On Larry Driskill’s second day with Texas Ranger James Holland, he faced some surprising questions. Holland asked the suspect to describe how — hypothetically — he would have committed the murder of Bobbie Sue Hill.
By then, the Ranger had lied to Driskill, claiming there was proof he’d been seen with Hill. No such proof existed, but the gambit worked, because Driskill questioned his own memory and began to speak in hypotheticals. The two men discussed whether it was possible Driskill had killed Hill in self-defense, and Driskill wondered if he’d suppressed the memory.
After hours in the interrogation room, Driskill gave a full confession to killing Hill, while still admitting he had no memory of the crime. He now maintains his innocence.
Psychologists have long argued that lies, along with other tactics Holland used, increase the risk of a false confession. But they mostly remain legal.
Several states have recently banned the use of lies in the interrogation of minors, while several more are considering a similar move. Lawmakers in New York have proposed going further, banning lies in the interrogation of adult suspects as well.
In the meantime, researchers are exploring what factors, including age and past trauma, make people more likely to falsely confess.
The third episode of “Smoke Screen: Just Say You’re Sorry,” called “The Grand Canyon,” explores the range of tactics Texas Ranger James Holland used when he interrogated Larry Driskill, as well as analysis by researchers Richard Leo and Julia Shaw. The latter performed a study in which she convinced students to “remember” committing crimes that she had herself invented out of whole cloth. (She used the word “hypothetically” a lot.)
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Before we start, a warning that this episode contains descriptions of violence against women. Please listen with care.
This time on “Just Say Your Sorry”:
James Holland: We got two people that pick you out. We got the van down there. We got everything, man. I mean it, everything.
Larry Driskill: I think what you got is circumstantial evidence and I'm not it.
James Holland: Dude, you didn’t just like barely [inaudible], you bombed that polygraph.
Larry Driskill: Well I’m telling you this: I don’t know anything about any of this situation. Do I need to tell my attorney or what?
In 2012, ads start appearing on the campus of the University of British Columbia, seeking students for a study about memory.
People apply. Then the researchers actually contact their parents. They ask them for details about the students’ childhoods, things like, “Where did they live? What was the name of their best friend?” Then it’s the students’ turn to be interviewed.
The researchers talk them through the details described by their parents. Sometimes, it all sounds familiar. But sometimes the students don’t remember the events they’re being told about, in which case the researcher assures them: Don’t worry!
Julia Shaw: Sometimes we don’t like to remember things that are negative. Sometimes we push things aside or repress them.
This is Dr. Julia Shaw, who was running the study. She tells the students they’re going to work together with the researchers to recover these memories, using techniques that have worked for other people.
Julia Shaw: And the main way to do that was to get people to close their eyes and go through an imagination exercise.
“Where were you when this happened?” “What was the weather like?” “Who was with you?”
The events they’re trying to recall can be quite intense. Shaw says to a student, “Your parents say you were attacked by a dog.” Or, “Do you remember that time you lost a lot of money?” And some of these events are serious crimes, like stealing or assaulting someone with a weapon.
Shaw works with the students to get the pictures back into their heads. She keeps repeating details she’d got from their parents, like where they were [and] who they were with.
Julia Shaw: And basically it was up to participants to then fill in the rest of the details.
Bit by bit, the memories arrive, often with startling clarity. And after just three interviews together…
Julia Shaw: They were telling me exactly how they felt step-by-step, what happened, what the consequences were, what the police officers looked like later on, how their parents reacted, how they felt, how they felt guilty about it.
Some of the participants had 60, 70, 80 details.
Maybe you’ve already figured out what’s happening here: These events never actually happened. Shaw made them up to test how susceptible the students would be to forming false memories.
She found that 70% of the people told they’d committed a crime, end up having some memory of it, even though it never actually happened.
Julia Shaw: It totally surprised me how many people responded to this formula for creating false memories, And some of my participants were psychology students. So thinking you can outsmart someone basically, or you can tell when someone is manipulating you. No, you can’t. Not necessarily.
Even months later, well after these students were told it was definitely a false memory, the experience of taking part in the study left some with a strange mental residue.
Julia Shaw: Some of them would say, “I’m still [not] totally sure it didn’t happen.”
Shaw’s study is one of many that have shown how our memories can be manipulated. Her findings got a lot of attention. Previous studies had found much smaller effects. But I’m left with the unsettling feeling that we can’t always trust what’s in our heads.
When I close my eyes and try to conjure images from the past, it all feels real. But for some memories, maybe I just saw a picture in a scrapbook and let my imagination run. I can’t necessarily tell the difference.
For most of us, most of the time, that’s no big deal. But the stakes can be very high. Especially in the legal system.
Archival news broadcast audio: “This week, the U.S. Supreme Court began to review just how accurate eyewitness testimony is. Now, science shows our memories and powers of perception are far less reliable than we believe.”
