Transcript

507:

Confessions
Transcript

Originally aired 10.11.2013

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/507

Prologue.

Ira Glass

OK, here's a question that I wasn't sure if it was appropriate to ask a priest. But I had a priest in the studio, and I asked the question. And the priest, Father Tom Santa from St. Michael's Church in Old Town in Chicago, was kind enough to humor me. My question was, in confession, do people ever confess things to you that it's hard not to roll your eyes at?

Fr. Tom Santa

[LAUGHS] In front of them, no. But yes. I had one person-- and I won't tell you what city, because he might be listening-- who would come in and every single confession would confess that he laughed in church. And I asked him, why do you laugh in church? He said, because Father tells jokes.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Fr. Tom Santa

And I said, Father wants you to laugh in church. Well, you're not allowed to laugh in church. If you're not allowed to laugh in church, then Father wouldn't be telling you jokes. I know. That's his problem, not mine. [LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

Well, today we have a whole program about confessions. We have a story about somebody who does confess and a story about somebody who refuses to confess. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, by the way, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

And we called Father Santa to start the show because Father Santa is an expert in something called scrupulosity, which takes a number of different kinds of forms. But among Catholics, it results in people confessing to things they do not need to confess.

Scrupulosity is when somebody obsesses over whether he is doing things that are sinful. It causes anxiety. The person can't stop thinking about it. It's something that the Catholic church has been noting and dealing with for hundreds of years. A number of saints suffered from this.

Father Santa says that it can be paralyzing for people. It can make the smallest decisions impossible. He remembers one woman that he spoke to when he was just starting out as a priest.

Fr. Tom Santa

She called the rectory. I answered the phone, and she identified who she was. And she says, Father, I'm trying to decide if I should make tomato soup or chicken noodle soup for my husband for dinner. Which one is not a sin?

It's because she felt that if she prepared the wrong soup, she would disappoint her husband or her children or her guest. And that's what's displeasing to God.

Ira Glass

Because God would be displeased if her family were upset.

Fr. Tom Santa

That's right. Right. Yeah. There must, therefore, be a sin.

Ira Glass

How did you respond?

Fr. Tom Santa

I responded by I think I told her to pick the tomato soup. [LAUGHS]. I just made the decision.

And I was young. I was newly ordained. I didn't realize anything. I didn't realize anything more than that she seemingly was asking me a question.

It wasn't until later, when I was talking to other priests, that I realized that I had encountered my first scrupulous person and that my answer was, in fact, not very pastoral, but pretty flippant. So I've tried to outgrow being flippant.

Ira Glass

It's funny. You're saying it's a bad answer. But at another level, it's a perfectly helpful and good answer, because it took her out of her pain.

Fr. Tom Santa

Until the next time she opened the cabinet, yes.

Ira Glass

Oh, good. You see, that's why you're a priest.

[LAUGHTER]

Father Santa has written a book for sufferers. He leads retreats. He edits a newsletter, which people send questions to. Like for instance, you're supposed to fast for an hour before taking Communion, which Father Santa says is pretty easy.

Fr. Tom Santa

Anybody who goes to church, it's about an hour before you receive communion. But anyways, if they have scrupulosity, they'll be concerned that for instance, as they're sitting there in church, they discovered that they had a seed left in their mouth and they swallowed it. Does that break their fast? Or does lipstick break your fast? Or things like that.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Fr. Tom Santa

Another one I get commonly is, we're going to go on a cruise and there's no guarantee that we'll have Sunday Mass. So am I committing a mortal sin by skipping Sunday Mass?

I said no, you're on a boat, and that's what you do. Enjoy your trip. Have a great time. Don't worry about it.

Ira Glass

Somebody wrote your newsletter, I sometimes get frustrated with my dog. Is this a serious sin?

Fr. Tom Santa

Right. See, and what that is is what they're really saying, it's not the dog. What they're really saying is, I felt an emotion. And is that emotion acceptable or unacceptable?

Ira Glass

Somebody wrote your newsletter, is it a sin to exaggerate a little when telling a story to friends? I only mean to add a little color.

Fr. Tom Santa

Right. It's called a skill.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Fr. Tom Santa

There's a lot of people who make lots of money with that ability.

Ira Glass

Father Santa says that there are two different kinds of scrupulosity. There are the people who are just not sure what is a sin and what is not a sin, and they're getting very stressed out about that. That is pretty straightforward to deal with, he says. A priest just needs to patiently talk these people through what counts as a sin. And usually over the course of months, the anxieties fade.

Much more difficult are the people who have an actual psychological disorder, whose scrupulosity is tied up with what priests have come to understand in the last three or four decades is obsessive compulsive disorder. Like for instance, a man who felt that he could not get out of bed in the morning until he believed that he was doing it in a pure way that would not offend God. Or people who believe that they are constantly blaspheming God.

Or a woman who thought that if she left her house unlocked, it would put her whole family in danger, which she believed was a sin. So she would check the lock over and over and over and over.

Father Santa says that in confession, these people describe their sins without feeling. They do it almost mechanically. They ask the same questions over and over, not accepting the answers that they're given. He calls this the scrupulous ritual. He says that the only thing that can help these people is therapy, behavior modification, drugs.

And Father Santa says that unfortunately, these are not people who usually go for that. On a retreat with 20 people, he'll maybe be able to convince one or two of them to seek that kind of professional help. The ones who refuse sometimes tell him that he's just trying to let them off too easy for their sins.

Fr. Tom Santa

They are convinced that it is God's will for them that they suffer this way. Accept it as their personal cross. And somehow they have to live like this.

Ira Glass

Now, you have an example in your book about you got a letter in a box, and it was 150 pages. Is that what it was?

