The Phantom Cannibal (Part Two of Two)

Continued from Part One

In what would be described as the “most scandalous chapter” in Sweden’s forensic history,  Sweden’s entire criminal justice system was basically placed on trial as the courts began to unravel why Sture Bergwall had ever been convicted.   Long before he first went on trial, police investigators and forensic experts had been openly skeptical about Bergwall’s “confessions” and dismissed him as a pathological liar, but the circumstantial evidence and the sheer enthusiasm of prosecutors had done the rest.

Working through his attorney, Bergwall called on the Court of Appeal to review his convictions.  He blamed his confessions on his own history of mental illness, the benzodiazepine medication that he had been taking at the time, and the overzealous interrogation tactics of the police, prosecutors, and psychologists involved in his case.  His attorney also claimed that the prosecution had withheld important information (which the prosecutors denied).    On December 2009, the Court of Appeal ordered a new trial for the murder of Israeli student Yenon Levi citing important information that had been withheld from the jury.  This included the numerous errors in Bergwall’s confession which failed to match the actual evidence in the case.  Bergwall was acquitted a year later.  In overturning the other convictions, the court ruled that police and the courts had made numerous critical errors.  For many of Bergwall's convictions, the prosecutor simply dropped the charges rather than hold a new trial. 

By July 30, 2013, the last of Sture Bergwall’s murder convictions had been overturned and he was released from custody.  Though his release plans remain confidential as per standard policy with inmates returned to the community, information provided to the media suggests that he is no longer on medication and is presumably functioning without incident.

All of which leaves some fundamental questions that remain unanswered.   In a 2013 interview with GQ Magazine, Bergwall remained emphatic that he never killed anyone though his reasons for confessing to so many murders is unclear at best.  In describing his long interviews with psychologists such as Sven Christianson, Bergwall said that he learned a great deal about serial killers and that this information came in handy when he needed to convince juries that he was genuine.  He said that he enjoyed being interviewed by eminent psychologists and that it made him feel important.   Telling them what they wanted to hear was an enjoyable experience for him.

Not that everyone is convinced of his innocence.  The same GQ article also interviewed Sven Christianson who continues to insist that Sture Bergwall/Thomas Quick is a sadistic predator who has “made a country’s once proud legal system contort itself into knots” to gain his freedom.  Certainly Christiansen was convinced enough of Bergwall’s guilt to write a 2010  book on him titled, I huvudet på en seriemördare (Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer) even after his star patient’s confessions had been retracted.   As for Bergwall, he seemed philosophical about ongoing doubts about his innocence.  "There's many people—or at least some people—trying to defend their honor. Not to lose face. I'm in the happy position that I don't have an honor to protect."

Sture Bergwall is hardly the first prisoner to create this kind of legal nightmare however.  Take the case of convicted American serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, for instance.  After his arrest in 1983, he began the long spree of confessions that would make him so famous.  While there seems little doubt that Lucas actually committed some of the murders for which he was convicted, his penchant for confessing to numerous murders, including ones that he could not possibly have committed, seems to have been motivated by no more than his desire to improve his living conditions in prison.   Based on Lucas’ confessions, the task force that had been formed to investigate him would later “close” hundreds of unsolved murder cases.  Much like Bergwall, Henry Lee Lucas would inspire a media circus including books, magazine articles, documentaries, and two movies based on his life. 

Though he was sentenced to death, enough questions would be raised about Lucas’ confessions to force the courts to commute his sentence to life imprisonment.   Also like Bergwall, the controversy over Lucas’s confessions and whether or not the task force had been fooled would overshadow the Texas criminal justice system for years afterward.   Henry Lee Lucas died in prison in 2001, and the mystery of whether he actually commtted any of the murders he confessed to  died with him.

So, what can really be said about Sture Bergwall and Henry Lee Lucas that hasn’t been endlessly discussed by the numerous journalists, social critics, and criminologists who have already written extensively about their cases?   Though police and prosecutors were likely overly credulous in taking these confessions at face value without the forensic evidence to back them up, their motivation to do so is certainly understandable.  Not only did Bergwall's confessions allow them to close cases that had haunted them for years, but it also provided some closure to the families of the various victims.   If nothing else, this case served as a classic reminder of the old truism, "if something seems too good to be true, it usually is."   It also demonstrates the difficulty that even trained interrogators have in detecting deception, especially when the deceiver is telling them what they want to hear.  

And false confessions are hardly rare.   According to the Innocence Project, about twenty-five percent of all prisoners who are eventually exonerated confess to their crime.  Though many of these false confessions can be blamed on extreme interrogation techniques,  police are also often besieged by people making voluntary confessions for crimes, especially high-profile offenses.   After the "Black Dahlia" murder in 1947, dozens of people confessed to the high-profile killing.   Whether due to mental illness or simply the attention they might receive from being convicted for the crime has a way of bringing out false confessions and police are usually quite good at sifting out the genuine confessions from the false ones.  

Part of the problem rests on the impact that confessions have on the courts and the extent to which prosecutors rely on them.   As one U.S. judge noted in a 1986 case, "Our distrust for reliance on confessions is due, in part, to their decisive impact upon the adversarial process. Triers of fact accord confessions such heavy weight in their determinations that 'the introduction of a confession makes the other aspects of a trial in court superfluous, and the real trial, for all practical purposes, occurs when the confession is obtained.' No other class of evidence is so profoundly prejudicial. 'Thus the decision to confess before trial amounts in effect to a waiver of the right to require the state at trial to meet its heavy burden of proof."   

So long as confessions are treated as hard evidence, even in the absence of the forensic evidence to back them up, there will be more cases like Sture Bergwall and Henry Lee Lucas.   Though prosecutors are relying more on videotapes confessions to rule out potential coercion, it isn't likely to do much to deter the voluntary confessions that can backfire so spectacularly.   What that means for future criminal trials is anybody's guess.






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