This American Life story prompts $5M lawsuit over 1994 false confession

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A This American Life story may help a woman prove that Washington, D.C., police violated her civil rights when a detective obtained a false confession from her 18 years ago.

Kim Crafton filed a lawsuit Sept. 3 against the Washington Metropolitan Police over the 1994 incident, which became the subject of an October 2013 TAL story. The report featured D.C. Officer James Trainum, who had interrogated Crafton, discussing what led to the false confession in her case.

In February 1994, Crafton, who was 19 at the time, confessed to killing D.C. resident Lawrence O’Connell. Police had interrogated her for 17 hours. While she awaited trial in prison for 10 months, investigators found that a homeless shelter’s log showed she had been at the shelter when the crime was committed. Though innocent, Crafton had confessed to the crime to bring the long interrogation to an end.

Her case was dismissed without prejudice, leaving open the possibility that she could be retried in the future if authorities uncovered more evidence that implicated her.

Trainum, the lead interrogator in the case, told TAL that at the time he didn’t understand why Crafton confessed. He reviewed a tape of the interrogation, which he had inadvertently filmed in its entirety. Usually, police record only confessions.

As he watched the video, Trainum noticed that he had shared details of the crime with Crafton that she later used in her confession. At the time, he thought her knowledge of the details confirmed her guilt. He didn’t realize that he had been the source.

“I thought I was a very conscientious, very methodical, very detail-oriented detective,” Trainum said in the TAL segment. “I would never, ever want to feed information or contaminate a suspect. And here I am doing it plain as day.”

Trainum’s appearance on TAL was not the first time he had told his story. He’s toured the country for a decade to discuss how he got a false confession and has worked with the Innocence Project and other groups to advocate for filming interrogations and developing better interrogation methods.

But when Saul Elbein, the reporter who produced the TAL segment, contacted Crafton, he found that she had never heard Trainum’s side of the story.

“He’s been telling the same story since the early 2000s to basically anybody who will listen,” Elbein said. “It wasn’t like we went and found some story that was hidden — he was eager to tell the story. The difference is that Kim had no idea about it.”

While Trainum was advocating for policy changes, Crafton was still living in the shadow of her confession. Because the case was dismissed without prejudice, the murder charge still appeared on background checks, making it hard for her to get a job. Crafton also lost custody of her children in a case in which the charge was used as evidence against her.

Until she was contacted by Elbein, Crafton didn’t know that her confession had been coerced, a violation of her civil rights. After learning that she had grounds for a lawsuit, Crafton filed a $5 million suit against Trainum and the police department, alleging that they violated her right to due process and accusing them of coercing a confession, malicious prosecution, intentional infliction of emotional distress and false imprisonment.

The suit has been submitted to the court, but the police department and Trainum have not been summoned to respond. Loyd Hopkins, Crafton’s lawyer, says that though Trainum has admitted to coercing the confession, the police could argue that too much time has passed.

“I don’t think this is an issue of proof,” he said. “The radio interview in and of itself is shockingly unambiguous — [Trainum] tells you exactly what he did, exactly why it was wrong and how it was wrong. The issue that [the police department] is going to pound is that it’s allegedly past a three-year statute of limitations that would govern normal cases. But this is not a normal case.”

Hopkins argues that the statute of limitations is irrelevant because Crafton was unaware of many details of how and why her case was dismissed until Elbein contacted her. The lawyer expects that the D.C. police department will settle the lawsuit if its move to dismiss is rejected.

“I would suspect and hope that Detective Trainum would be consistent with his current course of conduct, which is remorseful and contrite,” he said. “If he’s as honest and sincere as he came across in the radio interview, than I suspect he’ll tell the District to settle the case.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier headline on this article referred to a “false conviction” instead of a “false confession.” Crafton was never convicted.