“More than three quarters of them were sent to prison, at least in part, because an eyewitness pointed a finger. An eyewitness who, we now know, was wrong.”
Shaw’s study is most relevant when you’re looking at the work of detectives. They have the power to manipulate both witnesses’ and suspects’ memories. But unlike Shaw, they might not mean to do it.
Julia Shaw: There’s definitely a recipe for creating false memories, the perfect storm of what not to do in interviewing. And the reason that I did it in my research was to show that and to test it. To say, “Hey, if we do all the bad-practice things that we’ve been going on about for decades saying, ‘Don’t do this’ to police, and we do it all at once, what happens?
I found Shaw’s study while trying to make sense of the case of Larry Driskill, and in this episode, with her findings in mind, we’re going to go back to the interrogation room, to pick apart the techniques that took Larry Driskill from flat denials.
Larry Driskill: I’m not admitting to nothing. ‘Cause I didn’t do anything.
To a confession, to the murder of Bobbie Sue Hill.
James Holland: You sorry about what happened?
Larry Driskill: Yeah, I’m sorry that it all happened.
From Somethin’ Else, The Marshall Project, and Sony Music Entertainment. I’m Maurice Chammah and This is “Smoke Screen: Just Say You're Sorry.” Episode 3. “The Grand Canyon.”
In the last episode, we got to know Texas Ranger James Holland, as he tried to solve the murder of Bobbie Sue Hill, and we retraced the steps that led him to Larry Driskill.
Holland picked up Driskill at his workplace and told him he was possibly a witness to this crime. On that first day, they spent several hours together talking.
Recall that Driskill admitted he did remember being on East Lancaster Street in 2005, placing himself around the location where Bobbie Sue Hill was abducted, and around the same time.
The next morning, he returns to the sheriff’s office for a polygraph exam. That’s a lie detector test. Driskill is seated and hooked up to wires and sensors.
We don’t have a recording. It’s actually unclear if the test was recorded. But we do have a report from the guy who ran the test, which indicates it was pretty quick.
Driskill is asked the same question twice: “Did you cause the death of that woman?” and then, “Did you cause the death of that woman in any way?” Both times he says no.
This is a turning point. The report says “Deception Indicated.” Driskill is told that he failed — that he’s lying.
For James Holland, the Texas Ranger, this result indicates that he’s on the right track. But it’s not enough on its own. Now Holland’s mission is simple. He needs to get a confession.
We’re going to spend the rest of this episode going through his interrogation step by step, finding out how Holland does it.
The recording starts with Driskill’s reaction to the polygraph. He responds like anyone might.
Larry Driskill: I’m tired of being accused of something I didn’t damn well do.
Driskill’s frustration changes the mood of the room. Now he’s realizing, once and for all, that he is not just a witness — that he’s being accused of murder.
The polygraph operator also sticks around. His name, by the way, is Lonnie Falgout. We asked him for an interview, and he didn’t respond. Maybe that’s not surprising given that he was actually working for — get this — the U.S. Secret Service. You know, the federal agency that’s mostly known for protecting the president.
I was never able to get to the bottom of why he’s involved in this case, but it seems the Secret Service shows up in surprising places. Not unlike the Texas Rangers.
Anyway, Falgout remains with Holland as he tries to calm Driskill down in the wake of this accusation.
Larry Driskill: You’re ruining my life is what you’re trying to do. And I didn’t do a damn thing.
James Holland: You know what, I’m trying to save your life. If you don’t paint this picture, Larry, then you’re gonna force us to…
Larry Driskill: I don’t know of a picture to paint.
James Holland: If you don't help us, then we're gonna fill in the blanks ourselves.
There are a lot of times, listening to this, where I almost want to shout into my headphones, “Larry, call a lawyer!” But he doesn’t. Holland is saying they already have enough information to nail him.
James Holland: We’ve got two people that pick you out. We’ve got the van down there. We’ve got everything, man. I mean it, everything.
Larry Driskill: I think what you’ve got is circumstantial evidence and I’m not it.
James Holland: Listen, you’ve got eyewitnesses, all right? You’ve got computer stuff. You've got the Fort Worth P.D. logs. You’ve got all that stuff. And you’ve got the body dumped the half-mile [from your house]. We’ve got the DNA. And you bomb the polygraph.
What Driskill doesn’t know is that Holland is lying to him about key parts of the evidence. It’s legal for him to do that. And it’s also condoned, to some extent, by perhaps the most influential interrogation style of the last century. We’re going to tell you about it because it’s really helpful for making sense of what Holland does with Driskill.
It’s called the Reid Technique.
Richard Leo: The Reid method is the predominant method of interrogation in the United States. Their book is really the Bible of interrogation for police.
This is Richard Leo, a law professor at the University of San Francisco. He studies how police get confessions.
Richard Leo: What happens when you pull the curtain back? How is the sausage made?
A century ago, interrogations in America looked very different than they do today.