Fr. Tom Santa

Yes it was. It was the most incredible--

Ira Glass

And just explain what this was. Yeah.

Fr. Tom Santa

At the time, I was publisher of our publishing house, Liguori Publications in St. Louis. And I thought it was a manuscript that had appeared on my desk for publication, so I started reading it.

And it was the most unbelievable 150 pages describing this person's struggle with sin, with sexuality, everything that you could possibly imagine. 150 pages in the most unbelievable amount of details, all summarized by chapters with questions that would go with it.

And the closing paragraph said, I have two questions for you. One, would you be willing to hear my confession? And the second one is, do you think I'm scrupulous?

Ira Glass

Was it surprising to you that this person was even asking the question?

Fr. Tom Santa

No. It wasn't surprising to me. What was surprising to me was the level of commitment, first of all, that was required in order to write that and the level of suffering that it expressed. Every page was filled with suffering. And that's what hit me more than anything else. And it certainly isn't God's will for us. There's no way that's God's will.

Ira Glass

Confession, Father Santa says, can be such a satisfying part of a priest's job. To help somebody heal and cope and get closer to God, it's at the heart of why some people become priests in the first place. It can be very intense.

Fr. Tom Santa

And I can't remember many weddings and baptisms clearly. But there are confessions over the years that I can remember very, very clearly as if they happened yesterday.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Fr. Tom Santa

It's also frustrating when you can't do it. When you just can't do it. There's no word that you can say that will bring healing. There's nothing that you can say that will bring people to a sense of peace. That's frustrating, because you want it so bad for them.

Ira Glass

And that's what can be so hard with a scrupulous confession.

Fr. Tom Santa

That's the hard part about it. Especially if you're sitting in the confessional and you've already been in the confessional for an hour, an hour and a half.

And you're extremely vulnerable when you're in the confessional. You never know what the person is that's going to come in, what they're going to talk about. You never know if it's something that's relatively unimportant or it's the deepest, darkest secret. You never know.

And it's very draining to give individual energy to each person that comes in, to listen to them with a patient, loving heart. And so after an hour and a half, for instance, and you end up with a scrupulous person that comes in, and all they're doing is engaging in this scrupulous ritual, that has got to be one of the most difficult things I've ever done as a priest, to sit there and be patient and loving. Because all I really want to do is just slam the door and forget it.

But you can't. You can't. You have to wait and be patient and give them the love that they really, really desire and need.

Ira Glass

These people really test you.

Fr. Tom Santa

Yes. Our own saint Alphonsus Liguori, who was scrupulous, said he exhausted the confessors in Naples, the city he was from. Because whenever they saw Alphonsus enter into the city, they would all run because he would exhaust them.

[LAUGHTER]

Fr. Tom Santa

And he even admitted that he would do that.

Ira Glass

Father Tom Santa. His book is Understanding Scrupulosity, Questions, Helps, and Encouragement. His newsletter you can find online is "Scrupulous Anonymous."

Act One. Kim Possible.

Ira Glass

Act One, "Kim Possible." So this is the story of a criminal investigation that hinges entirely on a confession. And I am not going to pretend that this goes well. The case falls apart for some really interesting reasons. Here's Saul Elbein with the story.

Saul Elbein

OK, I'm going to walk you through the evidence of this case, see if you can tell where it goes wrong. Here's the crime.

It was 1994. A man was found dead by the Anacostia River in Washington, DC. He'd been tied up and savagely beaten. Someone had taken his wallet and used his credit card at a liquor store, a drug store, and a Chinese restaurant. Police also had a surveillance photo from an ATM that looked like this woman named Kim. From public documents, they saw that her handwriting matched the signatures on the credit card slips.

Jim Trainum was the lead detective on this case. It was one of his first major homicide investigations. And when he started interrogating Kim, she just denied everything. She told him she didn't know the dead man. She'd never signed any credit card slips. So they sat there for hours going back and forth. Then early that afternoon, Kim started to crack.

Jim Trainum

She tells us that you're right, I signed the credit card slips. But I found the credit cards. And I didn't steal them. I found them and I went out and used them.

Saul Elbein

Bingo. She admitted she was involved somehow. Now Jim figured it was only a matter of time until she told him everything.

Jim Trainum

Oh my god! Here we are. We're doing good. We got to this stage. So we decided at that point that we would take what we got and put that on videotape.

Saul Elbein

So Jim turned on a video recorder to catch Kim confessing about the credit cards.

Jim Trainum

Is that your signature there?

Kim

[INAUDIBLE].

Jim Trainum

OK. Let's see if we can refresh your memory here.

Saul Elbein

In the video, Jim is showing her credit card receipts. And even though she admitted signing them, she's suspiciously vague about the actual items she bought. And that made Jim think she was hiding something or covering for someone. She was petite, 19 years old. Not the sort of person who could beat a man to death by herself.

Jim figured she must have had accomplices. So he pressed her for details. And finally they got to a credit card charge made at the Chinese restaurant. He asked about her order, and she told them, I don't eat that much seafood, but I did have some shrimp.

Kim

I don't eat that much seafood, but I did have some shrimp.

Jim Trainum

There was a shrimp dish within the Chinese food. And so at the time, I am right there watching it through two-way glass. And when she says a shrimp dish, I'm jumping up and down. Because how would she know about the shrimp dish?

Saul Elbein

Over the next several hours, she gave other details. The names of other stores that the credit card was used at. People's Drugstore, Golden Star Restaurant and Chat's Liquor. She knew what streets they were on and how much was spent there.

Eventually, Kim also admitted to knowing the dead man. She told them that he had been sexually harassing her and she'd wanted him to stop. And then at about one o'clock in the morning, 17 hours into the interrogation, she caved. Spilled the whole thing.

