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Columnist
Murder suspect looked, quacked like a duck, but wasn't the duck
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 8/5/2010 12:01 AM

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As liberal and open-minded as I strive to be, I still had to repeat the mantra "innocent until proven guilty" when I first wrote about the murder suspect in the horrifying and sickening Mother's Day 2005 slayings of 8-year-old Laura Hobbs and her best friend Krystal Tobias, 9.

Police had such an obvious suspect - the troubled dad who found the bodies.

The two little girls were riding bikes through Zion's Beulah Park when they were slaughtered by someone in a rage. Krystal was stabbed 11 times. Laura was stabbed 20 times. The knife went through Laura's neck with such force that it hit her spinal cord. Her killer made sure to plunge the knife into each of the little girl's eyes. I still shudder today while typing that last sentence.

Jerry Branton Hobbs III, Laura's father, confessed to the slayings a day later. A drinker and a fighter for most of his adult life, Hobbs had been released a month earlier from a Texas prison after serving two years for a chain-saw attack. