The jury was never supposed to hear or see the interrogations of David J. Paul at the Juneau Police Department station on Aug. 18, 2010, wherein he admits to accidentally dropping his girlfriend’s baby.
Police had ignored his request for counsel, lied to him about failing a polygraph (which the defense says was just a ruse), made false promises, used his girlfriend as a “bargaining chip” against him and ultimately coerced involuntary statements out of him that were deemed unreliable, according to the judge who ruled the interrogations amounted to a constitutional violation and were illegal.
The scenario previously prompted Judge Philip Pallenberg to throw out the indictment that charged Paul with the murder and manslaughter of the 4-month-old baby. Pallenberg suppressed the statements during pre-trial litigation at the request of the defense, making them inadmissible at trial.
“No one of these factors, in and of itself, would require a finding that the subsequent statements were involuntary. However, when I consider — as the court must — the totality of the circumstances, I cannot find that the state has met its burden of showing that the subsequent statements were made voluntarily,” Pallenberg wrote in his ruling at the time.
So how then, as the trial against Paul continues into its fourth week in Juneau Superior Court, did portions of the four-hour long videotaped interrogations make their way into court on Tuesday? Jurors watched as two detectives grilled Paul — who was later re-indicted on the murder and manslaughter charges — until he paused in silence, admitted to dropping Rian Jambi Orr and broke down crying.
“I accidentally dropped her,” Paul quietly tells Det. Kim Horn and Det. Russ Haight in an interview that took place in a windowless interrogation room after administering an unscorable polygraph test.
“Where’d you drop her?” Horn asks.
“The bathroom floor,” he replies.
As it turns out, the defense, who earlier pushed for the statements to be suppressed, were the ones to introduce them into evidence on Tuesday. But only because their hand was forced, they said.
Assistant Public Defender Eric Hedland said it was in response to a videotaped police interview prosecutors played earlier at trial, wherein Paul admits to JPD Sgt. Paul Hatch in July 2011 that in addition to accidentally dropping the baby, he also shook her once right afterward to make her stop crying. The state was allowed to play that tape for the jury since the judge ruled the July 2011 interview with Hatch was not tainted by the earlier illegality.
“Our bringing in earlier statements is necessitated by the court’s ruling that the later statements come in,” Hedland said recently. “If none of the statements come in, we wouldn’t be introducing them. We’re introducing them in response to what the state is doing.”
Medical testimony thus far has shown a drop would not have caused Rian Jambi Orr’s death since she did not have a skull fracture or any sign of external head injury. Witnesses for the state say she could have died from something akin to shaken baby syndrome, while the defense argues that’s not a valid scientific theory.
Still, Paul’s statements to Hatch gave credence to the state’s theory of child abuse. Assistant District Attorney Angie Kemp says the “one forceful shove back” Paul admitted to was probably not enough to cause Orr’s brain damage, but it goes to show that there is “more to the story” that Paul is not saying. Kemp says the state plans on arguing during closing statements, which will take place later this week, that Paul’s “ever-evolving” statements to police demonstrates that he is lying about what really happened the morning of Aug. 9, 2010, when the 4-month-old was found seizing and taken to the hospital. Orr was flown to a Seattle hospital and died a week later.
The defense, however, played the videotapes of the 2010 interrogations to show that Paul’s later statements to Hatch in 2011 were not in a vacuum. They go to show Paul’s state of mind at the time, and to demonstrate to the jury the psychological journey — and pressures — Paul endured before eventually giving incriminating statements to Hatch. Hedland says Paul’s statements were untrue and that he plans to call an expert witness to the stand on Wednesday who will testify about false confessions.
Before that, though, Hedland on Tuesday called the two detectives involved in the 2010 interrogations to the witness stand and questioned them about ignoring Paul’s request for a lawyer, not allowing Paul to see his girlfriend who was in the JPD lobby waiting for him during the prolonged stay at the station, and interrogation tactics.
With Haight on the stand, Hedland strived to establish that interrogations are not truth or fact-finding missions but they are solely to elicit an admission from someone who police think is guilty. Haight pushed back on the notion.
“What happens if they are telling the truth?” Hedland asks. “You just don’t like it, and you keep saying, ‘You better tell me something different, you better tell me something different. (He says) ‘I’m telling you the truth, I’m telling you the truth,’ and you don’t like it.”
“Obviously, he wasn’t telling the truth until that point,” Haight says.
“Why is that obvious?” Hedland asks.
“He actually admitted what happened,” Haight responds. “We knew to that point what had happened, and what he was telling us was not the truth.”
At that point, Hedland got Haight to say that false confessions do happen, and it’s necessary to look at external facts to line up stories in order to get to the truth.
Haight conceded to Hedland that during the interview with Paul, he simultaneously was introducing two contradictory theories to see if Paul would admit one of them: that Paul ‘accidentally’ hurt the baby, or that he grew ‘frustrated’ with the baby, causing him to act on his emotions.
“So you collectively are trying to get Mr. Paul to tie himself in some way to an act that caused Rian’s injuries. Is that fair?” Hedland asked.
“I think so, yes,” Haight responded.
“And the strategy there is to then use that as a hook to admit frustration or some purposefulness or some reckless conduct?”
“That’s safe to say, sure,” Haight says.
“Because that’s what makes it a crime, in your mind, right?” Hedland continues.
“That’s what makes it a crime,” Hedland repeats.
“The frustration!” Hedland exclaims.
“OK, sure,” Haight says.
“Accidentally dropping a baby is not a crime, right?” Hedland presses.
Under cross-examination, prosecutors played an audio tape wherein Paul tells police that he once slapped the wrist of a young boy he was baby-sitting because he knocked over his X-box, and that at other times he called a child derogatory names.
The state did not have time to ask Haight any questions and will resume cross-examining him on Wednesday.
Attorneys say the case will go to the jury no later than Thursday. If convicted, Paul could be facing up to 99 years in jail for second-degree murder, plus another 20 years for manslaughter.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.