Kim said she and two friends waited for the man to get out of work and pulled him into their truck. They tried talking to him, but he wouldn't listen. He started to yell. So they decided to teach him a lesson.

On the confession tape, Kim fidgeted idly in her seat as she described beating him. She said, we started hitting him, punching him in the face at first. I got in a lick or two, probably more.

Kim

Starting hitting him, punching him in the face at first. I got a lick in or two. Probably more.

Saul Elbein

Kim said her friends kept hitting and punching him. She told them to stop, that it wasn't necessary, but they wouldn't listen. So she sat in the car and cried while they beat him to death.

Kim

Started hitting him and hitting him and hitting him and punching him and kicking him. And I kept telling them, just stop. Just stop. It's not necessary. It's not really necessary.

The damage was already done in the first place. So I just turned back in the truck and just started crying.

Saul Elbein

In her confession, Kim came across as cold and unrepentant. At the end, one of the interrogators asked her if she's sorry for what happened.

Detective

I mean, are you sorry what happened to the guy?

Saul Elbein

She said, yeah, I am. But he shouldn't have done what he did to me. He should have left me alone.

Kim

Yeah, I am. But he shouldn't have did what he did to me. He should have left me alone.

Saul Elbein

The next day, Jim brought Kim to an arraignment hearing, where she was charged with felony murder and held without bond. So, great. Full confession. Perfect cop show ending. Roll credits.

But then after a few months in jail, Kim recanted the whole thing. She said Jim and the other interrogators had told her what to say. Again, here's Jim.

Jim Trainum

She said, look, I don't want to cooperate anymore. I wasn't there. I had nothing to do with it.

So we told her attorney, well look, if she's saying this, let her come in and have a full-blown polygraph test. And she did. She came in, she had a full-blown polygraph test, and she failed miserably.

Saul Elbein

Kim decided to cooperate again. But the cops felt they needed to strengthen their case against her, just in case she flaked on them again.

Jim Trainum

And so what I needed to do was I needed to come up with possible things that we could show that she was out there that night. Anything whatsoever.

And one of the things that we knew about was at the homeless shelter where she was living at the time, there was this log where you could sign and in sign out. And so I got a subpoena, went to the homeless shelter, and got the log.

And I was bringing it back to the office, and I flipped to the pages that had the entries for the night of the murder. And I looked down, and I about wrecked the car. She wasn't out during the critical times that we needed her out. And in fact, according to that book, there was no way that she could have participated in the murder.

Saul Elbein

And this is not like, OK, wait, stop?

Jim Trainum

Yeah. We were trying to figure out, OK, well first off, it can't be her handwriting, right? Because she's confessed. We know that she was out. So this log cannot be right. Somebody else had to sign it.

Saul Elbein

By now, Kim had been in jail for a few months. Ideally, Jim should have checked the shelter's logs when they first picked her up. But Kim had confessed, so he didn't think it was necessary.

Jim, though, was getting uncomfortable. So he decided to recheck the basis of the case, the handwriting evidence. He went to a handwriting expert from the Secret Service to compare Kim's signature to the credit card slips.

Jim Trainum

They sat me down and they said, Jim, absolutely positively in no way did she sign these credit card slips. And I'm just going, holy! I feel bad, but I feel confused.

And all, why would she have confessed? How did she know all these details? And yet how could our forensic ev-- the very foundation of our case, be so wrong?

Saul Elbein

An expert trained by the FBI checked it out too and said nope, no way it was her. The handwriting expert Jim had first used had just gotten it wrong. So Jim took this new evidence back to the prosecutor.

At this point, nine months had passed since her arrest and the court had to either indict Kim or let her go. Without any hard proof to take her to trial, the court dismissed Kim's case and she was released from jail. The police never found another suspect. The murder remains unsolved.

Jim was still sure Kim had been involved somehow. Even if she hadn't signed the credit card slips, she confessed. She knew all these details that only someone who had been there would know.

It wasn't just the stores and what was bought there. Kim knew how the dead man's hands had been tied up. She pointed out the ATM machine that his card had been used at. And then of course, she knew about the shrimp. Jim felt that she had just gotten away with murder.

Jim Trainum

I mean, I would play this through my mind over and over again, trying to figure out how she could have known these things without having been there or having been told these things by somebody who was.

Saul Elbein

So quick break here. Did you catch it, the humongous mistake that derailed Jim's entire investigation?

Jim, for his part, had no idea. He knew he'd missed something, but he just could not figure out what. For years, he turned it over and over in his mind.

And then around 2002, he got assigned to review cold cases for his department. And one of the cases he pulled? That murder by the Anacostia River.

So Jim got the videotapes of Kim's confession. He thought maybe time and distance would reveal something in those tapes, something that would give him a reason to reopen the case.

Jim Trainum

I'm just sitting back with my feet up on the table. The TV's up there, the tape's running. And I just had an "oh, my god" moment. Oh my god, look! Look at what I've done!

Saul Elbein

What is this point?

Jim Trainum

Best my memory is the point where I'm telling her, let me refresh your memory.

That your signature there?

Kim

[INAUDIBLE].

Jim Trainum

OK. Let's see if we can refresh your memory here.

Saul Elbein

At the exact moment when Jim heard "let me refresh your memory," he watched himself pushing copies of the credit card slips in front of Kim.

Jim Trainum

It was this sinking feeling. My heart's not stopping, but it's definitely not acting right.

Saul Elbein

Watching the tape, he suddenly understood how she seemed to know so much.

Jim Trainum

She's looking at the credit card slips. She's sitting there staring at them. Think about what you can get off a credit card slip. You can get the name of the store, the location of the store. And it's like, how did we not see that?

