CANADA

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES

An accused mass murderer claims a history of false confessions

BRIAN BERGMAN January 16 1995
CANADA

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES

An accused mass murderer claims a history of false confessions

BRIAN BERGMAN January 16 1995

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES

An accused mass murderer claims a history of false confessions

BRIAN BERGMAN

LIZA SARDI

CANADA

Dr. Shabeharam Lohrasbe, a Victoria-based forensic psychiatrist, has some thoughts about why former Yellowknife miner Roger Warren confessed to committing one of the biggest mass murders in Canadian history. According to Lohrasbe, the 51-year-old Warren—who is on trial for nine counts of first-degree murder related to an underground bomb explosion at the Giant gold mine near Yellowknife on Sept. 18, 1992—may be so susceptible to suggestion that he will, under the right circumstances, confess to crimes that he did not commit. Testifying last week before a Northwest Territories Supreme Court jury in Yellowknife, Lohrasbe suggested this might explain why Warren repeatedly confessed to police 13 months ago that he set the deadly bomb—confessions that he then recanted during his trial testimony last month. Observed Lohrasbe: “False confessions are often claimed by people.”

Lohrasbe was hired by Warren’s defence lawyer to examine their client last fall. After spending a total of 11 hours with the accused mass murderer, Lohrasbe concluded that Warren suffered from severe clinical depression when he made his confessions a year earlier. Lohrasbe also cited two incidents from Warren’s teenage years that he said indicate that Warren is prone to going along with suggestions from people in authority—even to the point of confessing to crimes he did not commit. In one case, a 19-year-old Warren pleaded guilty to stealing a car that was involved in a crash—even though he was too drunk at the time to remember the details and believed that someone else was actually driving the car. According to Warren, he entered the guilty plea on the advice of his father and a probation officer, and received a relatively light four-week jail sentence. Three years earlier, Warren said he had been involved with a gang that encouraged him to shoplift. After he got caught, he was urged by police to plead guilty in order to minimize his punishment. He did so, and, Warren told Lohrasbe, “everything was OK.” Concluded Lohrasbe: “As formative experiences, those are important.”

Crown prosecutor Peter Martin, who has repeatedly challenged Warren’s veracity during the course of the nine-week trial, expressed frank skepticism about Warren’s alleged propensity for false confessions. He noted that Lohrasbe had taken Warren at his word, without any attempt to corroborate his statements. He also recalled that Warren, under oath, had admitted that he could be a clever liar, given the proper motivation. How, asked Martin, could the psychiatrist be so sure that Warren was not lying to him as well? Lohrasbe conceded that if Warren were indeed lying, his diagnosis would be invalid. But he insisted that he had no reason to doubt Warren, and added: “I am anything but naive in these matters.”

The dramatic testimony concerning Warren’s state of mind marked the culmination of a trial that had already boasted an abundance of bizarre twists and turns. Justice Mark de Weerdt was to rule this week on whether another defence witness, Vancouver-based forensic psychologist Robert Ley, will be allowed to testify about his research on people who make false confessions. If the ruling is positive, Martin is expected to seek permission to call a forensic psychiatrist of his own to rebut. Once the medical evidence is complete, the defence and prosecution lawyers will deliver their closing arguments. De Weerdt will then provide his own summary of the evidence before instructing the jury on their options in reaching a verdict, possibly as early as this week.

That verdict cannot come too soon for the handful of relatives of the dead miners who have trudged daily to the downtown courtroom as temperatures outside remained a consistently numbing -20° C to -30° C. It is also eagerly anticipated by the 16,000 residents of Yellowknife who have lived for more than two years under the shadow of the unresolved deaths. The often violent strike at the Giant mine that led up to the September, 1992, explosion bitterly divided the tight-knit community, especially after the mine’s owner, Royal Oak Mines Inc., decided to hire 150 replacement workers to keep the business running. And although the labor dispute was finally settled in December, 1993—two months after Warren’s arrest—the wounds inflicted during the months of conflict continue to fester.

