Confessions expert testifies at Soto trial

Trial to continue Monday morning

Steve Garrison
Cody Soto sits with his attorneys on Friday before the start of his trial on a murder charge at the Eleventh Judicial District Court in Aztec.

AZTEC — An interrogation and confession expert told jurors in the murder trial for Cody Soto Friday how to discern whether a confession is true or false, but did not offer an opinion on whether Soto was coerced by detectives into falsely confessing to stabbing his 29-year-old ex-girlfriend.

Brandy Robinson’s nude body was found by detectives with the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office on June 22, 2013, near the Bisti Highway south of Farmington.

Soto, 26, is charged with first-degree murder on allegations he repeatedly stabbed Robinson.

The trial for Soto began on Jan. 20 and the state rested its case Thursday. Though it was scheduled to conclude Friday, Judge John Dean told jurors they will reconvene on Monday to hear closing statements and, potentially, testimony from Robinson’s 5-year-old daughter.

The defense expert, Deborah Davis, told jurors the two most common reasons a suspect will falsely confess to committing a crime is because they are distressed by the interrogation and “will do anything to get out of there,” or they believe that the confession will result in the best legal outcome for them.

“That sounds crazy until you understand how the interrogation is done,” said Davis, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada in Reno.

At left, Deborah Davis speaks as Judge John Dean listens on Friday during Cody Soto's trial at the Eleventh Judicial District Court in Aztec.

According to Davis, the Innocence Project reports that about one out of four people wrongfully convicted and later exonerated through DNA evidence made a false confession or incriminating statement.

Davis said most law enforcement officers use the Reid Technique – a nine-step method developed by the firm of John E. Reid and Associates – or a similar method, to conduct interrogations.

Detectives who utilize the Reid Technique or similar methods first emphasize to the suspect that the evidence against them is so strong that no one will believe they are innocent, regardless of whether that evidence actually exists, according to Davis.

“The interrogators are trained to never show the slightest crack in their confidence that the witness is guilty and they can prove it,” Davis told the jury.

Deborah Davis, left, talks with defense attorney Liane Kerr, during a court recess for Cody Soto's trial on Friday at the Eleventh Judicial District Court in Aztec.

Detectives will then attempt to minimize the severity of the offense and develop “themes” that may justify or excuse the crime, such as by suggesting the suspect acted in self-defense, according to Davis.

Davis said detectives apply pressure during the interrogation through confinement, social isolation, physical discomfort and by creating a sense of powerlessness in the person being interrogated, among other tactics.

Davis said the detective’s goal is to elicit small admissions from the suspect and then develop that admission into a fuller confession through a “stepping-stone approach.”

Davis said the Reid Technique is “very effective,” so much so that its application can elicit false confessions from innocent people. Though the young and the mentally ill are more likely to offer a false confession, it is not exclusive to those subsets of the population, Davis said.

“There are people with IQs as high as (Albert) Einstein and no mental illness (that falsely confess),” Davis told the jury.

Davis said the average length of an interrogation is two hours and the likelihood of eliciting a false confession increases the longer questioning continues after that.

Fatigue, drug use or withdrawal, illness, hunger and general discomfort increase the likelihood someone will falsely confess to committing an offense, according to Davis.

Two of the three sheriff’s office detectives who conducted Soto’s interrogation – Candice Montoya and Cory Tanner – testified earlier this week that they were not specifically trained in the Reid Technique.

The third detective, Justin Rieker, testified Thursday he was trained in the technique, “but it’s confusing, so I only use parts of it.”

Judge John Dean addresses the court on Friday before the start of Cody Soto's trial on a murder charge at the Eleventh Judicial District Court in Aztec.

However, detectives appeared to apply similar techniques in 2013 during their interrogations of Soto on July 9 and July 10. Soto allegedly confessed to stabbing Robinson during the two interviews.

Jurors watched video recordings of those interviews last week and Tuesday.

During those recorded interrogations, detectives suggested to Soto, falsely, that they had DNA evidence connecting him to the crime scene and claimed his alibi had “broke open.”

Montoya also minimized the offense by suggesting Soto committed a “crime of passion” that needed to be explained.

“Without an explanation, how will people know that you aren’t a monster?” Tanner asked Soto during the July 9 interview.

Though the interview on July 10 was ended by Soto within two hours, detectives questioned him for approximately eight hours on July 9 according to prior testimony.

Tanner, who has 13 years experience as a law enforcement officer, said during cross-examination on Wednesday it was not common in his experience for an interrogation to last that long.

Davis said jurors could assess a confession’s veracity based on the information that was provided by the suspect: Did the suspect report to detectives information consistent with known facts in the case that were not previously disclosed?

“False confessions do happen and this is why they happen,” Davis told the jury.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.