“Only in America can I kill someone, and two people stand up and take the blame for it,” Keith Jesperson, also known as the Happy Face Killer, says matter-of-factly in a phone interview from Oregon State Penitentiary.
On January 21, 1990, Jesperson killed 23-year-old Taunja Bennett after meeting her at the B&I Tavern in Portland, Oregon. Shortly after, he dumped her body off an isolated road in the Columbia River Gorge.
Bennett’s murder caught the attention of 58-year-old Laverne Pavlinac after it had made the local news. Pavlinac had a history of calling police to make false accusations against her boyfriend, 39-year-old John Sosnovske, about crimes he did not commit, hoping to put him in prison to subsequently free herself from a relationship she described as abusive. This time was no different. She called Detective John Ingram and blamed Sosnovkse for Bennett’s murder.
Pavlinac’s story would change several times over the course of the investigation, until she eventually confessed to helping Sosnovske kill Bennett and later dispose of the body. Detectives had asked Pavlinac to point out where Bennett’s body was disposed of in the Columbia River Gorge, which she somehow did with no problem.
“I think Detective John Ingram sold her a bill of goods, saying we’re going to put you in jail for now, and then you’re going to testify, and we’re going to let you go and you go have a happy life forever and ever,” Jesperson surmises. “And, of course, that didn’t happen.”
With a recorded confession and her knowledge of a detail only the killer would know, detectives were able to arrest and charge both her and Sosnovske for Bennett’s murder. At this point, Pavlinac attempted to recant her confession, but was nonetheless convicted and sentenced to prison for ten years to life.
Sosnovske always maintained his innocence, but out of fear of facing the death penalty, he pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 15 years to life.
In March 1995, upon his arrest, Jesperson confessed to killing Bennett and made it his mission to free both Pavlinac and Sosnovske, who were both innocent. Jesperson figured he “[could] use these people as witnesses to the fact that I had compassion enough to get them out of prison, and in sentencing that means a lot.”
But it would not be that easy. In the months following his confession, Jesperson would learn the deep flaws that ravaged the criminal justice system in America, as Sosnovske and Pavlinac remained in prison despite their innocence until November 1995.
Although it makes sense that prosecutors wanted to make sure Jesperson was telling the truth about murdering Bennett, should Sosnovske and Pavlinac have ever been arrested and convicted in the first place?
“It was very shoddy police work, and I think there is also a certain arrogance involved in it too….here, the investigating officers, they just knew it was John [Sosnovske]… every time Laverne would come up with a new one, it seems to me they got a little bit disappointed like ‘oh, we gotta do something to tighten this up’ and let Laverne sort of reel them back in,” Michael E. Rose, Sosnovske’s post-conviction attorney, explained.
“It’s a bit of hubris that they see themselves being on the right side of the law that they can do no wrong. When you’re in that kind of position of power and authority, you just don’t change your mind,” Rose said. “You don’t let on that you are vulnerable, weak, or imperfect. I don’t want to say that’s true for all police officers, but there is that tendency.”
In 1990, poor police work in New York cost Jeffrey Deskovic sixteen years of his life when he was wrongfully convicted for raping and murdering a fellow classmate, Angela Correra.
“The jury in my case convicted me, even though the DNA did not match me. It was just based on the confession,” Deskovic explained in an interview.
Often, people cannot understand why someone would confess to something they did not do, especially when the consequences are as dire as a lengthy prison sentence. Many people believe if ever placed in such a position that they would never admit to a heinous crime they did not commit.
However, they fail to recognize how stressful, grueling, and unrelenting police interrogations can be, which would cause anyone to crumble under such pressure.
Steven Drizin, a Clinical Professor of Law at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, co-founder of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, and one of the attorneys representing Brendan Dassey, a central figure in Netflix’s docuseries Making a Murderer, said “everybody has a breaking point.”
“Some people can hold out longer than others, but I have no doubt that over time, most people, subjected to today’s psychological interrogation tactics, could be made to confess to a crime, even murder,” Drizin said.
In Deskovic’s case, he describes that he believed that he was helping the police solve the case when they drove him 40 minutes out of the county where he lived. Since he was supposed to be in school, neither his mother nor anyone else had any idea of his whereabouts, putting him in a vulnerable position. The police then convinced him to take a polygraph test, telling him that if he complied, they would be able to share new information they had about the case.
“The polygraph was [administered by] a Putnam County Sheriff’s investigator, Daniel Stephens, who was dressed like a civilian, and he pretended not to be a cop. He never read me my Miranda warnings,” Deskovic recounted. “I didn’t understand all the words in the brochure that explained how the polygraph worked, but I thought I was there to help the police, so what does it matter?”
At no point did Deskovic have an attorney present, and the officers did not give him anything to eat throughout the day. Instead, they brought him into a small room and gave him countless cups of coffee to make him nervous.
Stephens then wired him to the machine and began an interrogation implementing what Deskovic describes as “third-degree tactics.”
“He raised his voice at me, he invaded my personal space, he kept asking me the same questions over and over again. I realized I was a suspect then, but it was too late. Each hour that passed by my fear increased,” Deskovic said.
“I was in fear of my life…he kept that up for 6 ½ to 7 hours, and then that was capped off by when he left the room the cop that was pretending to be my friend came in and told me that the other officers were going to harm me, that I had to help myself.”
Eventually, the officer convinced Deskovic to tell them what they wanted to hear, promising he would then be able to go home.
“Being young, naïve, frightened, overwhelmed emotionally, in fear of my life, I made up a story based on information which he had given me during the course of the interrogation. By the time it was said and done, I had collapsed on the floor in the fetal position crying uncontrollably. So, all those circumstances led to the false confession.”