Richard Leo: They beat people up! They hung ‘em out of windows. They put cigarettes in their arm. They kicked them, they punched them, they hit them with rubber hoses.
The U.S. Supreme Court effectively banned this sort of thing in the 1930s, so police looked for new ways to get confessions, using the suspect’s mind rather than his body.
Enter John Reid: He was a polygraph operator in the 1950s who developed a more psychological approach and began teaching it to other detectives.
Richard Leo: Reid and Associates have trained hundreds of thousands of police over the years on how to interview and interrogate. Everything about the process is designed to break down the suspect’s denials, overcome their objections, and move them from denial to admission, and ultimately get the confession.
Reid and Associates, by the way, vigorously disputes Leo’s characterization. They say they teach police to get to the truth. That it’s not just about getting a confession.
If you’ve ever seen an interrogation in a movie, chances are the tactics owe something to this technique, which is so pervasive, so baked into police culture, that individual detectives might not even know they’re using elements of it.
There are many moments in Holland’s interrogation of Driskill that feel to me like classic Reid. But I need to be really clear about this: When you listen to an interrogation like this one, you can’t always say exactly when the detective is or isn’t using the Reid Technique.
Let’s start with something that is classic Reid: Watching the suspect. Are they giving off signals that they’re lying?
Richard Leo: They look at your body language, your demeanor, your vocal pitch, how you're seated in a chair, and they say you can tell whether somebody is likely lying or not based on their clusters of their behavior.
As Holland says himself, he's been doing this from the moment he met Driskill.
James Holland: You can’t hide those indications. And that’s why yesterday, as soon as we sat down, I knew that you did it.
Academic studies, by the way, show police are no better than people off the street in detecting lies. They are, however, much more confident about it.
Once you’ve decided that you believe a suspect was involved in the crime, according to the Reid Technique, now you need to tell them why you believe they’re guilty.
In many cases, this would involve laying out all the persuasive direct evidence you have against them. But Holland doesn’t have this evidence. So he lies.
He tells Driskill that the local police department has records of his license plate, showing he was near the scene of the abduction. Not true, and his claim about eyewitnesses seeing Driskill is mostly a lie, too, since there was only a sketch.
Driskill also learns he’s on a list of people who seek out sex workers. There is no such list in the case files. Plus, Holland repeatedly suggests that the DNA is going to come back and match him. But the Ranger has no basis at all to make that claim.
Richard Leo: Most people don’t know that police can lie, that police can just make it up wholesale, pretend to have evidence that doesn’t exist. The purpose of the false evidence ploy is to get the suspect to think: You’re caught, so stop denying and start admitting.
Lying about evidence is legal in the U.S., apart from a couple of states who have banned it when interviewing minors. But it’s known to be a risk factor for eliciting false confessions.
The National Registry of Exonerations has recorded more than 350 false confession cases. Deception by police showed up in roughly 90 of them.
As for Reid? We reached out to Joseph Buckley, the longtime president of Reid and Associates, for comment, but didn’t hear back. He has previously said to me that lying should be a last resort, and that miscarriages of justice happen when detectives depart from their training.
Next comes something that, while not exactly a lie, is misleading. Holland leans on Driskill with the fact that he failed the polygraph.
James Holland: Dude, you didn’t just barely miss it, you bombed that polygraph.
It’s misleading because polygraph tests are notoriously unreliable. The results are mostly barred from courtrooms in the U.S.
Richard Leo: They’re not much better than a Ouija board.
But police do still use them to guide the direction of their investigations, and also to ratchet up the pressure on suspects. Once the suspect is feeling the heat, the Reid Technique suggests that the detective offers them a lifeline. The term psychologists use is “minimization.” I’ve also heard of detectives calling it “The Out.”
Here’s how Holland does it. The Ranger uses a metaphor, comparing Driskill’s situation to jumping off the Grand Canyon.
James Holland: You’re on the edge of the Grand Canyon, right? I’m asking you to take a jump off the edge and do something that’s very uncomfortable to you. It’s very obvious, alright? When you do that, I’m gonna reach out and I'm gonna hand you a parachute. You gotta start with that leap of faith.
In Driskill’s case, the parachute is a story that paints him in the best possible light.
James Holland: I told you that this girl was on crack. She was messed up on dope. And she was robbing people. This could be shit that just went wrong. It could be a lot of different things, Larry. You’ve got a chance. This doesn't have to ruin your whole life. You can define this thing.
And Holland goes further: Not only was this an accident, he says, it could have started as self defense. In any case, it’s not working. Driskill still strongly denies having anything to do with the murder.
Larry Driskill: I’m trying to tell you, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. I don't remember [any] of it, period. I don’t even think I was down there in the van, to be honest with you.
Holland keeps trying to be nice. I’m still thinking, Get a lawyer!
James Holland: No one in this room is trying to screw you over. No one is trying to fuck with you, but I told you yesterday, I thought you did it. I know today that you did, alright? The DNA’s gone, alright? We can’t take that back, alright? But it's gonna come back.
