Faking a Murderer?
Alleged False Confession Key in Olive Street Homicide Trial
Joseph Castro walked into the interrogation room cocky and relaxed. He joked with detectives and showed off his gang tattoos, taking special pride in the “fukk my enemies” along his collarbone. The extra “k,” he explained, was for the Eastside Krazies, the Santa Barbara gang he joined when he was 12 years old, like his uncles and grandpa before him.
Six hours later, Castro was a broken man, worn down by a relentless line of questioning over the murder of Kelly Hunt. He held his head and sobbed as he confessed to killing the Ventura gang member the previous February. He said he used a .38 revolver loaded with hollow-point bullets to shoot Hunt four times as they walked down Olive Street, twice in the back and twice after he hit the pavement. Castro remembered Hunt whispering, “Homie … homie …” as he struggled to breathe.
Castro said he murdered Hunt — who’d grown tweaky and unpredictable from heavy drug use — because he had threatened to shoot fellow Krazies. Castro described how he and mutual friend Isaac Jimenez planned earlier in the morning to kill Hunt sometime that day. The opportunity came in the early evening when the three broke off from a party to drink beer under the Santa Barbara High School bleachers and to steal a car on the Mesa. Castro said he didn’t want to shoot Hunt on the high school campus, where he had fond memories as a good student and varsity football player.
The detectives asked Castro if he felt bad about killing Hunt. He shrugged and replied, “It’s just how it is.” His tears, he said, were for his younger brother and sister, whom he would miss in prison.
This week, a jury of 10 women and two men in the ongoing trial of Castro and Jimenez watched video footage of Castro’s lengthy interrogation and confession. As evidence for the prosecution, it’s compelling and offers rare insight into the methods police employ to convince suspects to talk. But in a bold gambit to sway the jurors, Castro’s defense team is also using the footage to argue he was unlawfully coerced into giving what they claim was a false confession. They promised Castro would now give an honest account of what happened that night and how it was Jimenez who gunned down Hunt.
Under questioning from his attorney Michael Hanley, Castro testified that he initially took the rap to avoid being labeled a snitch by his gang, which would put him and his family in danger. He argued detectives tricked him into breaking his silence by feeding him lies about evidence and insincere promises of leniency. Both Castro and Jimenez — who have been in County Jail since their arrest in August 2013 — face charges of first-degree murder and conspiracy, with gang and firearm enhancements. Friends since high school, they’ve been implicated in other shootings and assaults before and after the murder.
At the time of his death, Hunt — a founding member of the Ventura-based Crazy Winos street gang — had forged an alliance with Castro and the Krazies through Jimenez. Castro, then 20 years old, was feared and respected among city cliques and had ties to Mexican Mafia associates, who held sway over Latino gang activity throughout the county. He was also a member of Palabra, a nonprofit group whose purported mission was to steer young men away from gang life.
The interrogation video reveals a cramped room in police headquarters with bare walls, three chairs, and a small metal table. It shows that soon after Castro denies involvement in Hunt’s murder, Detective Brian Larson informs him police already collected a mountain of evidence against him and others, including more than 400 interviews, numerous phone records, Facebook transcripts, and surveillance footage. Larson, the lead investigator on the case, starts easy, leaning back in his chair and telling Castro, “I don’t want to put you on the spot” and “I don’t think all of this is your fault.”
After more stonewalling from Castro, Larson turns up the heat. He says Jimenez has also been arrested and already ratted on Castro. “He’s talking, and he’s talking about you,” Larson states, which was reportedly untrue. Larson tells Castro he needs his side of the story. Other Krazies have already given up information; he should help himself. “Don’t let other people write your story.”
Larson hints that police believe Jimenez was the triggerman. In so many words, he suggests Castro’s life is worth more because he has a girlfriend, more friends, more respect in his gang, a coaching job at the Boy’s Club, and because “Isaac is a weird cat” who seems capable of such a cold-blooded act. “Don’t trade your fate for Isaac’s,” Larson says as he slowly leans forward in his chair.
The one-sided conversation then moves to Hunt. Larson calls him an “asshole” who regularly threatened people at gunpoint, sold drugs, and gangbanged up and down the South Coast. “Did Kelly have something coming?” he asks. Larson also appeals to Castro’s admitted desire to impress his gang. If he shot Hunt, Larson said, he should be proud of it. “It was a clean shooting. Every round was on target. … If you’re going to prison, go in as a killer. Go in legit.”
