They identified six (which other investigators have likewise done) that they think are linked. Inexplicably, and despite the broad geographical area identified, their teacher declared that two killers could not be operating in a similar manner in a similar place. Thus, the students decided that the best suspect is a truck driver.

Since the victims remain unidentified, it’s not possible to do a full victimology. Thus, numerous assumptions were made to link the six cases to a suspect. With geographical profiling, the students identified eastern Tennessee as his likely residence. They didn’t think he was a thrill killer, because there was no sexual assault or torture. They landed on mission-killer as the most logical choice. “We believe he stopped,” they stated, “because he stopped driving. We believe he’s still out there.” They hoped that more media attention would inspire someone to come forward with information that would close the cases.

A key issue with such cold case investigations is that developing a theory can require leaps over information gaps. Many of the facts can fit several scenarios. Probability analysis helps to choose the most likely, but each speculation has a margin of error. In this case, assumptions were proposed to help make the leaps, but they rested on fragile support and a shallow grasp of facts about killers.

Piecing together a case resolution that feels right can evolve into the claim that is right; if it seems to fit a suspect, that’s the guy.

Among the best parts of Michelle McNamara’s book about the Golden State Killer, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, is the way she shows how easy it is for a passionate investigator to follow a false trail. Amateur detectives and cold case investigators alike can get so committed to the cause and so attached to certain connections that they grow convinced that they’ve identified the only reasonable candidate.

She lists several suspects for whom she or one of her associates had identified so many links it seemed impossible to be coincidence. This had to be the guy!  In one case, investigators had identified a man whose fingerprint matched one on a lamp that a rape victim had said the intruder had touched. The suspect, who’d died, was exhumed. DNA erased him from the list. He’d merely been a friend who’d once visited the home.

Even better was McNamara’s favorite suspect. “My pulse quickened,” she wrote, “with every new piece of information.” Right age, height, and suspected residence locations. He’d been convicted of several sexual offenses and had a tattoo that could have been the one a victim saw on the East Area Rapist. He lived with his mother. It all fit! She sent her collection of links to a criminalist on the case, feeling convinced that “I was handing him the killer.” But she was wrong. DNA eliminated him.

Focalism, a logical fallacy, means to get attached to specific information and adjust all data toward it, even if it means altering some. This leaves the investigation vulnerable to the law of coincidences: the significance of items that “feel” right gets amplified.

McNamara writes an eloquent description of the key issue with cold cases that have many holes: “Some of these clues might form the picture of the killer. And some might have absolutely nothing to do with him, like a jigsaw puzzle you buy at a garage sale that’s been mixed up with pieces from twenty other jigsaw puzzles.” 

Yet I’ve seen cases with even more persuasive links, and the investigators were nevertheless wrong. Take this one: Kaye R. was raped and repeatedly stabbed in her home by an intruder. Miraculously, she survived and recalled for police that he’d said he lived in the same complex and also had a son. Oddly, he’d used her blood to paint a happy face on her back. Investigators lifted three fingerprints from a plastic cup and collected evidence with a rape kit.

After news coverage that included a composite sketch, a man who strongly resembled Kaye’s attacker came to her home, got on his knees and prayed that someone would find the perpetrator. When police brought him in for questioning, he asked for a job application and signed it with a happy face. He had no alibi for the night of the rape and he’d been a person of interest in an earlier murder. Kaye and her son both picked him out of a line-up. Under arrest, he said, “Tell her I didn’t mean to do it.”

Case closed, right? But his fingerprints and DNA did not match. He wasn’t the guy. (Someone else was eventually arrested and convicted.)

In some cases, investigators have been so certain of a suspect's guilt that they planted evidence to strengthen the case. When Wayne Stock and his wife were murdered one night in Nebraska in 2006, detectives believed that their nephew, Matt Livers, was guilty. Under pressure (and after numerous denials), he confessed and implicated his cousin (who denied everything). A detective found a DNA sample that supported the confession. It all seemed to fit and it brought emotional closure to the investigation.

But then some items collected at the scene were traced back to a couple from Wisconsin. The female admitted to the murders. Much more evidence supported her story and there was no other way for the items they'd dropped to have been at the scene. Yet the detectives, who believed they’d completed their work with their favored suspects, decided the girl was lying

It turned out that one of their team had planted evidence against Livers. Assured that he’d be convicted, the detective could not allow a new narrative to interfere. Yet, it did, leading to an internal investigation and a conviction for falsifying evidence.

Logic is a tool, a chain of reasoning to reach a conclusion. When stakes are high, emotion can influence its direction. So can a lack of information or training. So can ego or the desire for media attention. So can a misguided attempt to ensure a tight case, or just to get the case closed efficiently. But merely making sense of a collection of items and behaviors does not guarantee getting to the truth, because making sense often has a “feels right” component that can steer us wrong. If we must make assumptions to bridge some gaps or if we start reasoning ahead of getting the facts, there’s room for error.  

Feeling right is not the same as being right.

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