Larry Driskill: It’s gonna come back negative.
James Holland: No, it’s not.
Larry Driskill: What I'm telling you is I don't know anything about this situation. Do I need to call an attorney or what?
Ding, ding, ding! Finally! But it’s not enough. Driskill phrases it as a question: “Do I need to call an attorney?” The law says you have to directly ask for an attorney, which gives Holland just enough wiggle room to justify continuing the interview. He moves on to a new tactic.
James Holland: Can you do something for me?
Larry Driskill: What’s that?
James Holland: Say, “I’m sorry.”
Larry Driskill: For what?
James Holland: Just say it.
Larry Driskill: Sorry for what? I didn’t do nothing.
James Holland: Just say it. Just say, “I’m sorry.”
Larry Driskill: I'm sorry. But I still didn’t do nothing.
James Holland: Say it like you mean it.
Larry Driskill: I’m sorry, but I didn’t do anything. I don’t remember anything.
James Holland: Nothing after that. Just those two words. I’m sorry.
This is not classic Reid Technique. As far as I can tell, this is a James Holland original: Ask the suspect to say “I’m sorry” in isolation, as if those two words are magical, a spell that will break down the damn and unleash a wave of guilt.
But Driskill refuses.
So now Holland goes quiet and we hear from the other man in the room, Lonnie Falgout. Remember, he’s the Secret Service agent who ran the polygraph test. We get what feels like a classic routine: Good Cop/Bad Cop.
And If you thought Holland was being the bad cop, well, listen to the other guy.
Lonnie Falgout: There’s a lot of other unsolved problems in and around here, OK? Maybe Larry’s involved in them. How can he not be at this point? Or we can narrow that focus a little bit, and put it on what we’re talking about specifically right here, which is what I think it is, and only is: that this girl disappeared at your hand.
The not-so-subtle implication here is that if Driskill doesn’t admit to this crime, then they may start looking into him for other crimes.
Remember I mentioned “minimization” — pushing the suspect to say it was an accident or self-defense. Well, there’s also maximization. The interrogators maximize the cost of staying silent.
It’s illegal, of course, to threaten a suspect directly, and Reid forbids it. But Falgout is walking pretty close to the line.
Still, Driskill doesn’t take the bait, so Holland comes back with the good cop routine.
James Holland: This is self-defense. This is something I know from watching you yesterday. But I also know, from watching you yesterday and listening to you talk about your son, about your wife, about your grandkids … that you’re a good person.
The day before, during the interview, Holland had asked Driskill if he was religious. It was just small talk, but Holland was paying attention and he uses it now.
James Holland: Let me tell you something. I’m a good Christian person.
Larry Driskill: Right.
James Holland: And you are too. You go to church every Sunday.
Larry Driskill: Right.
James Holland: Alright? If they would’ve tried to take my wallet or they would’ve attacked me and they were screwed up on dope, I would’ve defended myself.
Larry Drskill: Right.
James Holland: I would’ve done, probably, what you did.
Holland’s parachute must look very tempting right now.
James Holland: If you help me, if you let me help you work out the story, I can take that to the district attorney and it can be very understandable.
And you know something else? Hey, you’re not some shit bird that we’re dealing with off the street. You're a good family person. You haven’t done anything. You’re not a bad person.
Years later, I asked Driskill: “What was it like to be in that room, under that pressure?”
Larry Driskill: At first I felt like, He’s a good old boy, just trying to get some answers, and I’m trying to help him. Then in the middle of it, it just seemed like he turned on me, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
It's kinda like no matter what I say, it's not right.
Maurice: What do you mean?
Larry Driskill: It just felt like I'm fighting a losing battle: You're not listening to me. You're not trying to understand that I didn't do this.
And as the interrogation goes on, you can hear some of that exasperation.
Larry Driskill: … accusing me of shit that I ain’t ever done.
James Holland: I told you yesterday. Alright?
Larry Driskill: And I’m just wondering, Do I need to call my attorney or what?
James Holland: I told you yesterday, OK? That I don’t think you’re a bad person.
Again Holland swats away the talk of calling a defense lawyer. At this point it’s pretty much a stalemate — neither man is getting what they want. But Holland has another tactic ready to go. This one will be familiar to anyone who remembers the case of O.J. Simpson.
Do you remember how, after Simpson was acquitted of murder, he wrote a book? It was called, “If I Did It.”
It’s been around 40 minutes since James Holland told Larry Driskill he failed a polygraph and that evidence shows he’s guilty of killing Bobbie Sue Hill. Holland is lying about key evidence, but Driskill doesn’t know that. Still, he’s not really budging. But Holland won’t take no for an answer.
James Holland: The polygraph proves that you remember.
It's a standoff. Before getting to how that tension breaks, And to give you the tools to understand why it breaks, we’re going to take a short detour into the way memory works.
Or, let’s say, down memory lane.
