THE BLOG
10/25/2013 11:12 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning's Fall From Grace

On Aug. 31, 2012, in Lincoln, Neb., Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning appeared at a press conference and apologized to Darrel Parker, a man who had been wrongfully convicted of the December 1955 murder of his wife, Nancy, at their Lincoln home. Parker had confessed to killing and sexually assaulting Nancy during an interrogation conducted by John E. Reid, a Chicago polygrapher and interrogation expert, and had been trying to clear his name for 56 years. While Parker went to state prison for 14 years, Reid returned to Chicago, where he built his interrogation training firm -- John E. Reid and Associates -- into a powerhouse and refined and marketed the methods he used in the Parker interrogation as the "Reid Technique," which today is the most widely used model for interrogating criminal suspects in the United States.

Mr. Bruning not only apologized to Parker, he declared that Parker was innocent and named Wesley Peery, an early suspect in Nancy's murder, as her real killer. Peery, who went on to rape and kill other women, confessed to his attorneys in great detail how he had murdered and raped Nancy Parker and gave them permission to release his confession after he died. Their posthumous release of Peery's confession should have exonerated Parker decades ago but several of the Lincoln officers who had arrested Parker protested and prevented him from being pardoned.

Mr. Bruning admitted that law enforcement officers had "dropped the ball" by letting Peery go and blamed Parker's false confession on John Reid's "questionable high pressure tactics that led to numerous false confessions."

Finally, Mr. Bruning dropped his opposition to Parker's lawsuit seeking compensation for his time spent in prison and announced that the State of Nebraska would pay Parker $500,000, the maximum amount allowed under the state's wrongful conviction compensation statute. In closing, he said, "We hope this acknowledgment of his innocence will provide some measure of closure for Mr. Parker and his loved ones."

The sight of Mr. Bruning shaking Darrel Parker's hand brought me to tears. I had assisted Parker's attorneys in his lawsuit and had come to admire Mr. Parker, not only for his struggle to be exonerated but because he is a kind and decent man. Mr. Bruning also restored some of my faith in prosecutors when he told reporters that he exonerated Parker because it was "the right thing" to do.

Earlier this week, however, in announcing a settlement in the civil rights cases of Matthew Livers and Nicholas Sampson (a case in which I was a counsel of record for Mr. Livers), Mr. Bruning tumbled from grace. In 2006, Livers, who is mentally disabled, and Sampson, who is Livers' cousin, were charged with murdering Livers' aunt and uncle -- Wayne and Sharman Stock -- in Murdock, Neb., based largely on a confession coerced by Nebraska law enforcement officers from Livers. The two men spent more than seven months in jail and were later cleared by DNA and other evidence that identified two Wisconsin teenagers -- Gregory Fester and Jessica Reid -- as the murderers.

This time, Mr. Bruning went out of his way to clear his officers of any wrongdoing for their role in coercing Livers' false confession. Instead, he blamed David Kofoed, a Douglas County crime scene investigator, who was arrested and ultimately convicted of planting Wayne Stock's blood in the car supposedly used by Mr. Livers and Mr. Sampson during the murder. Mr. Bruning even claimed that the Nebraska State officers -- a polygrapher and an interrogator -- had acted "honorably." They did not. During the Livers interrogation, these officers used many of the very same tactics that Bruning had condemned John Reid for using when he coerced Parker's false confession. Moreover, Livers' false confession predated Kofoed's evidence planting. Kofoed's planting of blood evidence was inexcusable -- a crime scene investigator's duty is to find the truth, not to manufacture it -- but claiming that Kofoed was solely at fault is revisionist history.

Livers falsely confessed to killing the Stocks after a marathon interrogation conducted by Cass County Deputy Sheriff Earl Schenck and Nebraska State Patrol Investigator William Lambert. The interrogation, which was video-recorded, featured Lambert and Schenck browbeating Livers by telling him -- falsely -- that he had failed a polygraph exam. More than fifty years earlier, Reid had used the same polygraph false evidence ploy against Parker. Schenck threatened Livers with the death penalty, telling him that he would "hang him from the highest tree" if he continued to assert his innocence. According to Parker, Reid told him that he would "fry" unless he led Reid to his wife's missing watch. In the end, Livers, like Reid, parroted back a story fed to him by his interrogators. Livers confessed to shooting both victims with a shotgun, and at the urging of the officers, also implicated Sampson.

Livers and Sampson might have ended up on death row if not for DNA evidence left at the crime scene by Jessica Reid and Gregory Fester. Like the young couple in the film Natural Born Killers, Reid and Fester had stolen a car and took off on a drug-fueled cross-country crime spree. Their spree landed them in Murdock where they gunned down the Stocks after Wayne offered resistance and Sharman tried to call 911 on the bedroom phone. In their haste to get away, however, they left a ring and a marijuana pipe at the Stock home with their DNA on them.

Reid and Fester were eventually arrested on a stolen car charge in Wisconsin. When interrogated, Reid soon confessed to the Stock murders and implicated Fester. This led to perhaps the most dishonorable of all the actions taken by Nebraska's law enforcement officers. They travelled to Wisconsin and coerced Reid into implicating Livers, despite her repeated insistence that she had never met either Livers or Sampson.

There is nothing honorable about the way in which the Nebraska officers bullied a mentally impaired man into falsely confessing to a double murder. Mr. Bruning should be insisting that the Livers interrogation be required viewing for every law enforcement officer in Nebraska, and he should instruct the Nebraska State Patrol to use the recording to train its officers on how not to interrogate suspects. Mr. Bruning should demand that the agency teach its officers about false confessions, the role that John E. Reid's and others' psychological interrogation tactics play in false confessions, and the dangers of contaminating suspects' confessions by feeding facts.

Mr. Bruning should also stop being an apologist for the law enforcement officers in this case. Instead, as he did in the Parker case, he should issue a hearfelt apology to Matthew Livers and Nicholas Sampson for the harm that all of Nebraska's officers - and not just David Kofoed -- inflicted on them.

Only then will Livers and Sampson and their loved ones get some measure of closure. And only then, will Jon Bruning be restored to grace.

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