It just started all to become so obvious to me. And the more I looked at it, the more instances I could pick up. And I realized fairly quickly that what we had here was a false confession, and that she was totally innocent.

What are we working on right now? A murder, right?

Kim

No, a forgery.

Jim Trainum

OK.

Kim

The lieutenant told me forgery.

Saul Elbein

All those details Jim had been fixated on all those years? He was the one who gave them to her.

Jim Trainum

Do you remember any of the items that you bought at People's?

Kim

No.

Saul Elbein

Like most of us, Jim had an image of the sort of cops who force false confessions. Bad apples. Cops who knowingly railroad some innocent to get the DA off their backs, or because they just don't care enough to do their jobs right.

But now suddenly Jim realized he was a bad apple. And he wondered, how many other cases had he messed up? How many more confessions had he unknowingly coerced? Kim's interrogation was the only one he'd ever recorded.

Jim Trainum

I just felt bad. I mean, I thought I was a very conscientious, very methodical, very detail-oriented detective. And I would never, ever want to feed information or contaminate a suspect. And here I am doing it plain as day.

Saul Elbein

Over the years, Jim has watched these tapes dozens of times and has catalogued all the different ways that he and the other interrogators inadvertently led her into a false confession. At some point, Kim had heard, as she was facing 30 years in prison, how she might never get her kids back, and decided to give them what they wanted. So she stitched together the little pieces Jim and the other interrogators slipped her to make up a story they'd believe.

Now when I say slipped, we're not talking about a little bit of information. We're talking about a lot. Kim's interrogation started around 8:00 AM and went until 1:00 AM the next day. And as the day wore on, the interrogators started to get tired and sloppy. Sometimes they just came out and told her actual details.

At one point, one of the interrogators got so frustrated trying to convince Kim that they knew what she did, that he told her. He said to her, we know what you ate. Kim responded, huh? What did I eat? The interrogator said, Chinese food.

Detective

We know what you ate.

Kim

Huh?

Detective

We know what you ate!

Kim

What? What did I eat?

Detective

Chinese food!

Saul Elbein

And later on, Kim parroted that back to them. But most of what Jim saw was more subtle than that.

Watching the interrogation, he saw that it had gone down like a long game of 20 Questions. She'd tell him something that didn't fit his theory and he'd say, no, that isn't right. What really happened? And she'd offer something else.

And if that worked, Jim would be really approving, and then that's the detail that he'd write down. And they'd move on until she'd given him a confession that totally fit his pre-existing theory of the crime.

That's how Kim got the name of the drugstore called People's, where the credit card was also used. Jim asked her if she'd been there, and Kim said she didn't remember. He then said, you don't remember? And if you listen, just for an instant, you hear his tone turn disapproving.

Jim Trainum

Did you go a People's?

Kim

I don't remember.

Jim Trainum

You don't remember?

Saul Elbein

Kim picked up on that and changed her answer. She said, oh yeah. Yes, I did. I had to get something.

Kim

Oh yeah. Yes, I did.

Jim Trainum

What'd you buy from--

Kim

I had to get something.

Saul Elbein

There's only one piece they didn't give Kim. The bit about the shrimp dish. That seems to have been just an extremely unlucky guess.

Jim and the other interrogators messed up in other ways, too. In addition to feeding her information, they ignored some really important information she was giving them. There are a few places on the tape where Kim said things that should have raised sudden, immediate doubts as to her guilt.

Like this one scene in the video. An interrogator had crime scene pictures of the victim's hands. He let Kim take the photos from him and hold them up to her face. Her reaction wasn't quite what you'd expect from someone who was there. She immediately said, they tied him up!

Kim

They tied him. They tied him up!

Jim Trainum

They tied him up! Now that's a pretty significant statement. I mean, because she's surprised about the bindings and all of that. But I mean, we never picked up on that, that she was surprised at that.

And later on when she's talking to us about what happened, she talks about how he was tied up with this wire-like thing, about how they didn't take his wedding ring. All things that she could've picked up from the pictures.

Saul Elbein

But the most outrageous thing Jim missed when she told him, I was pregnant. I was seven months pregnant the night of the murder. This was important because the woman they were looking for, who had showed up in the ATM photo and had been seen by liquor store clerks, was clearly not pregnant.

Kim

I was pregnant. [CRYING] I was seven months pregnant then.

Saul Elbein

Wait. How did you not hear that?

Jim Trainum

Where that went was right over top of my head. I mean, that was an alibi. And we just didn't pick up on it. Why? Because we weren't looking for it. We were only looking for confirmation of what we thought was true, rather than seeking out what the truth really is.

Saul Elbein

There was no record of the pregnancy anywhere in Jim's notes. This was in spite of the fact that when he arrested her, she had been holding a three-week-old baby, meaning she was definitely very pregnant at the time of the murder.

But no one at the DC police did the math. They didn't feel like they had to. Kim had confessed.

Here's what's really troubling. Jim learned all this stuff by accident. At the time, the overwhelming majority of interrogations in this country were not videotaped. Usually, the police only turned on a recorder when they were ready to tape the final confession.

But luckily, in Kim's interrogation, Jim and his partners messed up. After they took her confession for credit card fraud, Jim forgot to turn the recorder off. He just kept interviewing her while the video ran, which later gave him a very rare look at the way his interrogation had actually happened.

And by the end of it, Jim saw why Kim's confession had sounded so completely convincing. They had inadvertently rehearsed for almost 17 hours. Kim appeared so cold blooded and unrepentant because she was just exhausted.

