Promoting Accuracy In The Use Of Confession Evidence: An Argument For Pretrial Reliability Assessments To Prevent Wrongful Convictions
Volume 85, No. 4, Summer 2013
By Richard A. Leo, Peter J. Neufeld, Steven A. Drizin, and Andrew E. Taslitz

On May 28, 1987, a Montgomery County, Pennsylvania jury convicted Bruce Godschalk, a twenty-three year-old landscaper, of two counts of forcible rape and two counts of burglary, sentencing him to twenty years in prison. Less than a year earlier, on July 13, 1986, Elizabeth Bednar had been raped in her bedroom by a stranger who entered her home through an open window at the Kingswood apartment complex in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Almost two months later, on September 7, 1986, Patricia Morrissey, a young single woman who lived in the same apartment complex, was also assaulted and raped in her bedroom. Based on the similarity of the descriptions provided by the victims, as well as the similar means of entry into the residences, the police concluded that the same person—whom newspapers dubbed “the mainline rapist”—had perpetrated both attacks. After a composite sketch was prepared and published in the newspapers and on television, the adopted sister of Bruce Godschalk called the police suggesting that the sketch resembled him. On January 5, 1987, Morrissey positively identified Godschalk as her rapist in a photo array, while Bednar told police that she did not get a good enough view of the rapist to make an identification.

One week later, Upper Merion Township Detectives Bruce Saville and Michael Karcewski interrogated Godschalk for approximately three hours. The interrogation was not recorded, but the formal confession that followed the interrogation was. According to the detectives’ sworn testimony, Godschalk had come to and remained at the police station on his own free will; the detectives had not detained him but had left the door open, and they had told him that he was free to leave. Moreover, Godschalk told them that he wanted to stay at the station and answer the detectives’ questions, and that when asked whether he wanted an attorney, Godschalk said no, insisting that he wanted to cooperate with the police. After Godschalk made his admissions, but before the detectives turned on the tape recorder, they solicitously read him his constitutional rights and he freely waived them. The detectives maintained that Godschalk had voluntarily admitted to the crimes with no pressure or coercion; indeed, they claimed, that Godschalk supplied them with nonpublic details of both crimes that only the true perpetrator knew.

Godschalk’s confessions to both crimes contained numerous nonpublic crime facts that almost certainly could not have been guessed by chance. For the sexual assault of Patricia Morrissey, Godschalk’s confession included the following nonpublic crime facts:

  • that the rapist had been outside the bedroom window watching the victim;
  • that the victim had been reading a magazine while she was lying in bed;
  • that there was a light next to victim’s bed, which was on, allowing the rapist to see in;
  • that the rapist had sex with the victim on the bed;
  • that the victim had been wearing underpants;
  • that the victim was on her stomach during intercourse;
  • that prior to having sex, the rapist removed the victim’s tampon and tossed it to her side;
  • that the victim was a brunette with a medium build;
  • that the rapist had been very gentle with the victim;
  • that the rapist left the apartment by going out the door;
  • that the rapist was chased off a patio by a man prior to the assault                                .

For the sexual assault of Elizabeth Bednar, Godschalk’s confession included the following nonpublic crime facts:

  • that the rapist watched the victim while she was in the rec room reading a book;
  • that the victim was wearing a robe;
  • that the rapist entered the apartment complex through a rec-room window;
  • that the rapist waited until the victim went upstairs before entering the townhouse;
  • that the rapist went up two sets of stairs before finding the victim’s bedroom;
  • that the rapist took a pillow from another room before entering the victim’s room and used it during the assault;
  • that the victim told the rapist that others lived in the home and that someone could come home;
  • that the victim was nude;
  • that the rapist told the victim he had been drinking prior to the incident and that his beverage of choice was beer; and
  • that the rapist had sex with the victim on the floor.

Analyzing Godschalk’s detailed confession statement in 1987, it is almost impossible to imagine how the jury—who also heard the selectively recorded audio portion of the interrogation—could have reached any conclusion other than that Godschalk was guilty of both rapes. Detectives Saville and Karcewski had repeatedly claimed—as did the prosecutor who charged Godschalk, the jury that convicted him, and an appellate court that denied his claim for postconviction relief—that that these nonpublic crime facts originated with Godschalk and that their presence in Godschalk’s confession proved that he committed both sexual assaults. The corroboration of Godschalk’s admission to both rapes seemed irrefutable. As Detective Saville succinctly stated in a memo, “[t]he facts mentioned in the [Bednar] and [Morrissey] cases were never released to the press, prior to arrest, and therefore could not have been known by Godschalk without his participation in the crimes.” When Godschalk’s defense argued at trial that he had been fed these details, the prosecution responded, “[w]ell, if he were guessing, he was guessing pretty darn good.” The prosecutor then told the jury, incredulously, that it was “a mathematically [sic] impossibility that Mr. Godschalk could have guessed correctly on so many nonpublic facts regarding how the crime was committed.”

Yet Godschalk was factually innocent. Godschalk did not know or have any interaction with either Ms. Morrissey or Ms. Bednar, he had never been to either crime scene, and he had no preexisting knowledge of the crime facts. In January 2002, DNA testing conclusively determined that the semen from each of the two rapes had come from the same individual, but that person was not Godschalk. In February 2002, his conviction was vacated and he was released from prison after serving fifteen years. At the time, Godschalk was one of more than one hundred persons exonerated of serious criminal convictions by postconviction DNA testing. That number has since tripled to more than three hundred.

The Godschalk case illustrates how readily an innocent suspect can be induced to give a false confession, indeed multiple false confessions. But even more dramatically, the case illustrates how readily police interrogators can “contaminate”—i.e., leak or disclose nonpublic details to—an innocent suspect, how readily a contaminated suspect can be led to incorporate those nonpublic crime details into his confession narrative, and how the presence of these nonpublic crime facts can be used to create the illusion that a completely false confession is verifiably true. The Godschalk case also illustrates how readily the law may fail to protect contaminated false confessors against the fate of wrongful conviction and incarceration, despite the many constitutional safeguards of the American criminal justice system—such as the privilege against self-incrimination, the due process right to be free from coercion leading to an involuntary confession, the right to confront one’s accusers, the right to effective assistance of counsel, the right to a fair trial, and proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard, to name a few.

In this Article, we argue that the constitutional law of criminal procedure is inadequate to address false confessions that are the product of police contamination, and, building on our earlier work as well as that of others, we propose a specific framework and mechanism for courts to review and screen the reliability of confession evidence prior to trial.

READ ARTICLE…Leo et al – 85 – L – Rev – 759