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Interrogating a Suspect With an Intellectual Disability Using the Reid Technique: Recipe for a False Confession

by Jo Ellen Nott

On April 25, 2023, the Virginia ­Supreme Court issued an order refusing to hear the case of Michael L. Ledford, a man who was convicted of arson and first-degree murder in September 2000 when he was just 23 years old and the father of a baby boy.

Ledford was sentenced in 2001 to a total of 50 years based on a coerced confession obtained after five hours of high-pressure interrogation. After years of pro se petitions, hearings, and appeals, the high court of Virginia shut the door on a possible exoneration for Ledford. The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project with the pro bono help of law firm Baker Botts has represented Ledford since 2016.

The dry legal facts are merely the tip of the iceberg in the Ledford murder-arson conviction. Below the surface of that iceberg that shattered Ledford’s life at 23 lie a mountain of police and prosecutorial missteps that put an innocent man in prison for half a century. First and foremost, Ledford is autistic. He was diagnosed by a University of Virginia clinical and forensic psychologist as being “in the autistic spectrum or [having] a severe nonverbal learning disorder.”

On the night of October 10, 1999, Ledford left for the fire station where he volunteered after making sure his wife and infant son had fallen asleep. He stopped to gas up before heading to the station. Just 20 minutes later, while Ledford was doing paperwork, 911 calls started coming in about a house fire. Tragically, that fire was blazing in Ledford’s apartment in the town of Stuarts Draft located on the northwest side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

Ledford’s journey to being wrongfully convicted began when police, witnessing him in mute shock, and misjudging a reaction typical to those on the autism spectrum, made Ledford their top suspect. Witnesses that night reported he did not try hard enough to run into the blazing living room. He did not cry or scream. Unknown to the bystanders Ledford stood locked within himself in fear and horror. 

Because of his spectrum behaviors Ledford was not well regarded by others, and his wife Elise’s family did not like him. As Time magazine described Ledford, “He was abrasive, cold, quiet. He was awkward, a mess in social situations. Sometimes he had a temper, sometimes a deep gloom. To the police, this husband and father wasn’t performing a convincing husbandly or fatherly grief.”

Despite Ledford being in shock over losing his one-year-old son to toxic smoke inhalation and his wife lying in a hospital with third-degree burns, the police interrogated him for five hours without a lawyer. They used a common but brutal interrogation method known as the Reid Technique, designed to intimidate and deceive hardened criminals.  

The Reid Technique begins with lies: the interrogator tells the suspect emphatically that his or her guilt is established, that all the evidence has been gathered, and there is nothing the suspect can say to disprove it. The interrogator then says all he or she wants to know is “why.” The interrogator blocks every attempt the suspect makes to claim innocence. 

To end the interrogation the detective offers a tempting option — “a more socially acceptable reason for the crime, one that shows conscience.” The interrogator makes the suspect believe he can help him if the suspect confesses to the reasonable explanation the interrogator has invented instead of the awful reason he has falsely presented as the supposed real motive.

In Ledford’s case, the interrogator invented a kind-hearted desperation on Ledford’s part to appeal to his wife’s family and the community in large who do not like him: “You set the fire, you leave, maybe come in and be the hero. That’s fine and I, I can respect you for that.”  The interrogator cleverly manipulated Ledford to admit he committed arson to save the day and be a hero to his wife and her family.

The Reid Technique is used extensively in police interview rooms. Time magazine explains: “It begins with the interrogator’s dangerous unproven conclusion that the subject is guilty. It is not intended to draw out a confession that might condemn the suspect on its own, but to uncover new, unknown details—intimate ones that could then be corroborated, a body, a weapon, some real proof.” In Ledford’s case the interrogator made him believe and ultimately confess that he had thrown a lit candle on the living room chair while he walked out the door to go to the fire station.

After the interrogation, the police report was then re-written to reflect the sketchy details extracted from Ledford about the candle. It now matched the confession, and conveniently, no investigation was conducted to corroborate those details. The confession and the amended report were the prosecutor’s only proof of guilt presented at the trial. Lacking physical evidence which could tie Ledford to the arson, the prosecution used Ledford’s normal autistic behaviors (asking inappropriate questions about his wife’s life support, for example) as something sinister. He was convicted and sentenced to 50 years.

Years later, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project (“MAIP”) recreated, with the help of thermodynamic scientists, the scenario described in Ledford’s confession—a lighted candle thrown onto an upholstered living room chair. They discovered the fatal blaze could not have happened. The burn patterns and the timeline given in Ledford’s story did not square with forensic science. 

In an evidentiary hearing in July 2021, Ledford’s defense team discussed the expert findings from the fire experiment that led to alleged discrepancies in Ledford’s confession. In his coerced confession, Ledford falsely admitted to throwing a candle onto the seat of a chair which then began the fire.

However, according to the expert findings, the MAIP arranged and financed, the burn patterns on the wall showed the fire began at the base and back of the chair, not the cushion, which Ledford’s new defense counsel said would invalidate Ledford’s confession.

There was no information that showed the source of the fire from the experiment, attorney Jana Seidl pointed out. She also argued that the timeline did not make sense for Ledford to have started the fire. Based on the amount of time the chair would have taken to burn and the 911 reports of the fire, Seidl proved it was impossible for Ledford to have been the arsonist.

Seidl said the MAIP’s claim was solely based on the new scientific testing and conclusively proved the confession was false and Ledford was wrongly charged.

The evidentiary court established the MAIP’s arguments as legal truth—a huge victory for Ledford. The Virginia Court of Appeals, however, denied Ledford a writ of actual innocence. On April 25, 2023, the Virginia Supreme Court refused to consider the case. Apparently, the Virginia judicial system cannot see fit to disregard a undoubtedly coerced and false confession.

Despite the forensic evidence in his favor and found valid in a Virginia court, Ledford will now spend another 27 years in prison. The last hope for Ledford is clemency. His defense team at the MAIP can appeal for a pardon from Republic Governor Glenn Youngkin. 

Time magazine points out the daunting challenge of obtaining a pardon: “getting people with low bandwidth and mired in bureaucracy to ‘dial into the substance’ and to reckon with the truth—that false confessions happen, [and] that our judicial system, rigged against the vulnerable, may be unable to undo its own greatest mistakes.”  

Sources:  Baker Botts, Case Text, Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, The Innocence Project, News Leader, Skeptical Juror, Time

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