If the case hadn't fallen apart and had gone to trial, her final confession is all a jury would have seen, not the interrogation videos from much earlier where she was denying everything and getting help on the facts from the police. Jim is convinced she would have been convicted.

Once he figured all this out, Jim didn't go around telling everyone he knew that he'd gotten a false confession. At least, not at first.

Jim Trainum

I mean, I'll be honest with you. Who would I have told? My bosses were old school. I mean, they were the dinosaur's dinosaurs. And they would have a problem believing me if I told them that I thought it was a false confession. They would have thought, what's wrong with you? You're crazy.

Saul Elbein

Instead, he quietly pulled up her case file on the police's computer system and typed in that Kim's confession was false.

Jim Trainum

If anybody who came behind me-- let's say that I retired, I dropped dead or whatever and somebody came behind me-- I didn't want them bothering Kimberly at all. But later on, her name came up with another detective who came to me and said, look, I pulled up Kim's name in the computer and she was a murder suspect?

And I said, oh yeah. But didn't you read the last part? I ruled her out, whatever, and all that.

He said yeah, I read that. But she confessed.

So I said, listen to what I'm saying. It's a false confession. But it's like it couldn't penetrate.

Saul Elbein

For a very long time, it's pretty much been gospel among law enforcement that a confession is a confession is a confession. When Jim went through interrogation training, he was taught that a person would never ever confess to something they didn't do, unless they'd been physically tortured or were mentally ill.

We've been talking about false confessions for 20 years now, and some people still don't believe in them. There have been cases where suspects falsely confessed, then recanted, backed up their innocence with DNA evidence, and were convicted anyway.

Meanwhile, out in the police world, there's still some resistance to the one thing that most experts agree could help prevent wrongful convictions-- videotaping entire interrogations rather than just confessions. Only 17 states plus the District of Columbia have statutes or court rules on recording police interrogations in cases involving serious crimes.

When Jim retired from the DC Police in 2010, he'd basically become an evangelist for "I got a false confession and here's how." He started giving presentations about Kim's case to law schools and police conferences, where he pointed out all the ways he'd coached her.

But what's interesting is that when he gives those talks to police, he calls the class something like, "Avoiding Investigative Pitfalls" and then only at the very end slips in a bit about false confession. He said if he led with it, people would walk out.

Though Jim has been talking about Kim's case for years now, to all sorts of audiences, he has no idea whatever happened to her. I found her in another state, far away from Washington, DC.

The only way she would meet me was in a hotel an hour away from where she lives. She was worried, she said. Kim lives in a small town, and people are nosy. She's spent a long time trying to put the past behind her.

She told me that when Jim first knocked on her door, she thought he had the wrong person. She tried telling him that, but Jim really had no interest in hearing her denials. So I asked her what she was thinking in that interrogation room 19 years ago.

Kim

First thing that popped in my head was my kids. I just had a newborn. And that's when I started crying. I was starting to get more agitated. It's like, I didn't do this. I don't know what you guys are trying to do.

I just want to get the process over with. I was tired. I just figured I'd give them something, and maybe they'd just let me go home.

I don't know. I was 20 years old. That's what I thought was the best thing for me to do at that time.

Saul Elbein

The fact that she felt that way wasn't an accident. Jim said they implied they'd let her see her kids if she talked.

At one point, I asked Kim if it ever surprised her that she was talked into giving a false confession. She looked at me like I was crazy. She told me she hadn't confessed at all.

A confession, she explained, means admitting to something you did. But she didn't do anything. Basically, Jim asked her to play a game and she played it.

Kim

It was just something that I just made up by what I saw. I didn't really confess to anything.

Saul Elbein

So I don't totally understand the difference. But it seems like it's an important one and I want to make sure I get it. You're saying you didn't make a confession. You told them something.

Kim

I mean, if you put a bunch of pictures in front of a child and you tell them what comes first and what comes next? Nine times out of ten they're going to make up their own thing.

I know I wasn't a child. But things were put in front of me, and I just told a story.

Saul Elbein

Even Kim's court-appointed attorney had wanted her to plead guilty. Some of her family thought she'd done it. So even after she was released from jail, Kim found it impossible to get back on her feet.

Child Protective Services took her kids. And without her kids, she lost her spot in the family shelter. Without any place to live, she says she was never stable enough to get her kids back. Kim says she spent almost a year and a half on the street, at one point sleeping in a tool shed in a DC Park. She never regained custody of her children.

Kim's case had been dismissed without prejudice, meaning if prosecutors ever found new evidence, they could bring her back in. Kim believes, although I couldn't verify this, that this prevented her from getting jobs, that the charge showed up on background checks, that people judged her for it.

Kim

Even though I wasn't locked up and I was released, I still felt like I was still in jail, but on the outside world. I mean, I was still treated like I was a criminal. I lost my kids. I was homeless on the street, couldn't get a job.

And I really tried my best to turn my life around. I really tried. And soon as they did that background check, it was a no-go. I even tried to join the military, and it came back.

I'm haunted. I don't know if anything's going to come about. Is this going to be brought back up again? I don't know.

Saul Elbein

Keep in mind that Kim, by the standards of people who confess falsely, was extremely lucky. She was innocent, and she was released. In her case, in a way, the system worked.

She doesn't feel lucky, though. She feels like her life has been ruined. While Jim has spent most of the last decade using Kim's story as a cautionary tale, Kim herself had no idea until I talked to her that he'd ever thought about it again, let alone that he thought she was innocent, or that he blamed himself. So when she found out about this, she stood up and walked slowly out of the room, sobbing.

Kim

He could have really, if he really wanted to, make things right. He knows how to. He's a former detective, or whatever he is now. I don't know. He knows how to get a hold of me, and that's the thing that bugs me the most. [SOBBING]

I can't change my past. I don't have any of my kids because of it. It's still on my record.