As the hours tick by, Larson stresses that Castro’s honesty will go a long way with a jury. To stay silent would mean sacrificing the best years of his life to a lonely existence in prison. “If you didn’t do this, I want you to be a free man,” Larson says. “People beat cases all the time.” On the flip side, Larson goes on, police have already wrapped up their case. Castro’s testimony would have little impact.
Castro concedes he was with Hunt and Jimenez and that he heard the gunshots. Larson seizes on the partial admission and tells Castro he’s already made himself look like a rat. He might as well give it all up. Everyone spills eventually, Larson says, and they aren’t killed because of it. If they were, “there’d be no more gangsters.”
As Larson talks about Castro’s girlfriend, mother, and other loved ones, Castro says he’s had enough and is ready to go to jail. “Fuck that,” says Larson. “That’s not how I work. I will not lock you up with ‘I don’t knows.’” Larson leans closer and puts his hand on a sobbing Castro’s shoulder. “Let it out,” Larson says. “God already knows what happened. Why not tell, man?” Soon after, Castro confesses, “Fuck it. I did everything,” he says.
With additional questioning and Castro’s confession, Larson leaves the room. As Castro sits alone, he says to himself: “Fucking Isaac snitching me out on his shit …” Earlier in the interview Castro talked to Larson about watching the reality TV show The First 48, which depicts interrogations of murder suspects through video and audio recordings. Castro also appeared at one point to look directly into the camera mounted in the room.
In Court, the Story Changes
On the stand this Friday, Castro told the jury he stood in shock as Jimenez wordlessly murdered Hunt. “Isaac pulled his gun out in the middle of the street and shot him,” he declared. Earlier in the day, Castro claimed, Jimenez confided in him that Hunt was acting angry and erratic, that he wanted to kill Hunt before Hunt could kill him.
Castro said he gave Larson a false confession because of the gang-life pressure to never cooperate with law enforcement. He claimed he’s since renounced his allegiance to the Krazies and gone into protective custody to avoid retaliation. “It was the hardest decision I ever made in my life,” he said. Castro complained Larson lied to him, never produced a charging document, and didn’t end the interrogation when Castro asked him to stop.
Prosecutor Kimberly Siegel countered Castro was treated fairly in his six hours at police headquarters. He was offered meals and breaks and felt comfortable enough to openly yawn and burp, she said. Siegel noted Castro has shown little remorse for Hunt’s death. If Castro didn’t pull the trigger, she asked, did he think to warn Hunt of Jimenez’s intentions or render aid as he lay bleeding on the ground? Castro said no. The only reason Castro might appear sorry, Siegel charged, is “because you’re in this situation now.”
On Monday, Hanley called an expert on false confessions to testify — Dr. Richard Leo, a law professor and forensic psychologist who’s written books on the subject and was retained in the homicide case depicted in the Netflix series Making a Murderer. Leo talked about the phenomenon in general, stopping short of offering an opinion on Castro’s case. He said not long ago the judicial system believed only crazy people rendered false confessions. Research now shows 15-25 percent of wrongful convictions are based on unreliable confessions given by otherwise rational individuals.
Leo described how the solitary goal of a police interrogation — as opposed to an interview — is to move a suspect already believed guilty from a denial to an admission by persuading them that the benefits of a confession outweigh the costs of being silent. The process starts with detectives convincing a suspect that he or she is caught. They present evidence, which can be real or made up. It’s perfectly legal for police to concoct a “ruse,” said Leo, though he and other researchers refer to the strategy as “lying about evidence.”
Then comes the carrot and the stick. Detectives will tell a subject it’s in his or her best interest to stop denying and start admitting. They appeal to the person’s self-interest, that talking will feel better and help their case. “The concept is very counterintuitive, but what didn’t make sense to the person at the start of the interrogation can start to make sense by the end,” said Leo.
Police get themselves into trouble when their promises and threats — whether explicit or implied — put so much pressure on a person that they perceive they have no choice but to cooperate, Leo said. “Their will has been broken.” Age, personality type, fatigue, drug withdrawal, and other factors increase the risk of false confessions, he went on. Police can accidentally “misclassify” a suspect (deciding they’re guilty when they aren’t) or disclose facts about the case that weren’t public. That “contaminates” the interrogation, Leo said.
Most interrogations last 15-45 minutes. False confessions tend to occur after six-eight hours. Leo stated 80-90 percent of suspects waive their Miranda rights — as Castro did — because they believe they will look bad if they don’t talk.
The trial continues next Monday when Jimenez and his attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu will put on a defense. Proceedings are expected to last until Wednesday or Thursday, at which point the jury will begin deliberations.