SAN DIEGO —- A federal judge ruled Monday that three teenagers initially accused of killing Stephanie Crowe can sue the makers of a voice analyzer test that police used to gauge whether the boys were lying when in the days following the child’s death.
The teens, now young adults, were charged with murder in the 1998 stabbing death of the 12-year-old Escondido girl. The three were jailed, in large part, based on statements two of them made to police during lengthy interrogations.
The families are suing the National Institute for Truth Verification, which makes the voice analyzer machine that police used in interrogating the boys.
The suit proclaims that the manufacturers are liable for the harm the boys suffered, and that the product led the boys to make false and misleading statements to police. Calling the machine a “fraud,” in recent court documents, Michael Crowe’s attorney argued that use of the machine caused Crowe to doubt his memory, and ultimately prompted the boy to tell police that he must have killed his sister, even though he could not remember doing so.
The makers of the product, which is called a Computer Voice Stress Analyzer, argued that use of the machine —- and the damning statements from the boys that followed —- represented only a small part of the reason the three boys were arrested for the slaying.
Charges against the boys were dropped a year later, after DNA tests revealed the slain girl’s blood on the clothing of transient Richard Tuite. Last year, a jury convicted Tuite in the girl’s death.
Long before Tuite’s arrest, the families of the three boys sued the Escondido police department and others, mostly over a slew of allegations that included violations of constitutional rights in the boys and the families were treated.
The boys’ attorneys argued that confessions —- later ruled by a court to have been coerced —- elicited from two of the boys were the main reason the teenagers were arrested.
U.S. District Judge John Rhoades said it’s up to a jury to decide just how much impact the machine had on the arrests.
The ruling means the six-year-old civil case may finally head to trial, although the case is now just a sliver of what it once was.
“It’s the first morsel of anything we’ve got to chew on,” Crowe family attorney Milt Silverman said after the hearing. Stephanie’s older brother Michael Crowe was among the three boys accused in her slaying. Buddies Joshua Treadway and Aaron Houser were also jailed charged with murder. Crowe was 14 at the time, Treadway and Houser were 15.
Most of the civil suit filed by the families of the three boys against the Escondido police department and others has been dismantled, with Rhoades tossing much of the case dealing with alleged constitutional violations.
The families argue that the arrests came primarily as a result of damning statements from Crowe and Treadway. All three of the boys took the “truth verification” tests during their questioning, and all three boys were told by police that they had failed the tests.
Silverman also argued that the makers of the product —- which he said has “no scientific validity whatsoever” —- misrepresented its accuracy to police.
At the end of two 10-hour interrogations, Treadway ultimately told police the three teenagers had followed through on a plan to kill Stephanie, 12 years old at the time of her death.
A videotape of the interrogations show Treadway focusing intently on the results of the “truth verification” test, which police told him he failed.
The makers of the voice stress analyzer, the National Institute for Truth Verification, had asked Rhoades to disallow the three families from suing them.
Attorneys for the makers of the product claimed the results of the tests did not play a part in the charging and jailing of the three boys. They pointed out that Rhoades, in earlier rulings, found that the police did have probable cause to arrest the boys.
Kim Oberrecht, attorney for the makers of the machine, told the judge that there are no facts to support the plaintiffs’ theory that the boys confessed because of the machine.
Oberrecht declined to comment after the hearing.
Last month, Rhoades ruled the Crowe family has no grounds to sue on most of its claims, including a claim that police violated their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure during the investigation into the girl’s death.
Also, the Crowe family cannot sue over the lengthy police interrogations of Michael Crowe, nor can the family sue over their claims that police wrongly arrested him for the slaying, Rhoades found.
Rhoades did agree to let part of the suit move forward, including allegations by Stephanie’s parents that Escondido police falsely imprisoned them by refusing to let them leave the police station. However, Escondido police are challenging that ruling in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Rhoades’ findings last month came a year after he granted defense requests to toss out almost all of the claims the Houser and Treadway families raised.