Julia Shaw: Not all memories are sort of catastrophically false, but almost all memories are at least a bit false.
This is Dr. Julia Shaw again, who created those false memories in her students. She also testifies as an expert on memory in criminal cases, so we engaged her to give us her thoughts.
Julia Shaw: In the justice system, most false memories, as far as I’m concerned, happen accidentally. They happen because people don’t understand how memory works. Witnesses and suspects, especially if interviewed incorrectly, can fabricate realities that never happened through the police process.
So not only do we regularly forget things, which seems obvious enough, we also remember things that just didn’t happen. Often we’re not talking about pure truth or fiction, but a hazy space between the two.
Julia Shaw: So autobiographical memories are networks within the brain, almost like a big spider web. This network, the spider web, is constantly evolving. You can add details to that network by, for example, thinking about what could have been, or [hearing] someone else telling their version of the events. And then you [start] taking those details and being what’s called a memory thief.
That sounds abstract, but we’ve all had this happen. Think about arguments over dinner with your parents about how something went down years ago. Or, I don’t know, the high school reunion where nobody quite agrees which kid got caught cheating on that test.
And once you enter the criminal justice system, any room for doubt can be catastrophic. Listen to this moment from day one of the interrogation:
Larry Driskill: The only time I ever remember is at a Dollar General or a Family General dollar store on Lancaster street.
James Holland: Right. Yeah I know where that is.
Driskill comes up with a hazy memory of being at the Dollar General store on East Lancaster street. This is after being told he was on the street, and being asked to remember it repeatedly.
James Holland: Now we’re getting somewhere.
Larry Drikill: It just popped in my head.
Julia Shaw: So you are more likely, if you go back to a scene, or if you think back to, you know, close your eyes and picture yourself at the scene, you’re more likely to remember more details.
James Holland: Close, close your eyes for a second.
Larry Driskill: Alright.
James Holland: Take a minute and remember that person, try to get, clear your mind of all your thoughts. Alright?
Julia Shaw: But if it’s of something that didn’t happen at all, you’re also quite likely to create some. So it can go both ways.
If you’re listening to this and can safely close your eyes — go ahead and shut them. Try to picture the table where your dinner was sitting last night. Where is your cup? What food is closest to you on your plate? What are you sure about, and what would just be an educated guess? If you kept picturing the cup on the left, would that picture overtake any real memory? The line between truth and fiction can blur quickly.
Now, back to the interrogation. Listen to Holland use what I’ve taken to calling the H-word.
James Holland: Let’s talk into hypotheticals for a second. Alright. You know what hypothetical means? It doesn't mean that it happened. It means that possibility, it could have, it might not have. It’s just like bullshit and just kind of talking through things. Let’s talk through this thing. Say the word, hypothetically.
Larry Driskill: Hypothetically.
Holland says that they don’t need to talk about Driskill’s actual memories, just how it might have happened.
James Holland: You’re not admitting to anything you’re saying hypothetically. So hypothetically, if this thing went down, hypothetically, how would've gone down?
Larry Driskill: I don't know how it would’ve went down because I wasn’t there.
Driskill isn’t providing the details Holland needs, so the Ranger begins the story himself.
James Holland: Well hypothetically. If some chick had gotten in your van and was trying to rob you and, hypothetically, if this say 240-pound Black guy…
Larry Driskill: Right.
James Holland: …is coming up to your vehicle
Larry Driskill: Right.
James Holland: ...surprising you. And this girl has just jumped in. Hypothetically, I would think that you'd know you're fixing to get robbed.
This Black man that Holland brings up is actually not a fabrication. His name is Michael Harden, the boyfriend we met last episode, who witnessed Bobbie Sue Hill enter a van, and says he saw a man’s face.
What’s important to note here is that Holland is suggesting that Driskill, a White man, attacked Bobbie Sue Hill, a White woman, because there was a Black man nearby, and he was afraid of him. One of Driskill’s lawyers thinks Holland is playing to a racist stereotype here, basically saying White man to White man, “Look, I get it, you were scared of a Black man, and you snapped.”
He then uses what he knows about Driskill’s history to help explain his actions, even excuse them.
James Holland: Hypothetically, a man with your military experience is gonna go into self-defense mode like that. And, hypothetically, a man like you, who’s been trained by the U.S. military for 23 years. Doesn’t even have to think about what he’s doing because he’s been trained what to do in situations like that. You’ve been trained.
As the interrogation wears on, Holland is relentlessly pushing Driskill towards the hypotheticals. In fact, we counted: The word is said at least 65 times!
James Holland: Hypothetically, she gets into the vehicle.
Larry Driskill: OK.
James Holland: Hypothetically, what occurs after she gets in the vehicle?
Larry Driskill: That’s the part I don’t know. I don’t even know how she got in the vehicle.
James Holland: She got in the vehicle.
Larry Driskill: OK.
Larry Driskill: But I don’t think I’ve ever killed anybody. ‘Cause I don’t, couldn’t remember if I did or didn’t anyway,
James Holland: You switched into that mode. It would’ve been automatic.
