A front-page story in the L.A. Times this morning is titled She killed her husband — or did she?
Police got a confession from Kristi Lyn Bateson nine years after her husband was found shot to death while she was shopping. Tests showing her emotional vulnerability helped overturn the verdict.
No, they didn’t.
The story is certainly set up to suggest otherwise. The story is by Carol J. Williams, a name that will be familiar to Patterico readers from her 2009 article mischaracterizing the holding of a court decision concerning the war on terror. (We used to have one.) My refutation of her errors was vindicated in a remarkably lengthy and detailed correction that noted the mistakes that I had pointed out on my blog.
Today, Williams again misleads readers — including her own headline writer — concerning the real reason that Kristi Bateson’s murder verdict was overturned.
Bateson’s husband was shot to death at his home in 1992, while Bateson was ostensibly shopping with the kids. Cold case detectives interviewed Bateson in 2001 and obtained a confession from her that she had murdered her husband because he was controlling. A friend testified that she and Bateson had a running joke about whether they could murder their husbands and get away with it. A rifle that her husband owned, which had been seen in her husband’s truck a week before the murder, was never found.
Still, the key evidence showing her guilt was her confession. Regarding that, reporter Williams writes:
Word of the case reached UC Berkeley sociologist Richard Ofshe, an expert on false confessions. He suggested that Kristi be subjected to psychological screening for vulnerability to stress-compliant confession.
“False confession comes about almost all the time due to police misconduct, but there are a small number of people so stress-sensitive that they can’t withstand the pressure of even a legitimate interrogation,” Ofshe said recently. “In Kristi Lunbery’s case, it appeared she was one of those people so unable to deal with stress that she would comply as a way of escaping the stress without thinking about the consequences.”
Ofshe, who has testified in more than 300 trials, described Kristi as “one of the most easily dominated people I’ve ever met.”
Williams spends several paragraphs discussing Ofshe’s testing and proposed testimony. The reader is left with the impression that the defense failure to present this testimony was central to the court’s decision.
Late in the article, Williams writes:
On May 25, the panel overturned Kristi’s conviction.
Judge John T. Noonan Jr., a tough-on-crime conservative, shot holes in the prosecution’s theory. Kristi had spent a third of Charlie’s life insurance on his funeral. Troy Lunbery “was not on the scene in 1992.” Kristi’s claim that Charlie was “controlling” was an idea suggested by the detectives.
Judge Michael Daly Hawkins wrote that the “only evidence linking Kristi to the murder was her own statement, which she claimed was false. She had confessed, and it is hard to imagine anything more difficult to explain to a lay jury. After all, people do not just confess to crimes they did not commit, do they? Well, it turns out they sometimes do.”
Neither the state nor Shasta County appealed the 9th Circuit ruling. That left the county with a Sept. 1 deadline to set a retrial date or free Kristi.
Given the focus of Williams’s story on Ofshe and his testing, you can hardly blame the headline writer for concluding that “[t]ests showing her emotional vulnerability helped overturn the verdict.” After all, that is what Williams’s story seems to imply was the central finding of the Ninth Circuit.
But it wasn’t.
It doesn’t take specialized legal knowledge to see that tests showing Bateson’s emotional vulnerability had nothing to do with overturning the verdict. Here is the court’s key passage on Ofshe’s testimony:
Petitioner presses her claim that counsel was ineffective because they failed to call Professor Ofshe and failed to investigate further the validity of Kristi’s confession. These failures, if established, constitute errors requiring the grant of the petition. . . .
Failure has yet to be established. As evidence so far, we have only a memorandum in trial counsel’s file stating why counsel decided not to call Ofshe and an affidavit of federal habeas counsel stating that she had interviewed Kristi’s two defense counsel on the subject and that each had put responsibility on the other for not putting on expert evidence. To decide petitioner’s claim we need the live testimony of her
trial attorneys. . . .
We do not, however, need to delay our decision on her other contention.
Her other contention is that the California state courts improperly ruled inadmissible evidence that the murder had been a mistake by a drug dealer who had targeted a previous occupant of the home.
The exclusion of that evidence was the sole basis of the reversal. Judge Hawkins’s quote above is from a concurrence that has no legal effect.
It’s a dramatic quote, though — so why not make it sound like it was central to the decision? After all, in a contest between drama and truth, which is likely to win out?
This is the L.A. Times we’re talking about.