[PHONE RINGING]

Kim

Hello?

Jim Trainum

Kim? This is Jim Trainum.

Saul Elbein

When I interviewed Kim, she surprised me by asking for Jim's contact information. A week later, they ended up connecting by phone. They let me record.

Jim Trainum

I just want to first open by saying that I am very sorry for what you had gone through back then and all the pain that it caused you and problems that it's caused you.

Saul Elbein

In the years since he figured out his mistake, Jim had often thought about contacting Kim. But at the end, he decided not to. He consulted with psychologists who cautioned him about the impacts on Kim if he reached out to her. Plus, he told me, he was also a little scared.

As you might expect, it was sort of an awkward conversation. Jim sounded really nervous. And for the first hour, he sounded like he was giving one of his academic speeches on how investigations go wrong. He used a lot of terms like "verification bias" and "contamination" to try and explain how false confessions happen, how he and his officers had messed up. He went on and on like this.

Through it all, it sounded like he wanted her to understand that they had meant well. They had tried their best, it just hadn't been good enough. To me, it sounded like he was saying, it's my mistake, but it wasn't completely my fault. Kim listened patiently, but after a while she cut in.

Kim

I'm not trying to seem like I'm being rude or anything. But you've got to understand after 20 years, 19 years, whatever years it is, you explaining the case to me, for what?

Jim Trainum

I'm not expecting you to forgive me, OK?

Kim

You were doing your job. If you knew all this, why didn't you try to find me?

Jim Trainum

I mean, I'll be honest with you. It may have been the wrong decision. All I can do is do what I can from this point on.

Saul Elbein

Kim didn't care about his hand wringing. She'd been there. She knew how it happened. She just wanted Jim to help her get her record expunged.

Kim

Well, I do want this record thing taken care of.

Jim Trainum

OK.

Kim

And I can't do it without any help.

Jim Trainum

I have a contact. I have a person in the public defender's office who does that sort of thing. I will work with him. And I will provide him with an affidavit, explain in the affidavit how you are innocent.

Kim

I can tell in a way that you're sincere. But it's going to take me time to start trusting.

Saul Elbein

Jim also offered to help Kim find counseling, to help put her in touch with other people who had given false confessions, or who study them. And that's when the conversation started to change. 19 years ago, he'd tried to convince her she was guilty. Now he was trying to convince her it wasn't her fault.

Kim

I mean, so many people ask me, but why did you even say that you did it? So it kind of comes back on me as like I'm the stupid one.

Jim Trainum

No. No, you're not the stupid one. You were manipulated. I mean, you were doing what, at that time, you thought was best.

None of this, none of this, is on you. Not one thing. I mean, people may try to say, well, I would never have said that! Well, you know what? Yes, you would've. In the right circumstance, you would have. I promise you that.

Kim

Yeah, I guess it just takes a little bit for it to all soak in for me not to feel the way I feel.

Saul Elbein

I listened to them talk without breaking in. Years ago, in an interrogation room, each of them did something they never would've thought they'd do. And now here they were again, their situations reversed. Jim was confessing to her.

Ira Glass

Saul Elbein lives in Austin, Texas.

[MUSIC - "VIDEOTAPE" BY RADIOHEAD]

Coming up, talking to the police may mess up your life, even if you're innocent. But what happens when you try not to talking to them? That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. You Don't Say.

Lisa Pollak

I don't think I fully understood what it meant to be Jeffrey Womack, to be a suspect in a murder you didn't commit, until I talked to a woman named Demetria Kalodimos. She's a TV news anchor and investigative reporter in Nashville. Demetria told me that in 1984, when she first moved to Nashville, she went to a restaurant with her coworkers, and one of her colleagues spotted Jeffrey Womack in the kitchen.

Demetria Kalodimos

Someone whispered over to me and said, see that guy over there cooking? He killed a nine-year-old girl.

And I looked and I thought, wow, what's he doing cooking? Why is he here? And they said, well, it's a long story. They just couldn't get him, but they will.

Lisa Pollak

At this point, in 1984, it had been four years since the murder charges against him had been dropped for lack of evidence. And two years since the district attorney who'd issued those charges told the newspaper that he no longer believed Jeffrey had anything to do with the crime. And yet, people still believed that Jeffrey Womack had gotten away with murder.

Jeffrey wasn't the only suspect in Marcia Trimble's murder, but the cops had had their eyes on him from the night she went missing. They believed that the person who killed her was a young white male, probably a teenager from Marcia's neighborhood, a quiet, middle-class area called Green Hills.

Jeffrey was all of those things. He was 15. He and Marcia lived on the same street. And on the day she disappeared, Jeffrey was one of the last people to see her. She'd come to his house collecting money for Girl Scout cookies. He told her he didn't have money to pay her, but that he'd bring it by in a while.

Later that night, when he heard Marcia was missing, he went to her house to tell the cops that he'd seen her. He figured it would be a quick conversation. But the way he remembers it, three cops took a look at him, his long hair, his smart alecky attitude, and the shoes in which he'd written [BLEEP] you in ballpoint pen, and started interrogating him right there in the house about where he'd been that day, asking him to account for his time in five-minute increments.

Jeffrey Womack

They were very aggressive.

Lisa Pollak

This is Jeffrey.

Jeffrey Womack

I just know that when it was over, I was so confused about why all these questions like this? They'd ask them one way and they'd ask them another way. And I couldn't ever get the answer right.

Lisa Pollak

I should tell you that police deny they grilled Jeffrey. One of the three detectives, Tommy Jacobs, told me they only questioned him for 15 minutes, and that it wasn't contentious.

