Melanie Sauerland by Maartje Schreuder
Melanie Sauerland, forensic psychologist and assistant professor at Maastricht University, has created a new fact with her expert’s report on a possibly false confession in the Petten campsite murder. The Dutch High Court believes, on the basis of Sauerland’s findings, that someone other than the person convicted may have committed the murder. The case will have to be reopened.
The murder took place in the summer of 1994. A 41-year-old German tourist was stabbed to death during a camping weekend with travelling companions at a campsite in Petten, in the North of Holland. Frank V., the victim’s son in law, confessed rather quickly, but a couple of weeks later, he retracts his statement. He claims to be innocent. The court acquits him, but in an appeal, Frank V. was sentenced to five years imprisonment.
The murder weapon, a knife, was never found. Practically the only evidence was the suspect’s confession. But what if that statement was false? So, if Frank V. confessed to something he didn’t do? The High Court feels that this cannot be excluded, now that they have read the report by forensic psychologist Melanie Sauerland. The case must therefore be reopened.
Sauerland, originally from Germany, specialises in Aussagepsychologie, the psychology of statements. She was asked more than a year ago to draw up an expert’s report. “I received a selection from the dossier. The questions asked concerned the interrogation style; which role certain memory phenomena played; the suspect had had a dream in which he fell and hurt the victim with the knife, what role did that play in the confession? But the overall question was: Is it likely that the confession is false?” She studied the transcripts and the records of the interrogation of Frank V. “There were almost twenty.”
What she noticed about the interrogations was that “the same questions were being repeated. It was a case of tunnel vision. The policemen were obviously convinced that he had done it. There were strong indications that Frank V.’s confession was false.” In the online High Court’s decision, there is a list of things that went wrong in the interrogations. There are twelve points that Sauerland sums up in her report. Such as: the suspect was locked up and isolated from friends and family, he was sometimes questioned twice a day and for several hours, during which he had little opportunity to consult with a lawyer, and the cross-examinations were often very suggestive.
It was Diederik Aben, solicitor general with the High Court, who said in the Dutch NPO Radio 1 podcast Het Onderzoeksbureau that it had never happened before that a request for retrial was granted on the grounds of a report by a forensic psychologist.
Sauerland is very down to earth about the results of her work: “I think it comes down to some luck. This was the first expert’s report in this case and therefore a new fact.” A new fact can, for example, also be a DNA test or a witness who gives a new statement. This new fact must be important enough to casts doubt on the conviction.