One of the key issues facing the jury as it begins its deliberations is to sort out exactly when Warren began what he himself has called his “tangled web of lies”—and when he stopped. At the outset of the trial, Martin vowed to prove Warren’s guilt “through [his own] mouth.” To that end, he entered as evidence the full six-hour audiotape of a police interrogation of Warren conducted on Oct. 15, 1993. For the first half of the session, Warren insisted that he had spent the night of the fatal explosion walking the picket lines. But RCMP Sgt. Greg McMartin made it clear he did not believe Warren and repeatedly urged him to “be a man” by confessing to the crime. After about three hours, Warren admitted to planting the bomb—although he insisted that it was meant to be tripped by an unmanned ore car rather than one of the rail cars used to transport miners.

The court was also shown a videotape in which Warren took police through the bowels of the Giant mine and methodically described how he set the explosives. As well, the jury listened to an audiotape that was secretly recorded by an undercover police officer planted in Warren’s prison cell shortly after his arrest. Warren confessed again to RCMP Cpl. Harry Ingram—who was posing as a husband who had skipped making alimony payments—that he had set the bomb. Warren told him he would only be convicted of criminal negligence because he never intended to kill anyone. He also said he confessed as a way of bringing the strike to an end. “A guy’s got to make his choice—150 families or your own wife and kids,” Warren said. “It’s the only f—-king reason that’d ever make me tell them. Otherwise, I wouldn’t care. I wouldn’t have done it ’cause I never really felt that bad.”

Warren’s defence also depends, to a large extent, on his own words—in this case, the nearly seven days he spent in the witness box. He recanted his various confessions to police, explaining that he was under stress and extremely depressed at the time. He felt lethargic and worthless for being out of a job, Warren said. He suffered from sexual impotence after taking medication to correct an irregular heartbeat and feared he might be dying from testicular cancer after feeling a lump in his scrotum. He had also, he added, started to hear voices in his head, urging him to reassert his manhood by confessing to the crimes.

Warren testified that he had fabricated the details of the crime by drawing on his own knowledge of mine operations and conversations with fellow strikers and by poring over a feature article that appeared in The Edmonton Journal on the first anniversary of the fatal explosion. The article detailed the then-current police theory of how three suspects had set the bomb. Defence lawyer Glen Orris presented into evidence a letter Warren wrote to two fellow miners from his prison cell in December, 1993. In it, Warren said he confessed because “the thought of another winter of this bullshit was just too overwhelming.” He added that “most if not all of the ‘evidence’

■ The Giant gold mine: I gave them is bullshit and based the verdict cannot on stuff I’d learned over the last 13 months including the Journal story. I just hope I haven’t buried myself by being too convincing.”

In his testimony last week, Lohrasbe described Warren as a “ruminative and brooding” man who was in a “self-destructive” state of despair when he made his police confessions. Had he been his doctor at the time, added the psychiatrist, he would have considered hospitalizing Warren and would “almost surely” have medicated him. In retrospect, the police officer’s urgings that Warren “be a man” just prior to his initial confession proved precisely the right button to press at a time when Warren was himself questioning his manhood, said Lohrasbe. As for the voices Warren later claimed to be hearing both before and during the interrogation, Lohrasbe saw these not as psychotic delusions, but as evidence of Warren’s internal debate on how useless he felt. In the end, concluded Lohrasbe, Warren “saw himself as having no choice” but to confess.

Not surprisingly, the prosecution took strong exception to both Lohrasbe’s methods and his conclusions. Describing the doctor’s diagnosis as “incomplete and one-sided,” Martin read into the record parts of another letter that Warren had written following his arrest. In it, Warren wrote that “every time in my life when I’m attacked or frightened, I attack. Never give an inch.” The prosecutor then suggested that such statements contradicted Lohrasbe’s portrayal of Warren as a non-confrontational man who acted irrationally when he confessed. It will now be up to the jury to decide whether the accused is a victim of his own web of deceit—or a cold-blooded killer.