By Kayce T. Ataiyero, News & Observer (North Carolina)
On many TV cop shows, it's the ploy on which the plot turns: Police trick a suspect into thinking they have more evidence than they actually do, and he coughs up a confession that seals his fate.
But in a real-life case in Carrboro, this brand of bamboozling has raised questions about tactics investigators sometimes use when trying to get a suspect to talk.
Area lawyers and police are watching whether a judge will admit into evidence the confession of murder suspect Andrew Douglas Dalzell. Investigators used a fake murder warrant and a death-penalty warning on district attorney stationery to dupe Dalzell, 28, into thinking he was being arrested in the death of Deborah Leigh Key.
Dalzell actually was being arrested for obtaining property by false pretense, financial identity fraud and possession of stolen property. But Carrboro police officers used the dummy documents to deceive him. He subsequently confessed to killing the 35-year-old woman, authorities say. Key has been missing since 1997. Authorities have not recovered her body.
Chapel Hill Police Chief Gregg Jarvies said that his department discussed the case this week during a staff meeting. He said the deception that police use sometimes to get a confession can range from lying to making false documents to phrasing a question so as to confuse a suspect.
Jarvies, who declined to discuss the specifics of the Dalzell case, said the goal is to get suspects to admit they committed an offense, something they might not do without prompting. In some instances, he said, there is a fine line between what is acceptable and what is not.
"Where that line is seems to change from one case to the next," he said. "Like many things in the justice system, [the cases] are not black and white. Even the judge says it is a complex case."
Orange County Superior Court Judge Wade Barber could decide Jan. 10 whether officers acted within the law the September day they traveled to Lincoln County to charge Dalzell with stealing figurines from a Chapel Hill hobby store where he had worked.
Officers placed Dalzell in the back of an unmarked police car and put the fake arrest warrant on the seat beside him. Carrboro police Lt. John Lau later read the fake letter that stated authorities would seek the death penalty unless Dalzell told them where he disposed of Key's body. According to testimony, Dalzell became upset during a gas station pit stop on the three-hour trip back to Carrboro.
While being encouraged by Cpl. Seth Everett to "tell the truth about whatever happened" and "to be a man and let the demon go," Dalzell confessed. He blurted out, "I did not mean for it to happen. I just snapped and took her body to Wilmington," according to testimony.
Once at the police station, police testified, Dalzell made another statement before he was read his rights.
Officers testified Wednesday that they did not interrogate Dalzell until they entered the interview room. Officers did not read Dalzell his rights during the trip from Lincoln County to Carr-boro. They said they waited until he was being formally interrogated to advise him of his rights.
Public defender James Williams is asking the court to suppress Dalzell's statements. Officers interrogated Dalzell before advising him of his rights, Williams charges, and the statements were obtained in violation of Dalzell's rights.
Carrboro Police Chief Carolyn Hutchison said Thursday that she had approved of the ruse and that officers did not break any laws. She said deception is regularly used in police work. The Dalzell case is unusual in that the deception was written rather than verbal, she said.
Hutchison said she thinks Dalzell's guilty conscience led him to confess, something an innocent person would not have done.
"We had the plan to leave the fake arrest warrant within his view ... so he would have a visual impression for his ride back to Carrboro. I guess on one level, it is sort of a classic case of a picture being worth a thousand words," she said.
Orange-Chatham District Attorney Carl Fox said he knew officers planned to delay telling Dalzell what he was charged with and advising him of his rights. He said the method of investigation is a police matter and "it is not part of my duty to advise [police] on arrest procedures."
Reece Trimmer, a former legal adviser for the Durham Police Department, said he thinks the Carrboro police officers did not engage in a flagrant violation of Dalzell's rights nor did they use grossly improper trickery to get him to confess. He said deception is used frequently in such cases and that the general rule is that it is permitted so long as it is not so extreme as to "overcome the [suspect's] will and produce a false confession."
Trimmer said Dalzell's rights are more serious issues than the deception because of technicalities in applying the law. Unlike on TV, Trimmer said, arresting officers are advised not to read a suspect his rights in transit but rather to wait until they are in the interrogation room.
"There is never any question about what rights you read him and what you said to him," he said. "If you do it in the back seat of the car, you have lost the opportunity to go through the full written waiver rights form. It is possible that [officers] will confuse the rights or not read the right ones."
Lou Bilionis, a professor of constitutional and criminal law at UNC-Chapel Hill, said apart from the deception in the case, the defense has a strong argument that officers should have read Dalzell his rights before they arrived at the police station. He said officers were wrong in thinking they did not interrogate Dalzell because they did not ask him questions.
"[Interrogation] does not mean merely asking questions. If you use psychological ploys that are likely to illicit a response from the suspect it is the same thing as questioning the suspect," he said. "People should not experience the pressures of police questioning, whether explicit or subtle, without having been given the benefit of the Miranda warnings."