An Ignoble Process How High-Pressure Tactics and Flawed Investigative Techniques Created a Miscarriage of Justice
Like many similar exoneration stories, this begins with a heinous crime. On June 13, 1996, 18-year-old Angie Dodge failed to appear for work. Dodge was later found in her Idaho Falls, Idaho, apartment. The young woman had been raped, stabbed repeatedly, and her throat slashed. Dodge, an avid lover of the outdoors, graduated with honors from Idaho Falls High School the previous year. This is precisely the type of crime that garners enormous public scrutiny and media attention, creating intense demand upon law enforcement to quickly solve the crime. When several months had elapsed with no progress, local police became desperate. Every known tactic or technique was to be used against any potential suspect, even when the evidence did not inculpate the current suspect or sometimes when DNA evidence excluded that suspect entirely.Tapp was a 20-year-old high school dropout known to frequent the area near Dodge’s apartment. After multiple exhaustive interviews, Tapp “confessed.” Despite the fact that Tapp’s confession did not match the evidence, and even though Tapp tried to recant while maintaining his innocence, the case went to trial. The jury received Tapp’s “confession.” Worse was the testimony of Detective Jared Fuhriman vouching for the confession’s veracity. Fuhriman excused all discrepancies and testified that no information in Tapp’s statements was revealed to Tapp by investigators. The testimony of Fuhriman contained outright lies and served as the “crux” of the state’s case. A guilty verdict was handed down on May 28, 1998.
For over 21 years, Tapp was forced to live as a convicted rapist and murderer, all while maintaining his claim of innocence. And innocent he is. The actual perpetrator is Brian Leigh Dripps, Sr. The DNA proves it. On July 17, 2019, after being fully exonerated, Tapp said, “The system thought I could be thrown away. They thought that I’d never amount to anything. They were wrong. I want people to know that I’m innocent. I’ve said it for the past 22 years. Finally, the truth is being revealed. I am appreciative and deeply humbled that this moment has finally come.”
How does it happen that an innocent man might confess to such heinous crimes? The average citizen dismisses such assertions, especially when the suspect has “confessed.” After all, it is reasonable to believe the convicted person must be guilty. The University of Michigan Law School’s National Registry of Exonerations (“NRE”) keeps the details on over 2,470 exonerations. More than 300 of those involve a false confession—over 12%. Steven Drizen is a law professor at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and an expert on false confessions. Drizen says that confessions are powerful, as it is very hard to convince a jury that an innocent person would ever admit to a gruesome crime like rape or murder. “The confession trumps all other evidence in a case. There is a common belief that I would never confess to a crime I didn’t commit,” said Vanessa Potkin, director of post-conviction litigation at the Innocence Project and one of Tapp’s current attorneys.
Researchers have identified various factors that induce false confessions. These include intimidation or use of force by officers and misleading suspects into believing a confession will secure their release or that cooperation will exclude the death penalty or other harsh consequences. Such techniques are designed to secure confessions during an interrogation and not to acquire facts about the crime. “Interrogations are not a quest for information. The purpose is to get an admission,” said Potkin. The DNA identification of Dripps was the final step in a long process to exonerate Tapp. Carol Dodge, Angie’s mother, became one of Tapp’s strongest advocates. Ms. Dodge pushed as hard as anyone to find the real perpetrator because she was never quite convinced that Tapp’s “confession” was the reality of her daughter’s demise.
Beginning on that gruesome day in 1996, the Idaho Falls Police Department spent the next several months without any viable suspects, let alone any arrests. Detectives had even interviewed Dodge’s neighbor Dripps five days after the murder and determined he was not a suspect. On January 5, 1997, Benjamin Hobbs was arrested in Ely, Nevada, on a sexual assault charge involving a knife. Learning of Hobbs’ arrest in Nevada aroused the keen interest of the Idaho Falls police. Interviews of Hobbs and his friends quickly began. While trying to build a case against Hobbs, Tapp eventually became their primary suspect. Tapp and Dodge were known to frequent the trails near the Snake River, very close to Dodge’s apartment. Witnesses said Tapp and Dodge were together the night of her murder.
Tapp was eventually interviewed nine times over a 25-day period—almost 30 hours of intense interrogations. Tapp also took multiple polygraphs during the investigation. During the initial January 7 interview, Tapp adamantly denied knowing anything about Dodge’s murder. Tapp told detectives that he would help if he could, but he was just a “scared little man.” Tapp was released that first day. Tapp’s position was not something detectives readily accepted and would eventually turn up the pressure. As the interviews progressed, Tapp’s story would change, and his involvement would steadily increase. During the course of these interviews, detectives would tell Tapp that the memories of these savage acts were suppressed, and that was why he had no memory of committing them. Detectives later told Tapp that he would get the death penalty if he didn’t cooperate. Tapp was told that Hobbs had already placed Tapp at the scene, which was another coercive lie by investigators. The second interview was on the 10th of January. Tapp now claimed that Hobbs killed Dodge and had demanded that Tapp provide Hobbs’ alibi. A follow-up interview was scheduled for the next day. Tapp’s parents hired an attorney, and when he didn’t arrive for the interview, police went to his home. Tapp’s mother told detectives that Tapp would arrive with the attorney on January 13 for another interview. Rather than wait, police returned to Tapp’s home with an arrest warrant charging Tapp as an “accessory to a felony.” The next interview was on January 15, and Detective Fuhriman was one of the investigators during the recorded interview. Fuhriman was a former school resource officer and someone Tapp trusted as a friend. Fuhriman told Tapp that unless he admitted Hobbs was the perpetrator, Tapp himself would be blamed and likely receive the death penalty. “That little extra bit you got, we are gonna be able to take [Hobbs] and dropkick him through the goalposts of life. I’m serious as a heart attack,” said Fuhriman to Tapp. All the while, Tapp’s attorney watched through a monitor in another room and did not intervene. Tapp proceeded to tell Fuhriman that Hobbs killed Dodge and that Tapp had been there during the crime. Tapp’s latest story was that Hobbs had been upset with Dodge because she was trying to ruin Hobbs’ marriage.
Prior to the January 15th and 18th interviews, prosecutors coaxed Tapp into speaking with immunity agreements. These agreements required Tapp to be truthful, and in exchange, his criminal liability exposure would be minimized. As Potkin put it, “Police threatened [Tapp] with the death penalty and told him that if he just told them what they wanted to hear, they would give him immunity.” Tapp would be allowed to plead guilty to only one count of “aiding and abetting an aggravated battery.” To Tapp’s attorney, this should have been another indication that Tapp was innocent and that law enforcement must have known. Prior to the January 18th interview, detectives discovered a major issue. Hobbs and Tapp both were excluded through DNA testing as the source of the semen on Dodge’s body and clothes. “In more than two dozen cases, innocent people like Mr. Tapp were convicted even though they were excluded by DNA testing before they even went to trial. In nearly all of these cases, rather than recognizing the DNA exclusion for what is was—evidence of innocence—prosecutors pursued and secured wrongful convictions because of their misplaced faith in police-induced custodial statements over actual science,” said Potkin.
The police then devised an alternative explanation. Once police suggested Jeremy Sargis had been involved, Tapp then claimed Hobbs and Sargis raped and murdered Dodge. Hobbs had already been excluded, Sargis had an alibi, and on January 27, DNA testing excluded Sargis as well. Prosecutors then blamed Tapp for being untruthful and revoked the immunity agreement on January 29.Tapp was then escorted to the crime scene that same day without his attorney, and his story changed again. Tapp told police he held Dodge during the rape and stabbing and that Hobbs was still there, but Sargis was replaced by Hobb’s supposed friend, “Mike.” Tapp could not actually identify “Mike.”
As of January 30, Tapp had been subject to many hours of interrogation and was given his fifth polygraph examination. The administering officer told Tapp that he was being “deceptive” but still “passed.” During that test, Tapp was told he would get a more lenient sentence if he had been “in fear for his life” after seeing Dodge attacked. Tapp then “admitted” that he joined the assault and cut Dodge across the breast because Hobbs threatened to kill him. Tapp was formerly charged on February 3 with first-degree murder, rape, and use of a deadly weapon in the commission of a felony. While Hobbs was charged and convicted in the Nevada assault case, he was not charged for the Dodge crimes. Sargis had been charged as an accessory, but the charges were dismissed. “Mike” was never found.
The trial began on May 12, 1998, and Tapp’s attorneys moved to suppress the confession. Judge Ted V. Wood ruled that a majority of the statements could be used by prosecutors. Prosecutors relied heavily on Tapp’s confession, and replete with blatant inconsistencies, the tapes of the interrogations were played to the jury. Fuhriman testified that Tapp admitted details about what Dodge had been wearing prior to being shown crime scene photographs. A later examination of the interrogation tapes and polygraphs would reveal Fuhriman’s testimony to be false. Tapp never mentioned any details until after investigators had shown him photographs. Investigators typically rely on a factor called “sole-source information” during interviews. These are details of a crime only the police, a witness, or the perpetrator could know, thus validating a confession when volunteered details of a crime could only come from direct knowledge of the crime. Tapp’s confession was contaminated by police feeding him facts. Prosecutors also presented the testimony of Destiny Osborne. Osborne claimed that she overheard Tapp and Hobbs talking about Dodge’s murder at a party all three had attended. Osborne admitted that she had been intoxicated at the party. According to Osborne, Hobbs killed Dodge because she owed him money for methamphetamines. Tapp’s statements had indicated that Dodge didn’t do drugs. In 2017, Osborne would recant. Hobbs and Osborne had never known each other. Law enforcement had manipulated Osborne into testifying in exchange for dropping drug charges. Police had assured Osborne that she couldn’t actually remember more details due to her drug use.
During the trial, Tapp’s girlfriend and another woman both provided Tapp an alibi for the night of the murder. Prosecutors simply refuted this testimony as being incorrect. The defense argued that investigators ignored other evidence including exculpatory DNA results and that they had coerced a false confession. No direct evidence linked Tapp to the crimes. Prosecutors blamed the major inconsistencies on multiple unidentified assailants. Tapp’s confession overshadowed everything else. Innocence Project Co-Founder Peter Neufeld, and one of Tapp’s current attorneys, shared his thoughts: Once a judge or jury has heard there’s a confession, the defense is “screwed.”
Prosecutors moved for the death penalty, a sentence originally supported by Ms. Dodge. Tapp received ten years for the rape and 30 to life for the murder.
Ms. Dodge’s daughter had been murdered, and a man convicted. However, the unexplained DNA evidence left her unsettled and believing that another perpetrator must be out free. Seeking closure and still fixated on the case years later, she asked for copies of the interview tapes. Ms. Dodge’s concern was not that Tapp may be innocent, but instead the hope of finding the unknown person. When Ms. Dodge watched the tapes, it was nothing like what she had imagined when she was told that Tapp confessed. Ms. Dodge said of the investigators: “He would ask [Tapp] a question, and he would answer it for [Tapp].” When viewing the portion of the interrogation when “Mike” was offered as the source of the unidentified DNA, Ms. Dodge was appalled. Ms. Dodge said it was as if an “imaginary person” was offered up only to make the interrogation stop. From the moment Tapp was convicted, attorneys have tirelessly argued that Tapp was factually innocent and that the confession was the result of psychologically coercive interrogation techniques. In 2001, the Idaho Court of Appeals ruled that Tapp’s Miranda rights were violated several times but ruled that those errors were “harmless.” The Idaho Innocence Project (“IIP”) took on Tapp’s case in 2007 and had DNA testing conducted on hairs removed from Dodge’s clothing. The FBI concluded the hair was consistent with the semen and excluded Tapp. A judge denied an additional request for testing, and wrote, “While DNA testing may be relevant in identifying one of the assailants, such does not make it more probable that Tapp is innocent.” The IIP and John K. Thomas (“Thomas”) of the Bonneville County Public Defender’s Office continued work that, over the next decade, would lead to Dripps. “We used every new technique we could find to analyze the DNA to advance Mr. Tapp’s innocence claim,” said IIP Project Executive Director Greg Hampikian. The Innocence Project has also used DNA testing to clear someone in 367 exonerations. Nearly one-third of those also involved a false confession.
Ms. Dodge was still seeking to have the DNA tested any way she could conceive. As early as 2008, Ms. Dodge proclaimed, “I’ve been pushing for justice for my daughter for 12 years. I really don’t care how it gets done.” She would become instrumental in securing a genetic genealogist to analyze the unidentified DNA. Tapp’s case would become the first to use the novel forensic technique that pairs DNA samples with genealogy databases to exonerate a wrongfully convicted person. In 2013, Ms. Dodge was compelled by the interview tapes to reach out to Drizin, who had already been in contact with the Innocence Project since 2012. Drizin would secure help from the Innocence Project of New York and the Judges for Justice. Tapp’s case would accelerate in 2014. Drizin and former FBI Agent Stephen Moore (“Moore”) analyzed the confession and issued scathing reports. Drizin found that IFPD detectives had threatened Tapp with the “gas chamber,” attacked Tapp’s memory and claims of innocence, provided Tapp with information, promised immunity and then revoked it, and offered leniency if he confessed. Drizin’s report called Tapp’s confession “one of the most contaminated confessions” ever reviewed by Drizin in his last 15 years. “The net effect of all these tactics reduced Chris to a state of hopelessness, broke his will, and led him to start agreeing with the police theory of how Angie was murdered,” wrote Drizin.