Jeffrey Womack

Then they asked me to take off my coat, told me to empty my pockets.

Demetria Kalodimos

And at the point when they had him empty his pockets--

Lisa Pollak

Again, Demetria Kalodimos. Last year she made a documentary about the Trimble case.

Demetria Kalodimos

That visual never left the heart of this case.

Jeffrey Womack

I had half rolls of pennies in my pocket and a five-dollar bill.

Lisa Pollak

Remember, he told the cops that he didn't have money to pay for Girl Scout cookies. And now here he was with money.

Jeffrey Womack

And I had a condom.

Demetria Kalodimos

The clincher. He's got a condom. And what's a 15-year-old doing with a condom? And a little girl's missing, and that just sounds too unsavory.

Lisa Pollak

The real reason why Jeffrey had a condom might also sound unsavory. Unbeknownst to his parents, he was sleeping with one of the moms in the neighborhood. What happened next, at least how Jeffrey tells it, is that his mom got word that her son was being interrogated in a bedroom at the Trimbles' house, and she and their next-door neighbor, Peggy, headed over there to put an end to it.

Jeffrey Womack

Peggy just pushed the door open and just made a statement, if you want to talk to him, you can talk to his lawyer.

Demetria Kalodimos

And that's really when things changed. Just the mention of having a lawyer automatically put even more suspicion over Jeffrey. The thinking was, no one's accused him of anything. Why does he need an attorney?

Lisa Pollak

The next day, Jeffrey found himself face to face with John Hollins, a well-known attorney in Nashville. He'd represented Peggy in her divorce.

Jeffrey Womack

He asked me to tell him, tell me exactly what happened yesterday. And I told him. And I told him what happened at the Trimble house.

Lisa Pollak

And then he gave Jeffrey an instruction that would come to define both the case and his life.

Jeffrey Womack

He said, do not talk to these people anymore. Do not talk to any more detectives. Tell them talk to me.

Lisa Pollak

So Jeffrey didn't talk. And since he wasn't talking, police tried other ways to get information out of him. When he was 17, working in a restaurant, an undercover cop joined the staff as a dishwasher, hung out with Jeffrey, went drinking with him to see if he'd say anything about the Trimble case.

Another coworker wore a wire and asked Jeffrey point blank if he killed Marcia. He said no. Once, on the anniversary of her death, they staked out the cemetery in case Jeffery went to Marcia's grave. He didn't.

Finally, four a half years after the murder, investigators had enough evidence-- evidence that later fell apart-- to arrest Jeffrey. They brought him in in the middle of the night.

When I talked to the arresting officer, she was adamant that no one pressured Jeffrey to talk or even asked him for a statement. But Jeffrey says they did, that one officer taunted him about how he supposedly strangled Marcia, how he grabbed her by the throat and wouldn't let go. And then he was given an ultimatum.

Jeffrey Womack

This is your last chance to talk to us. If you want to talk to us, you better talk to us now. I said, OK, I'll talk to you.

And she grabbed her pen and pad. As a matter of fact, there was a couple other officers in there. I can't remember. And I just looked at them and said, [BLEEP] you.

Lisa Pollak

For years, Jeffrey says, the question followed him. If he was innocent, why wouldn't he just talk to police?

Jeffrey Womack

A lot of people were friends of my parents that wanted me to go down and talk to the district attorney. Wanted me to go talk to the police department, straighten all this out, make it end. This is killing your parents.

But that wasn't the thing to do. My best friend, Doug Green-- all you need to do is sit down and talk to these people. No!

Lisa Pollak

Well, your best friend told you to talk to the cops?

Jeffrey Womack

Yeah. He wanted me to sit down and talk to them. He thought I could sit down and talk to them and straighten it all out. They wanted me to sit down and talk to them and confess to it.

There was two different things. They didn't want to hear from me that I had nothing to do with it. That's not what they wanted to hear. So I really had nothing to say to them. It was useless for me to speak to them.

Lisa Pollak

It didn't help Jeffrey's reputation that he kept his mouth shut while the cops talked to reporters. But even when he was given permission to tell his side, Jeffrey didn't take it.

Alan Griggs

Today, for the first time, Jeffrey Womack talked publicly about the Trimble murder investigation and his part in it.

Lisa Pollak

This is an interview from right after the murder charges against Jeffrey were dropped. The perfect time, you might think, to proclaim himself an innocent victim.

Alan Griggs

By his choice, Womack did not elaborate on most of the questions, deferring to the lawyers in some cases.

Male Reporter

Anything you would like to say that you've been wanting to get off your back for these many years now that rumors have been flying and stories have going about your situation?

Jeffrey Womack

No.

Male Reporter

Nothing at all?

Alan Griggs

Alan Griggs, Channel Four News.

Demetria Kalodimos

We'd heard a lot about him, but we never heard a lot from him.

Lisa Pollak

Again, Demetria Kalodimos.

Lisa Pollak

Do you think the silence made him look guiltier to people?

Demetria Kalodimos

People will tell you that. Well, this guy's obviously guilty. I mean, look at him. He doesn't say a word. He looks straight ahead. He doesn't seem to show any emotion.

And I think that was a feeling of a lot of reporters covering the case, and it was the feeling certainly of the audience we were presenting it to. I've always thought if it were me, I'd be yelling from the rooftops. I wouldn't be listening to my lawyer and staying behind closed doors and never saying another word.

Lisa Pollak

When I asked Jeffrey's attorney, John Hollins, if he worried that the silence hurt Jeffrey, made him seem unsympathetic to people, he said, I wasn't worried about him being sympathetic. I was worried about them trying to put him in the penitentiary.

