Chris Tapp’s two petitions for post-conviction relief will be heard in April, when two extensive evidentiary hearings will be held.
So April may be Tapp’s last, best chance to argue that he is innocent of the 1996 murder of 18-year-old Angie Dodge.
A key development is that Judge Alan Stephens will treat videos of Tapp’s polygraph sessions as new evidence. Tapp’s attorneys and a team of false confession experts claim that the polygraphs were used to coerce a false confession.
Tapp has been in prison for 20 years. He was convicted in 1997 and sentenced to 30 years to life. His appeals have so far failed.
But in 2014, a set of outside experts — including a false confession expert, two former FBI supervisory special agents, a polygraph expert and a retired judge — produced a set of lengthy reports concluding that Tapp had been wrongfully convicted based on a false confession, the result of police coercion.
Then-Prosecutor Bruce Pickett decided to hire an outside investigator to review the case shortly before departing to become a judge.
Last week, Prosecutor Danny Clark concluded that review. He said there isn’t new evidence that proves to a very high probability that Tapp is innocent, though he acknowledged that Tapp’s confession is almost entirely uncorroborated.
Tapp has two petitions for post-conviction relief before Stephens. One is based on DNA testing, the other on a set of polygraphs to which Tapp was subjected.
Tapp’s DNA has never been found at the crime scene. All the DNA found so far matches one unknown man or others Dodge knew who have been cleared.
Public Defender John Thomas sought additional testing of several items from the crime scene, including a teddy bear which Tapp confessed to holding over Dodge’s mouth to muffle her screams. Prosecutors didn’t oppose further testing. The new tests also failed to turn up Tapp’s DNA. Prosecutors indicated Tuesday they will perform more tests, which Thomas didn’t oppose.
Stephens blocked out a week between April 4 and April 10, when that evidence and expert testimony will be extensively reviewed.
Tapp’s second petition argues that a set of polygraph videos demonstrate that he falsely confessed under police coercion.
Boise State University polygraph expert Charles Honts’ report argues that the examinations were performed in a “bizarre” and “grotesquely improper” fashion, not to assess whether Tapp was lying but instead as a “psychological rubber hose.”
“Even a cursory review … reveals that the conduct of the alleged polygraph tests was so sub-standard and so far from acceptable practice that the only reasonable conclusion would be that (the polygraph was) never intended to be used as an assessment of credibility,” Honts wrote.
A prosecution-hired investigator noted that Sgt. Jared Fuhriman testified extensively to the jury that Tapp hadn’t been provided details of the crime by police. But the investigator found that extensive information about the crime had been fed to Tapp, including during the polygraphs. The only detail of the confession which the investigator found hadn’t been fed to Tapp by police is that Dodge was wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants.
Stephens’ most important finding so far is that videos of Tapp’s polygraph sessions will be treated as new evidence.
“I would look at all of that evidence from a standpoint of whether or not the polygraph examinations were actually interrogations as opposed to true polygraph tests,” Stephens said.
Deputy Prosecutor John Dewey protested that the tapes are not new evidence because all but one were turned over to the defense.
“As a defense attorney, I would look at the polygraph report and I would think, ‘OK, well, there’s nothing there. The interrogation is where I’ve got to place my emphasis,’” Stephens responded. “And so this would be new evidence.”
Dewey said there’s no evidence that Tapp’s defense didn’t look at the tapes, so they should be disregarded. Stephens told Dewey he could file a motion arguing that position.
Stephens scheduled a hearing on the false confession petition beginning April 24. He also indicated that he doesn’t plan to issue a ruling on either petition until he has heard both.
“I don’t think, the way these are filed, that it would make sense for me to rule on either of them until I hear the evidence in both cases, frankly,” he said. “Because I believe that either the positive evidence or lack of evidence in the DNA case may affect how I look at the allegations with regard to the confession.”
Tapp has been in jail or prison for 7,256 days.
Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.