How A Cop Accidentally Coerced An Innocent Woman Into Confessing To Murder

James TrainumAP Photo/Casey TempletonJim Trainum, right, with past president of The Virginia Bar Association Ted Ellett, left

The radio show “
This American Life” has a gripping episode this week about a former police detective in Washington, D.C. who screwed up his one of his first
big homicide investigations.

Retired detective Jim Trainum messed up the case by getting a 19-year-old homeless woman to admit to helping beat a man to death back in 1994 even though she was completely innocent.

It was only after the case fell apart that Trainum saw how he and the other detectives coerced the confession without really meaning to do so, the former detective told the show. The story is incredibly disturbing.

“We were only looking for confirmation of what we thought was true rather than seeking out what the truth really was,” Trainum told “This American Life.”

That story began when the cops picked up a homeless woman named Kim as a suspect in the savage beating of a man whose body was found by the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. That man’s wallet had been stolen, and Kim looked like somebody captured on surveillance video using his ATM card.

Police brought her in, and she confessed after 17 hours of questioning. She was charged with felony murder, failed a polygraph test, and spent months in jail. Months later, Trainum got ahold of the log at the homeless shelter where she’d been staying. He saw she was actually in the shelter during the murder.

The charges were dropped. Trainum couldn’t wrap his head around how he’d managed to illicit a false confession, in part because he was convinced that Kim had provided information only the killer would have known such as where the dead man’s credit card was used.

Then Trainum remembered that at one point he showed her the copies of the credit card slips showing where it had been used. (“Let’s see if we can refresh your memory,” he recalls saying, as he showed her the credit card slips.) He realised that during the entire interrogation consisted of coaching Kim into telling the story they wanted to hear. Trainum asked her a question, and if he didn’t like the answer he’d ask again. Eventually she told him what he wanted to hear.

The worst part is that Trainum admits he implied that they would let her go home and see her kids if she talked. “This American Life” tracked Kim down, and she says she confessed because she was exhausted. (The cops questioned her from 8 a.m. one morning till 1 a.m. the next day.)

“I was tired. I figured I’d give them something and maybe they’d let me go home,” she said.

Since Trainum realised his mistake, he’s been using Kim’s story as a cautionary tale.

“[W]e didn’t yell; we didn’t scream; we didn’t say we’re going to put you in jail for life,” Trainum said in a statement posted on the Mid-Atlantic Innocent Project’s website. “We insinuated that it was in her best interest to tell us what we wanted to hear. That the short-term benefits outweighed the long-term consequences.”

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