It probably won't surprise you that both the detectives I talked to said they weren't out to get Jeffrey, that they were following leads, trying to eliminate suspects or build a case, if there was one to build. They said if Jeffrey had talked to them, maybe they could have cleared him.

But Jeffrey and his lawyer both believe that not talking is what kept him free. For Jeffrey, not talking had other consequences. There were people who gave him the cold shoulder or talked behind his back once they learned he was that Jeffrey Womack. He told me a story about a woman he once liked, somebody who used to come drink at the restaurant where he worked.

Jeffrey Womack

And we just started hanging out with each other. And she freaked out when she found out who I was. I just can't hang around with you anymore, because of who you are.

Lisa Pollak

Well, how did you feel when she said that to you?

Jeffrey Womack

I felt bad. Because I couldn't explain how to get out of it, how to make it where, don't worry about it. It's OK. How can I defend myself for something I didn't do?

Lisa Pollak

You said there is no defense. But there is a defense. You didn't want to say, I didn't do it. I'm the one who's being wronged here. Why not defend yourself at all to people and make your case? You had a case to make.

Jeffrey Womack

What you're saying sounds good. But when you sit down and you start talking to someone about this, it's, well, how did you get in this mess? Even when I would say I had nothing to do with it, well, you must have done something because they wouldn't keep coming after if you didn't do anything wrong. The police department doesn't do that.

Well, they did do that. The horrible fact of the whole thing was that they did. So you learn to shut up about it. You learn to stop.

Lisa Pollak

Jeffrey is 54 now. He doesn't think the Trimble case ruined his life. And when people suggest it has, he doesn't like it. He doesn't want to play the victim, and he doesn't want people psychoanalyzing him. Listen to how he reacted when Demetria, during one of our interviews, brought up the V word.

Demetria Kalodimos

Do you think of yourself as a victim sometimes?

Jeffrey Womack

I don't know. I really don't know.

Kathy

I do. Just think about what your life would have been if you even--

Lisa Pollak

That's Kathy, an old friend of Jeffrey's in the background. She saying, just think of what your life would have been.

Jeffrey Womack

Don't know. Don't know what my life would have been. I just don't know. Because what do you think your life would have been? Who knows?

Lisa Pollak

Jeffrey's had his share of hard stuff in his life. He went through a divorce. He was a heavy drinker. He's been to rehab. But he won't blame the murder case for any of that.

In the past 30 years, Jeffrey says, there were times he'd go months without even thinking about the Trimble case. And then, inevitably, there'd be a news story about it, the mystery that had never been solved. And the same old questions would come up again. And sometimes even his own mother wasn't sure what to think.

Jeffrey Womack

She'd be very upset, and she'd be crying. And it's hard to explain to your mother that you had nothing to do with this after they repeatedly, for 20-something years, kept saying Jeffrey Womack's got something to hide. Jeffrey Womack knows something. Jeffrey Womack's still a subject.

And then she would say, do you know anything about this? No. You sure? You don't know anything about this?

It was hard. That was the hardest part. I could handle what anybody else would say. It was heartbreaking that telling her once I didn't have anything to do with it wasn't enough.

Lisa Pollak

It wasn't until 2009, when another man was tried and convicted for killing Marcia, that Jeffrey was fully and undeniably cleared. The case was solved when detectives discovered that the DNA on Marcia Trimble's shirt matched the DNA of a convicted rapist named Jerome Barrett.

Even though Barrett had been arrested for other sexual assaults near Trimble's neighborhood near the time of her death, and was charged with murdering a student the same month she disappeared, the Nashville police had never considered Barrett a suspect. Remember, they'd been looking for a white teenage boy from the neighborhood. And Jerome Barrett was black, an adult, and lived nowhere near the Trimbles. But even a DNA match was not enough to convince everybody in Nashville that Jeffrey's innocent. Again, Demetria Kalodimos.

Demetria Kalodimos

At the time when we were putting the documentary together, I thought that everyone would be convinced. And I was frankly amazed at some of the comments that I still got from people saying, yeah, but he worked with Jerome Barrett, and they probably knew each other. And I mean, there are still people who will not let this go.

Lisa Pollak

Demetria says the cops she's interviewed haven't expressed much sympathy for Jeffrey.

Demetria Kalodimos

Every single one of them said he asked for what he got. Everything he got was his fault. If he had just talked to us, if he had just did this, if he had just done that. There's never been any sort of apology.

Lisa Pollak

Jeffrey's not holding out hope for an apology, and he probably shouldn't. In July, the weekly Nashville Scene published its annual "You Are So Nashville If" issue, and one of the items on the list was, you are so Nashville if you still haven't apologized to Jeffrey Womack.

Ira Glass

Lisa Pollak is one of the producers of our show. Jeffrey Womack and his attorney have told their story in a book called The Suspect, A Memoir. Their ghost writer, who's a Nashville journalist named E. Thomas Wood, got unprecedented access to the Marcia Trimble police file during his reporting, and we drew on his research for our story. Our thanks to him.

Demetria Kalodimos's documentary on the Trimble case is called Indelible, The Case Against Jeffrey Womack. There's a link to it on our website.

[MUSIC - "SUSPECT," BY THE GENERATORS]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Robyn Semien, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollak, Brian Reed, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer's Julie Snyder. Production help from Dana Chivvis.

Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our administrative assistant.

Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Research help from Michelle Harris and Julie Beer. Music help from Damian Gray and from Rob Geddis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

Thanks, as always, to our show's co-founder, Torey Malatia. Little known fact about Torey, Sudoku master. And don't try to make fun of him for it.

Fr. Tom Santa

Right. It's called a skill. There's a lot of people who lots of money with that ability.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.