Deskovic fought for his innocence behind bars, losing seven appeals in the process, before he was finally freed and eventually exonerated. During his incarceration, he said he collected articles about other people who were exonerated, many through DNA evidence. Deskovic had requested a review of DNA evidence in his case, but was initially denied.
“On one hand I’d be happy for people, and I would envision the scene outside the prison and use that as motivation to continue, but at some point, that feeling would leave me and I would start to get frustrated like, ‘what about me?’” Deskovic said. “It was really just a technical difference. They were excluded by DNA after the conviction, and I was excluded before I was convicted. Their evidence was newly discovered, mine wasn’t.”
The cases involving Pavlinac, Sosnovske, and Deskovic are only a few examples of the defective process that still exists today within police interrogations.
In the United States, it is estimated that 46,000 to 230,000 currently incarcerated prisoners are innocent, according to The Los Angeles Times. If nothing else, these numbers reveal an ongoing problem and a broken system every American citizen is susceptible to falling victim to.
If police interrogations are meant to lead to a clear path to justice, why should a false confession ever occur? Do most detectives and prosecutors simply wish to solve a case, regardless of one’s guilt?
Within an interrogation, Drizin says that police officers use deception, promises of leniency, and threats of harm to “break a suspect down to a place of hopelessness.”
“The suspect begins to realize that asserting innocence is futile and wants to bring an end to the interrogation by any means possible,” Drizin said, detailing a process he believes is concerned only with reaching a conclusion, no matter if the truth has been discovered.
Drizin believes that many investigations rely too heavily on confessions as a way to close cases. He argues that law enforcement should instead “get the suspect’s account, take some time to prove that the suspect is lying and then slowly confront the suspect with the evidence that proves that the suspect isn’t telling the truth.”
“It’s a process more like peeling off the layers of the onion to convince the suspect that he is guilty rather than a process that bludgeons a suspect into confessing to a narrative created by the police. It all boils down to better police investigations,” Drizin said.
When someone is wrongfully accused of a crime, they tend to believe in the adage, “the truth will set them free.” Often, they do not believe they will end up convicted and stuck in prison for years.
They have faith in the system, that it will work for them, making them “overconfident that they will be able to demonstrate that they are innocent once they leave the interrogation room, but they come to find that their confession makes that all-but impossible,” according to Drizin.
Over time, faith chisels away, as they fight against a system that poses as a relentless opponent unconcerned with truth. In the meantime, with innocent people behind bars, the world grows more unsafe since the true felons are left free.
Just as Jesperson went on to kill seven more women, the perpetrator in Deskovic’s case was able to kill a second victim, a teacher with two children, while he was free and Deskovic was behind bars.
“They could have caught him, and she could have still lived,” he said.
Since such monumental mistakes cost people their lives and freedom, a growing awareness has been leading to some significant changes within the way interrogations are conducted. Approximately 30 state legislatures have now passed laws that require interrogations to be recorded.
However, some of these laws still need improvement. For instance, in 2017, legislators in New York made it mandatory for police to videotape interrogations, but laid out exceptions for homicide, sex offenses and drug cases.
“Those are the cases we need that the most,” Deskovic said. “[The requirement] is to reduce wrongful convictions caused by false confessions, so are we saying in making those exceptions that it’s okay to have a false confession in those cases? So, the bill that’s been introduced is going to close those exceptions.”
Laws that require interrogations to be documented via audio and/or video allow “judges [to] have a complete and accurate record of what transpired during the interrogation,” Drizin explained:
“Without a record, the risks are too high that judges will simply believe the police narrative of what happened, and police officers, like all human beings, misremember things or, in the worst cases, lie about what tactics were used and who provided the details in the confession,” Drizin said.
Since Deskovic’s exoneration, he has become an advocate for much-needed reform efforts, some of which also include allowing testimony about false confessions in the courtroom and introducing an additional pre-trial hearing where the accuracy of a confession would be looked at by the judge to assess any red flags.
Since Deskovic was only sixteen at the time of his arrest, he and the advocacy group #Right2RemainSilent have been working to pass the Youth Interrogation Act.
The proposed legislation would make it so that anyone under the age of seventeen “would have to speak to a lawyer to have their rights explained to them before they can waive their rights and speak to the police, recognizing that kids that age don’t understand their Miranda warnings,” Deskovic said.
Both Deskovic and Drizin agree that passing police deception bills would also help decrease false confessions from occurring, prohibiting police from lying to suspects that they have evidence that does not exist.
Police interrogations should only be permitted to last for four hours, Drizin suggests, explaining “that interrogations should not be held in the wee hours of the morning (to guard against sleep deprivation being a factor).” In Deskovic’s case, time was a factor that wore him down, leading to his false confession, so setting such limits would create a less adversarial environment in which lies are merely told out of exhaustion.
Even the lack of equality between prosecutors and defense attorneys, specifically public defenders, can skew the pursuit of justice.
“We need public defenders that have the same budget and the same manpower as the district attorney’s office. We need to have equal pay for both sides,” Deskovic said. “Right now, it’s not equal, and I think that sends the message that the prosecutor’s job is more important when in reality both lawyers are essential.”
Yet, whether these changes are made still does not address the problem of accountability. When police and prosecutors build and win a case, resulting in the conviction of an innocent person, there are no penalties or consequences for robbing years from that person’s life.
“Any misconduct [prosecutors] do, if they do it after an arrest has been made, then they have absolute immunity,” Deskovic said. “We have a whole class of people that are in effect above the law.”
Although a perfect system can never exist, it is imperative that those who investigate crimes strive for justice, rather than solely pursue securing a conviction.