Moore’s report was 68 pages highlighting each individual error and misstep by IFPD detectives. “The detectives’ mistaken conclusion (taken in the absence of any supporting physical evidence of Hobbs’ guilt in the Dodge case) clouded their judgment and allowed a predetermined conclusion to dictate the priorities and tactics of their subsequent investigation, rather than evidence already (and subsequently) obtained. In essence, the detectives appeared to accept as true anything that they [believed] agreed with their theories, and discarded anything which did not fit their preconceived notion of the crime,” wrote Moore. He noted that IFPD detective Phil Grimes also gave false testimony in a 2013 hearing. Tapp had not known Dodge’s apartment floor plan, where furniture had been, what clothes Dodge was wearing, or how many times she had been stabbed until Fuhriman, Grimes, or Detective Ken Brown provided the information. The errors were compounded by the use of the “Reid Technique.” Moore said the technique is “ultimately browbeating” if used incorrectly. The technique is named after Chicago officer and polygrapher John Reid. In 1955, Reid interrogated Darrel Parker, who ultimately confessed to murdering his wife. The “Reid Technique” gained popularity despite its inauspicious beginning; Parker was innocent. The IFPD received training in the interrogation and interview techniques from Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates Inc. (“Wicklander”). The technique consists of three phases: factual analysis (the evaluation of objective evidence), behavioral analysis (observing reactions to “normal” and “behavior provoking” questions), and interrogation (which should only occur if the subjects involvement is reasonably certain). Wicklander ceased training on the technique in 2017 due to another failure in the Brendan Dassey case. The IFPD still uses the Reid Technique, but Thomas notes that detectives “use less deception and lies than they once did.” Neufeld believes it was “irresponsible, and frankly, illegal” to interrogate Tapp this way. Neufeld said this was known in the 1990s, and it was not something detectives just learned in 2019.
Tapp’s full exoneration was a two-part process. Thomas and Bonneville County District Attorney Danny Clark reached an agreement to vacate Tapp’s rape conviction in 2017. At the time, Clark said: “Anyone who says Tapp is innocent is operating from a biased agenda or his or her own personal belief.” Ms. Dodge and Tapp’s team kept pushing on the murder conviction. Parabon Nanolabs was used to create a genetic profile from the DNA source. Although the sample was then degraded, the genetic profile created was run through GEDmatch. GEDmatch is a third-party database that analyzes results from commercial sites like AncestryDNA or 23andMe. The possible matches included Dripps. Detectives collected a cigarette butt discarded by Dripps and matched DNA from the 1996 murder and rape to Dripps. As a result, Tapp’s murder conviction was vacated on July 17, 2019. Judge Alan Stephens wrote, “As far as the court is concerned, you are cleared of the charges you have been living under for the past 20-plus years.” Clark was forced to change his position, stating, “[I]f there ever was a case that speaks to the proposition that when a defendant or suspect makes a statement, the police ought to make an effort to verify or check the veracity of those statements, this case is it. Hindsight is 20/20.” Potkin believes genetic genealogy will “play a pivotal role in the future” when exonerating the wrongfully convicted. Dripps pleaded guilty in February 2021 and is awaiting sentencing. Dripps said he acted alone and didn’t even know Tapp. “We are all deeply relieved that, finally, after more than 22 years, the court has acknowledged Mr. Tapp’s innocence. Sadly, this is a case that should have been resolved decades ago. DNA evidence excluded Mr. Tapp before he went to trial in 1997. This case is one more example of how false confessions trump all other evidence in our criminal justice system,” said Thomas.
Fortunately, Tapp’s interrogations had been recorded. Many states do not require recording of custodial interrogations. Experts suggest that all levels of law enforcement should be legally required to record all interviews, also suggesting it is imperative that interview methods be neither guilt-presumptive nor driven by coercive techniques or based on deceptions. It is a sad commentary on the American criminal justice system when the only parties practiced in the art of deception during this process were law enforcement, while the innocent man languished in prison for decades. “Today was a good day ... we heard Brian Dripps plead guilty and admit killing my sister and to raping her, there was some finality there that we’ve got the right guy this time and we’re looking forward to healing and going through the process of grieving,” said Dodge’s brother Brent Dodge.
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