Acquittal thanks to UM forensic psychologist’s report

"This was the first time that such a report served as a new fact, this may open doors for the future"

01-06-2022 · News

MAASTRICHT. Last week, Frank Vick from Germany was acquitted by the court of justice in The Hague of the murder of his father-in-law. The case had to be looked at again, the High Court ruled last year on the basis of an expert report by Melanie Sauerland, forensic psychologist at Maastricht University.

Frank Vick was sentenced to five years imprisonment in the ‘Petten campsite murder case’. In the summer of 1994 his father-in-law was stabbed to death during a weekend at a campsite in the North of Holland. Vick confessed rather quickly, but later changed his mind. The courts acquitted him; this was appealed against and the court found him guilty after all. The murder weapon – knife – was never found. Practically the only evidence was the confession of the suspect. But was it credible? Or did Frank Vick confess to something he hadn’t done?

Interrogation

Sauerland, appointed as assistant professor at the Faculty of Psychology and Neurosciences, and specialist in Aussagepsychologie (the psychology of statements), was asked to draw up an expert report. The overall question was, as she said to Observant last year, whether it was likely that the confession is false? She studied, among others, the (few) transcripts and written reports of the interrogation of Frank Vick. “A confession in itself says nothing about guilt. Even if someone says ‘I did it’, that doesn’t need to be the case. It must be checked during the interrogation, for example by looking for knowledge that only the perpetrator can have. How was the murder committed, with what weapon, how often was the victim stabbed, where did the weapon ultimately end up, et cetera? In all those interrogations in the Petten case, it comes down to the fact that the suspect had no idea how exactly his father-in-law was killed. He adapted his statements to the facts that the police told him. The policemen were convinced that he did it.”

Toilet building

The interrogations were not correct, that much was clear to Sauerland. Moreover, Vick was sometimes interviewed twice a day and for several hours at a time. He also had little possibility to consult with a lawyer. “It was even so that with most of the interrogations there was no lawyer present at all.” Initially, the police suspected another man, another German who was part of the group at the campsite. A witness saw him waving a knife in the toilet building that night. But because of Vick’s confession, the investigation into the other suspect (who died in 2009) was discontinued.  

New fact

Sauerland never spoke to Vick personally, but she is glad that she could do this for him. Often enough, reports by experts are pushed to one side, says the forensic psychologist. "My job is to share knowledge – which is what I studied for, what I am doing research into – knowledge that a judge often doesn’t have.” In this case, the conclusion has a tremendous impact. “This was the first time that such a report served as a new fact. This may open doors for the future.”

 

Wendy Degens

 

Author: Wendy Degens

Photo's: Shutterstock/ Melanie Sauerland by Maartje Schreuder

Tags: false confession,fpn,psychology,high court

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