Day 12 – FBI Agent Attacks FPD Methods and Eugene Vent Under Cross Examination

October 21, 2015

Gregg McCary took the stand on the twelfth day of proceedings in the Fairbanks Four bid for exoneration and testified that the original police interrogations were deeply flawed. McCary is a former FBI agent, who was with the burea from 1969-1995. While with the FBI McCary worked as a criminal profiler and was a contributing author to the FBI’s primary manual – Crime Classification Manual. McCary’s resume is lengthy and he is considered on of the country’s leading experts in criminal profiling and false confessions. The petitioner’s attorneys pointed to McCary’s testimony to argue that the statements of Frese and Vent, the cornerstone of the convictions, were classic false admissions produced after flawed and unethical interrogation. McCary attacked the original police interrogations from nearly every angle, asserting that the tactics employed in the investigation were so troubled that the flawed outcome was predictable.

“They didn’t hunt for any other suspects,” McCary said, “They limited the universe of suspects to these four individuals and never went beyond that.”

McCary focused heavily on the flaws in, and overemphasis upon, the interrogations conducted by Fairbanks Police. He noted that Eugene Vent and George Frese were both in a suggestible state with suggestible personality attributes, and reiterated that the aggressive interrogation style know to lead to false results was essentially the bulk of the investigation.

“The investigators here substituted an interrogation for an investigation,” McCary said.

McCary noted that the interrogations were based false-evidence ploys, and that the interrogations were conducted with intoxicated and sleep deprived subjects. Throughout his testimony he essentially listed the known factors in false confession, explained them, and identified how every single one of them impacted this case.

Prosecutor Ali Rahoi  on behalf of the state objected to the admission of the testimony on the grounds that McCary (the guy who literally wrote the book) was not a qualified expert, that behavioral criminology is not a real profession. So….we cannot really mock that. It kind of does the job itself.

EugeneVentCourtEugene Vent took the stand for his extended cross-examination by special prosecutor Adrienne Bachman. Ironically, after a morning of testimony by a renowned expert in the field that aggressive false evidence based questioning is not effective, Ms. Bachman essentially took that approach in her cross-examination of Vent. Bachman stacked compound leading questions on screaming accusations on disjointed lines of questioning.

Vent maintained a calm demeanor, even as questioning escalated to a level some observes found so unbearable they left the room, one describing it as the most horrific bullying she had ever seen.

Vent seemed less rattled by the behavior than most others in the courtroom. Here are few highlights from his interrogation  cross-examination:

  • Bachman accused Vent of being too drunk to remember whether or not he was scared during interrogation based on his blood alcohol test, yet maintains he was sober enough for interrogation.
  • State introduced some notes that Eugene Vent passed to a girlfriend while he was a sophomore in high school. In once, Vent said of his weeked that he and his “boyz” got “smoked out and loced out.” Bachman insisted that the “boyz” referred to were his codefendants and that “smoked out and loc’ed out” means to smoke marijuana and carry a gun. Bachman has tried her hand at gangsta slang quite a few times during the proceedings and the results are mortifying to watch. Like one of those moms who shops in the junior’s section and says “OMG” too much. Vent clarified that loc’ed out does not mean to carry a gun. Eugene’s writings were a trip down 90’s-slang memory lane. For those of you who missed the decade, “loced out” was a term derived from the Spanish word “loco” and was used essentially to mean….well chilled out? Stoned? Super stoned? Maybe crazy? We don’t know. We didn’t really know then, either, we were pretty far away from the rap scene that proliferated the expression but it was a cool thing to say in a time when we were trying really hard to be cool, and so we used it, almost always associated with getting stoned. And it definitely had no relationship to guns of any kind. Through introduction of this evidence the state reminded us all of a time when people didn’t have text so they wrote notes, and when people got “blazed” and this line of questioning would be called “bunk” and we could give “mad props” to anyone who kept a straight face through that, and of a time long past where apparently Eugene wrote some super dorky notes. Make that hella dorky.
  • Bachman established that while Eugene Vent was being interrogated in 1997 he burped without saying excuse me. The audio introduced reflects that Eugene is likely guilty of the crime of burping without saying “excuse me” in 1997, but we feel that eighteen years of hard time may be a tad overboard for the crime of mediocre manners in a seventeen year old drunk boy.
  • Bachman hammered Vent on his poor manners. “I wasn’t being respectful,” Vent answered, then referring to Detective Aaron Ring, “Neither of us were being respectful.”
  • Bachman also established through a gotcha-vibed series of questions that Eugene Vent had gum in the night in question. “And you left that gum at murder scene at 9th and Barnette, didn’t you?” she said. In a serious anti-climax, Vent replied that no, the gum was collected from him at the police station, and logged in his property report.

The cross-examination was not funny. Human lives are at stake here. If this wasn’t so horribly, tragically, relentlessly tragic, it might be funny. At the least it is a parody of itself because the conduct of the state attorneys is just so painfully ridiculous. What is becoming evident is that these tactics are probably effective on juries (a scary thought) but play poorly to rooms filled with professionals.

Blank Tape: The Science Behind Alcohol Induced Blackouts

When I was a young kid VCR’s were the newest, coolest standard in technology. I remember thinking that you could tell a kid was rich if they had a Big Wheels car, and that they were really, really rich if they had one of those cars and a VCR.

Eventually my parents came upon some kind of windfall and we got one of our own. Then our neighbors brought their VCR over for us to borrow, along with a bunch of movies. It was quite the sight to see. There were cords everywhere – one VCR stacked on top of the next, packages of blank tapes, this bizarre recording machine built by my father, which he controlled with the carefully timed pressing of buttons. The setup was supposed to work like this: one VCR played the movie, the other one recorded it. All the blank tapes would soon be full of free movies.