Something to flag here, is that there are some gaps in the tape, so we don’t know everything that’s said. The audio also gets a little wonky. We’re going to let this next bit of tape play for a while, so you can hear Driskill take his first step off the ledge.
Holland: What would happen next? If this girl’s jumping on you trying to get your wallet and doing these things…
Larry Driskill: Hypothetically, I guess I’d try to stop her.
James Holland: How would you do that?
Larry Driskill: I don’t know, except for just trying to block her out, push her out of the vehicle or something.
James Holland: Like this?
Larry Driskill: Probably more with the chest. All right, if I did that.
James Holland: Alright, so you're doing this and the struggle starts, then you see this Black dude coming up on the vehicle. Alright? So if you got two threats now, what do you have to deal with immediately?
Larry Driskill: I guess my, my military mind, I guess would tell me, take one out.
James Holland: Take one out. You got this chick, you’ve gone into military mode. Now she’s laying there and she’s not moving. You’re in military mode. What do you do? Do you go down to the [police department] and tell ‘em, “Hey, I’ve got this, uh, cracked out girl, she’s probably a prostitute, dead in my vehicle. Do you do that?”
Hell no. You don’t do that. Does that sound like what happened? Hypothetically?
Larry Driskill: Hypothetically, I guess it could have, but I just don’t know.
James Holland: Was it self-defense or did shit just get out of hand?
Larry Driskill: If anything, it would’ve been self defense, but I can’t remember that.
James Holland: Alright. Well, it’s self-defense.
Listen as the hypothetical language, here and there, begins to dissolve, leaving behind a confession.
Larry Driskill: The only thing I can think of is, I guess she was trying to rob me.
James Holland: Yeah.
Larry Driskill: You know? All I know to do is push her out [of] the vehicle. And my hands slipped and got her throat. I don’t know.
Lonnie Falgout: Alright. Your hands slipped. Got her throat.
Larry Driskill: I don’t know.
Lonnie Falgout: OK.
Larry Driskill: [Cries.]
Driskill says he guesses she was trying to rob him, he was trying to throw her out of the vehicle, and his hands slipped and got her throat. At one point, he does make a last ditch attempt to get a lawyer. But again, it’s not a direct enough question and so Holland can bat it away.
Larry Driskill: Can I ask you a quick question? How come y’all won’t let me put up the phone and call Charlie.
James Holland: Your friend? Yeah. Cause Charlie’s not gonna help you right now, but we are.
Larry Driskill: Cause Charlie’s an attorney.
James Holland: Well, if you want to talk to an attorney, you can talk to an attorney. Do me a favor, alright. I’m gonna be right here with you.
Holland leads Driskill back to the two magic words. And this time, it breaks him.
James Holland: Let’s try this. “I’m sorry.”
Larry Driskill: I’m sorry if I took somebody's life. Because I don’t think I did.
James Holland: You feel better. You feel better, and I can see it. And it's rolling off your shoulders, ‘cause it's been tearing you up for 10 years. It’s OK. Accidents happen.
James Holland: It’s OK. It’s OK. It’s OK. You feel better? Don’t you?
James Holland: It’s OK. You’re not a bad person. Let us help you. It's been eating you up for 10 years.
Larry Driskill: I just don’t understand why.
I find this hard to listen to. Let’s say for a moment that Driskill did kill Bobbie Sue Hill, that he strangled her in his van. And I realize I now am using a hypothetical myself. But I think I need to, in order to make sense of the possibilities in this moment. If he’s guilty, then scenario Number 1, he’s lying about not remembering it and putting on an incredible performance. Or scenario Number 2, he did it, but doesn’t really understand why, or how he suppressed the memory.
This may explain why Driskill is about to take the leap of faith.
On TV, when the killer confesses, it’s usually framed as a single, dramatic moment, with lots of buildup. In real life, there is still the buildup, but the actual confession is more diffuse, a series of sentences, some direct and specific, some not so much, scattered across the transcript.
By this point, Driskill has stopped crying, and you can hear a sense of hopelessness.
Larry Driskill: I’m just trying to figure out why I can’t picture everything.
James Holland: Picture it: When you were sitting there crying, you were picturing it.
Just as there’s no one moment he confesses, in terms of his words, there is no one moment where his body language shows he’s giving in. It’s gradual.
Lonnie Falgout: Is it the truth, yes or no?
Larry Driskill: Yes, it is.
James Holland: Alright, boom! Get done with it.
Larry Driskill: Let’s do what we need to do.
James Holland: We look through what we need to do and let’s get this, go through it. Just tell us, boom.
Now listen to how the hypothetical language begins dissolving at a faster rate. But also listen for the residue. Even after Driskill has abandoned the word “hypothetically,” he still uses the phrase, “I guess.” Holland is coaching Driskill to drop the conditional language, and eventually Driskill starts doing it on his own.
