“It’s not every day that your work has such a profound impact on a person’s life”

“It’s not every day that your work has such a profound impact on a person’s life”

The societal impact of UM research

06-02-2024 · Background

In today’s world, the societal impact of research findings seems more important than getting published in an academic journal like Nature or The Lancet. What impact has research conducted at UM had in recent years? This week: how a UM report played a crucial role in exonerating a wrongly convicted man after 28 years.

It is May 2022, and a tremendous weight has just been lifted from Frank Vick’s shoulders. He has been acquitted of murder because of a lack of conclusive evidence. Tears are streaming down his face. “Danke”, he says to the judge.

Vick was convicted of committing a murder at a campsite in Petten, North Holland. In the summer of 1994, a German tourist named Peter Teschke was fatally stabbed just outside his tent. Vick, who was on holiday with Teschke and in a relationship with the man’s stepdaughter, confessed to the crime. Although he later recanted his testimony, he was sentenced to five years in prison. While on temporary release, Vick fled to Germany and never returned to the Netherlands. Germany doesn’t extradite its own nationals to foreign countries.

Years later, after learning of an international warrant for his arrest, Vick set out to clear his name. His lawyer contacted the Advisory Committee on Closed Criminal Cases (ACAS), which advises the Supreme Court of the Netherlands on requests for revision. The advisory body determined that an expert report should be prepared.

In 2019, an ACAS staff member reached out to Melanie Sauerland, asking her to write the report. Sauerland is a forensic psychologist at UM specialising in false confessions, and German is her native language.

A person’s life

After analysing the interrogations, Sauerland concluded that Vick had most likely made a false confession. “A major clue is that his confession didn’t square with the facts. Vick claimed to have stabbed his father-in-law once, but the victim had more than one stab wound. Vick kept changing his story after hearing the facts from the detectives.”

Sauerland’s expert report prompted the Supreme Court to reopen the case in April 2022. “Reopening a case requires a ‘new fact’, new evidentiary information – typically new DNA traces, new witnesses or the discovery of the murder weapon. This was the first time that an expert report from a forensic psychologist was accepted as a new fact. It was a recognition of the importance of our field. And it was good news for anyone wrongly convicted but unable to present tangible new evidence.”

Sauerland says Vick’s exoneration has been the most significant achievement of her career as a forensic psychologist. “It’s not every day that your work has such a profound impact on a person’s life. Justice prevailed – an innocent man’s name was cleared.”

Too emotional

Sauerland has never met or spoken to Vick. “His lawyer did email me after the acquittal. I invited Vick to come to Maastricht, as I think it would be incredibly interesting for our students to get a first-hand account of why our work is so important. The police questioned Vick a total of nineteen times, sometimes for hours and multiple times per day. But Vick declined. His lawyer let me know that he’s still too emotional to talk about it – maybe in a few years. It’s too bad, but I understand. His lawyer agreed to come, but we haven’t got around to it yet.”

Several lawyers have since asked Sauerland to prepare expert reports for their clients. “It’s almost always about cases from the 1990s, when the police applied a lot of pressure during interrogations. It wasn’t until later that they realised this could lead to false confessions.”

Heavily drinking

Sauerland is currently examining another potential false confession case, but she has to decline most lawyers’ requests. “It takes a lot of time, and there’s often no budget to pay forensic psychologists for their work.”

Why did Vick confess to a crime he didn’t commit? “Apart from the intense interrogations, he felt guilty – the victim was his father-in-law. And they had been heavily drinking the night before, which can affect your memory. On top of that, Vick had a dream that he tripped with a knife in his hand and injured the victim.”