My dad stayed up all night copying films, including E.T. I hated that movie, it scared the crap out of me, and I was absolutely horrified to think about my sister being able to watch it whenever she liked. So, when my dad took a quick break to the bathroom I walked to the VCR tower and pulled a few plugs, effectively disconnecting the communication between the two VCRs. When my dad came back he sat on the couch and watched the rest of E.T. convinced it was being recorded. From the outside, it was impossible to tell that the movie wasn’t being transferred. When my sister eventually sat down to watch it, the first bit of the movie was there, and then without notice, nothing. Complete black nothing.

Alcohol blackouts work exactly like that. The film cannot be played back because it was never recorded.

Blackouts are a simple phenomenon in many ways: if you get drunk enough, alcohol interferes with the creation of long-term memory. Short-term memory is like this first VCR, playing the movie. You may be able to engage in physically or emotionally complex actions, and your brain will use the information around you to continue functioning, but it simply will not convert the information into long-term memory. Long term memory is like the second VCR. The movie is playing on the screen, the record button is blinking, everything appears to be working just fine, but that last drink essentially disconnected the two VCRs.

One thing scientists do not understand is why some people experience blackouts and other people do not. There have been studies of all kinds, but they do not provide a simple answer. It is controversial to make the statement that Alaska Natives or Native Americans experience blackouts more than other people, but there is some evidence that that is the case. The only thing I can say is that I myself blackout completely when I get really drunk. Not every time, and I cannot say what causes it to happen and what prevents it. That is, of course, not a scientific study, just the unflattering truth. I don’t know if my ancestry or some other factor is to blame, but I must have played the locally popular drinking game upriver-downriver hundreds of times in the 90’s, and I can’t remember the end of one of those games to save my life. Which is why it was easy for me to understand that George and Eugene, both having drank in that fashion, had blacked out at points in the night.

I never questioned whether or not blackouts were scientifically proven because I didn’t need to – I know they are real. I grew up around people who experienced them. Family, friends, and myself. I was raised with that truth. But if it is the case that most people do not experience blackouts, it would explain why so many people do not believe that they happen, and I want to address that. I would also like to ask a favor of readers – if YOU have blacked out, comment about it, anonymously if you like. I think it is important for skeptics to understand what many of us know, which is that alcohol related blackouts happen. The scientific verdict came in a LONG time ago regarding alcohol induced blackouts – they are absolutely, completely, totally real.

So, why a post about blackouts on this blog? Because alcohol induced blackout is an important issue in the case of the Fairbanks Four.

Let me start be reiterating that, although George and Eugene both drank heavily the night of the murder, both WERE certain of their whereabouts at the time of 1:30am (read their timelines HERE and HERE).

NO ONE in this case was blacked out at the time of the murder. NO ONE in this case was unsure about where they were at the tie of the murder, and even though they were young, drunk, and terrified, correctly stated their whereabouts, which were verified with alibis, for that time frame. But when they were interrogated, the police did not have any idea what time the crime had taken place but appeared to be working on a theory that it had happened much later. So, even when Eugene and George eventually agree to the interrogator’s story, based on times alone these incriminating statements still would not be accurate. However, it is important to understand how alcohol related blackout effected the investigation.

Both George and Eugene had been drunk enough that they felt they could not be 100% sure of their every move that night. Both had experienced blackouts in the past, and were open to the possibility that they may have been somewhere that they didn’t remember. But they were interrogated by police officers who insisted that blackouts were fiction -“scientifically impossible” and that continuing to state that they were unsure where they had been, that there were blank spots, would result in the police “filling in the blanks with the worst thing.” (Read about their interrogations HERE and HERE).

While investigating and interrogating the Fairbanks Four Detective Aaron Ring took a stab at being a scientist and lectured in great detail about the science behind blackouts. According to Detective Ring, only “people with Alzheimer’s and old alcoholics” could have blackouts. While interrogating George, he said simply, “You can’t have a complete blackout.”

The officers then moved on to stating a long litany of made-up evidence. For hours and hours they told these intoxicated and terrified young men incredible lies. Among those lies were statements that there was scientific proof that they had been at the crime scene. That their friends said they were there. That people very close to them said they had committed this crime. So, ultimately, these two were left in a terrible predicament: the honest answer, that they could not be 100% sure of their movements, was recast by the interrogators to be an admission of the worst kind of guilt, and would not be accepted.

At the end of the day, their consumption of alcohol left them especially vulnerable to interrogation techniques that can produce false confessions from sober people with no questionable memory. The officers involved should have never used the interrogation techniques on people so young, intoxicated persons, or any person who admitted that their memory of a night was compromised. The specific interrogation technique, the Reid Model, is highly controversial, banned in many countries, and KNOWN to lead to false confessions, especially in young people. Given the severity of the interrogation and the circumstances, it is a wonder that only two of the four relented under it.

Below are some resources on the science behind alcohol induced blackouts for those who are interested in my sources or want to read about this subject on their own.

http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-2/186-196.htm

http://news.wustl.edu/news/Pages/747.aspx

http://addictionrecoverybasics.com/alcohol-blackout-types-of-alcoholic-blackouts-how-they-work-and-consequences/

Sites/ Studies Looking Specifically at Alcohol Related Amnesia in Native Americans/ Alaskans

http://www.wellbriety-nci.org/Publications/myth.htm

http://www.ucdenver.edu/academics/colleges/PublicHealth/research/centers/CAIANH/journal/Documents/Volume%204/4%283%29_Wolf_Commentary_on_Alcohol_Policy_new.pdf

http://www.ucdenver.edu/academics/colleges/PublicHealth/research/centers/CAIANH/journal/Documents/Volume%202/2%283%29_Wolf_The_Barrow_Studies_new.pdf