Larry Driskill: I guess I was giving her a ride.
James Holland: Mm-hmm!
Larry Driskill: No, I was giving a ride to the house. And there’s a confrontation in the vehicle. I think she was trying to take my billfold from me. And I went to defend myself to try to push her out of the car. And my hands went from her chest to her neck. And I guess I choked her down.
James Holland: You guess? Or you did?
Larry Driskill: I did. I did choke her down then and I — because the African American gentleman was coming up to me. And I guess my military kicked, kicked in when she tried to assault me.
James Holland: OK.
Larry Driskill: So I get, I think I would, I took off …
James Holland: Alright.
Larry Driskill: …trying to get away from the situation.
James Holland: Alright.
Larry Driskill: Then all I did was take and put her in a trash sack?
James Holland: You’re asking questions, but you need to tell us what happened.
Larry Driskill: Well, that’s what I'm trying to do, but I keep putting a guess word in it.
James Holland: What did you do when she was dead in your vehicle?
Larry Driskill: Left the scene.
Driskill even describes disposing of Bobbie Sue Hill’s body.
Larry Driskill: I guess I take, no, I take the bag out of, out of the van…
James Holland: Mm-hmm.
Larry Driskill: …and throw it off the side of the bridge, alright.
James Holland: Then what?
Larry Driskill: Then I get in my vehicle and I leave and go home.
James Holland: You ever think about it afterwards?
Larry Driskill: No.
James Holland: You’re sorry about what happened?
Larry Driskill: Yeah. I’m sorry that it all happened.
There’s another desperate moment where Driskill tries to take it all back.
James Holland: You gotta tell the truth.
Larry Driskill: Right.
James Holland: You know, I mean the truth is more important than anything.
Larry Driskill: ‘Cause I don't think I did any of it, to be honest, is what I’m thinking.
James Holland: Oh my God! But you know you did.
Larry Driskill: I guess I, yeah, I guess I did. I’m just not, not totally into what's going on here.
Holland brings Driskill back around again.
James Holland: People don’t bend over and sob and say, they’re sorry about it. People don’t admit and say that they did things that they didn't do. I mean we’re past that! It happened! You did it. Now gotta make a choice. Do we lay this whole thing out and let the Ranger take it to the D.A.?
And so Driskill returns to describing the murder, ending on how he left the site where he hid the body.
Larry Driskill: Backed out the driveway and turned around, went back and then went home.
James Holland: Right.
Larry Driskill: At the same time, gathered up the bag, the clothes in the bag and another bag and put them out in a dumpster.
James Holland: OK.
James Holland: Guess what?
Larry Driskill: What?
James Holland: You just corroborated shit to a T that I’ve never said to you. You just described everything the way that eyewitnesses described it from the get-go. And there’s certain things that I haven’t told you about, tire marks and other things, that you just corroborated.
Larry Driskill: I just can’t picture myself doing that.
James Holland: I know. But you know, you did it, correct?
Larry Driskill: I had to, if I just corroborated everything.
James Holland: Not “I had to.” But you know you did it, right?
I haven’t found anything in the police report about tire marks that directly back up Driskill’s story. But, at some point Driskill does draw a picture of how Bobbie Sue Hill's body was placed in the trash bags.
The district attorney, Jeff Swain, told me that Driskill’s descriptions are accurate, and he couldn’t have known this stuff otherwise. It’s one of the reasons prosecutors remain so sure about the confession.
Driskill tells me he was just guessing — and he was also shown a photo of Bobbie Sue Hill’s body the day before — perhaps that influenced the drawing.
Swain, the prosecutor, didn’t give us an interview for this podcast, but we’ve emailed and he’s made it clear that his office stands by Driskill’s conviction. He emphasizes that all Holland’s interrogation tactics are legal and effective.
Back in the room, Driskill is coming to terms with the weight of his confession.
Larry Driskill: I can’t believe I took somebody else’s life.
James Holland: Well, did you do it in self-defense?
Larry Driskill: I had to.
This is where we leave the interrogation room. We ran a lot of the recordings by psychologists, including Julia Shaw, who sometimes acts as an expert witness in court.
Julia Shaw: It’s one of the most troubling interviews I’ve ever heard because it’s so, it’s so coercive, and it’s so misleading. I think it’s a very overconfident interviewer who thinks they’ve got the right guy and is just doing absolutely anything they need to do to get this person to say that they did it.
We engaged Shaw because of her own work on what leads to false memories, but she also hears in Driskill’s language something a lot simpler: desperation to get out of this situation, by whatever means necessary.
Julia Shaw: So he’s all the way through increasingly saying, saying what the interviewer is, piece-by-piece, telling him to say. And that is what’s so shocking about this interview, is that it's much more transparent, actually, than most of the work that I see. So when I do work on, as an expert on, on cases, they're way less obvious than this. This would not be admissible in any courtroom in most parts of the world.
Richard Leo has also heard clips from the interview.
