For more than a year, the Bonneville County Prosecutor’s Office has conducted a review of the evidence against Chris Tapp, who has served 20 years in prison for the 1996 murder of Angie Dodge.
On Thursday, Prosecutor Danny Clark finished that review.
Clark conducted his review under the guidelines of rule 3.8 of the Rules of Professional Conduct. In this role, a prosecutor is to act as a “minister of justice” rather than an “advocate.”
In a September news release, the Prosecutor’s Office summed up this obligation in language that mirrors the State Bar’s official commentary on that rule.
“This office has an obligation to ensure that a criminal defendant is given procedural justice and is convicted on sufficient evidence.”
Clark’s conclusion is that there isn’t evidence which persuades him to a high probability that Tapp is innocent.
“The question for the prosecution is not whether a defendant was afforded procedural due process as it relates to his confession, the voluntariness of his statements, or the admissibility of such at trial, but whether there is clear and convincing evidence of actual innocence,” he said in his conclusions.
Clark acknowledged that minimal evidence corroborates Tapp’s confession, that Tapp’s DNA is nowhere at the scene while one unknown man left multiple samples, and that Tapp was repeatedly threatened with the death penalty, offered leniency for cooperation and fed the details of the crime by police.
But Clark will not move for a new trial.
“I did what I felt, objectively, the evidence dictated,” he said in an interview.
Public Defender John Thomas blasted the report as inaccurate and said he will draft a response.
Clark concluded that while Tapp’s confessions were largely uncorroborated, he implicated himself repeatedly. Two witnesses told police that Tapp had confessed to them, and Tapp again confessed involvement in the mid-2000s while seeking a deal.
Clark acknowledged that police investigators had largely contaminated the confession Tapp gave under police interrogation 20 years ago.
“The recent review of the interrogations have shown that many details were given to Tapp, and that he regurgitated many details that were previously fed to him,” Clark wrote.
Clark’s findings do not address the fact that then-Sgt. Jared Fuhriman told the jury Tapp’s confession was credible because he knew many details of the crime that only the killer could know. Both outside experts and Stuart Robinson, the outside investigator commissioned by prosecutors, suggest Fuhriman’s testimony was untrue.
Robinson, like other experts who have investigated the case, found Fuhriman and other investigators had thoroughly contaminated Tapp’s confession by feeding him nearly every detail of the crime.
The only significant statement which Robinson found hadn’t been fed to him by police was that Dodge was wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants.
Clark points out that two women, Destiny Osborne and Brenda Muchow, told police they heard Tapp confess to the crime.
This makes it difficult to believe that Tapp’s confession was solely the result of police coercion, Clark said.
Osborne testified at the original trial that she heard Tapp talk about the crime at a house party. She also said she was “spun” at the time — a slang term that means high, usually on methamphetamine. The jury heard Osborne’s testimony, though the judge subsequently instructed the jury to disregard much of it.
Muchow claimed she and Tapp were in drug rehabilitation about a month after the murder when Tapp told her he did it. Muchow wasn’t allowed to testify because she didn’t come forward until several months later, shortly before the trial, Clark said.
“Ultimately as Tapp disclosed to detectives how he participated in the murder of Angie Dodge, his statements were very similar to those statements he made to Ms. Osborne and Ms. Muchow,” Clark wrote.
But Tapp isn’t the only person who witnesses said confessed to the crime.
The notes of detectives Ken Brown and Phil Grimes show that many individuals came to police in the weeks and months after Dodge’s murder, saying that they heard several people confess to the crime. In more than one case, multiple individuals reported overhearing the same person confessing.
None of those people have ever been charged. Most have been cleared by DNA.
Clark found Tapp’s confession is also backed up by statements he made to police in 2004 and 2006.
“One can certainly argue that any statements made at this time were wholly self-serving for Tapp — that his statements were only to satisfy investigators to garner a favorable agreement,” Clark wrote. “Regardless of his motivation, what must be considered is that Tapp made additional statements confessing to his involvement.”
During those statements, Tapp again told police that he was a minor participant in the crime and offered new names of other participants. None of those names led to an arrest.
Thomas said there’s a simple explanation why an innocent Tapp might confess again in 2004 and 2006. After years in prison, with all appeals failing, he thought another immunity deal might get him out.
“What are you going to say? You’re going to say whatever they want you to say,” Thomas said. “Put in Chris Tapp’s position, I’m not sure I wouldn’t say the same things he said.”
Tapp’s DNA does not match any of the numerous samples found at the crime scene. Those samples, including semen, hair and skin cells, so far all point to one unidentified man.
Clark concluded this is not clear and convincing evidence that Tapp didn’t murder Dodge. The original jury knew Tapp’s DNA didn’t match the semen sample, he wrote, and they convicted him anyway.
Subsequent DNA testing, including of a teddy bear Tapp said he held over Dodge’s mouth to muffle her screams, has also failed to turn up Tapp’s DNA.
“These advances, while helpful, do not indicate clear and convincing evidence that Tapp is not guilty,” Clark wrote, while noting that Tapp was free to argue otherwise in court.
Outside experts have argued there is a simple explanation: Dodge was likely killed by the unidentified man who left all the DNA.
How strong is the evidence?
“While the level of corroboration to the confessions in this case is minimal, nothing that has been uncovered in these investigations ‘exonerates’ Tapp,” Clark wrote “There is no evidence, DNA or otherwise, that proves Tapp did not take part in the murder of Angie Dodge.”
Asked if he thought he could win a fresh murder trial against Tapp with the evidence he has today, Clark said he couldn’t answer because that issue is currently being litigated.
Tapp’s jurors convicted him after prosecutors told a story of the murder in which Tapp, Ben Hobbs and an unidentified man named “Mike” killed Dodge together.
Asked if he planned to bring charges against Hobbs, who in the story presented to the jury actually killed Dodge, Clark said there probably isn’t sufficient evidence. The only evidence which links Hobbs to the crime in any way is Tapp’s confession, and even if that confession were entirely reliable it wouldn’t be sufficient to indict Hobbs, Clark said.
Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.