Richard Leo: The false evidence point, the lying about nonexistent evidence, making it up, the nonexistent witnesses, the van, the minimization, and the self-defense technique, increase the risk of eliciting a false confession. If I was a judge, I would’ve suppressed this confession as a violation of law.
We don’t know exactly how long Driskill was with Holland. We do have about seven hours of tape across the two days, but we know that not everything was recorded. From reports I’ve read since, it seems Driskill was in the station for about 10 hours on the second day.
Richard Leo: Most people have no idea what it’s like to be in the psychological pressure cooker of an interrogation with a skilled interrogator, an authority figure, who we’ve all been socialized to be deferential to, and have them just coming at you nonstop. Everyone has a breaking point. We think we don’t, but we do.
Just from listening to the tape, there is no way to tell, ultimately, whether Driskill is innocent and this is a false confession. But as you’ve just heard, the experts I’ve spoken to see lots of risk factors.
When you read the academic literature on false confessions, you tend to see categories. Researchers draw a line around what they call “compliant” confessions, where the suspect complies with the interrogator for whatever reason: hunger, exhaustion, a loss of hope after all the lies and gaslighting, or the belief that the truth will eventually come out.
Then there’s the “internalized” confession, in which the suspect comes to believe in their own guilt, and may even have a false memory.
If Driskill’s confession is false, as he now claims, then it seems to me that a single person can toggle between the two.
According to Driskill himself, at some moments he was thinking, I’m trapped and need to confess to get out of here, and at other points he was thinking, OK maybe I did commit this murder.
He seems to have flashes of memory — images, sounds, what have you — that he imagines as hypotheticals but then, even for just a moment, feel real.
Larry Driskill: He even had me questioning myself. Did I do any of this? Could I have really snapped and done this?
Maurice: It sounds almost like your mind is like fighting with itself. Was it like you were kind of like the two sides were boxing?
Larry Driskill: Mm-hmm. And that’s, it’s kinda like God’s helping me over here, and Satan’s over here trying to fight with me, and I’m, I’m stuck in the middle. I’m the dummy in the middle. It is what it feels like.
Maurice: This sounds really stressful.
Larry Driskill: It is, them asking the same thing over and over and over. And no matter what you tell 'em, it ain’t good enough; it ain’t what they want to hear.
After giving the confession, Driskill actually gets to drive home. He says Holland told him he could explain the situation to his wife before going into custody.
Larry Driskill: I made a Crown and Coke drink. Maybe took two sips out of it. Next thing I know, they’re there with cuffs on me.
Maurice: Did you have time to tell your wife anything?
Larry Driskill: I had about two, two-and-a-half minutes. She took her wedding ring off and threw it in the trash can.
Driskill goes to jail to wait for his trial. Now he’ll definitely get that lawyer, but he also has his own words working against him.
When I first picked up this case from Mike Ware and The Innocence Project of Texas, I went into it with an open mind.
After listening to this tape though, and hearing from Leo and Shaw, I had serious doubts about the validity of Driskill’s confession.
Of course, when you report on these kinds of cases, you constantly question yourself. No one wants to be the journalist who naively believes the story spun by a killer.
But then I found another one of Holland’s cases, which also features a questionable confession, and involved some tactics even more shocking than the Driskill case. It’s a story with eerie similarities to this one. A small town, a cold-case murder, a military veteran who trusts the police and bitterly regrets it.
Chris Ax, a suspect in the 1997 murder of Shebaniah Sarah Dougherty, responding to Texas Ranger James Holland: No, not to my knowledge.
James Holland: You keep saying things that are indicative of deception…you’re killing me. You keep [saying], “to the best of my knowledge” [and] “as far as I can remember.”
Chris Ax: It’s a military thing.
But his case ended up very differently.
Chris Ax: How he became a Texas Ranger is beyond me because that just shows me the bar level has been dropped so low for him to have gotten that far. He was a moron.
That’s next time on “Just Say You’re Sorry.”
“Smoke Screen: Just Say You’re Sorry,” is a production of Somethin’ Else, The Marshall Project and Sony Music Entertainment. It’s written and hosted by me, Maurice Chammah. The senior producer is Tom Fuller, the producer is Georgia Mills, Peggy Sutton is the story editor, Dave Anderson is the executive producer and editor and Cheeka Eyers is the development producer. Akiba Solomon and I are the executive producers for The Marshall Project where Susan Chira is editor-in-chief. The production manager is Ike Egbetola, and fact checking is by Natsumi Ajisaka. Graham Reynolds composed the original music and Charlie Brandon King is the mixer and sound designer. The studio engineers are Josh Gibbs, Gulliver Lawrence Tickell, Jay Beale and Teddy Riley, with additional recording by Ryan Katz.
This series drew in part on my 2022 article for The Marshall Project, “Anatomy of a Murder Confession.” With thanks to Jez Nelson, Ruth Baldwin and Susan Chira.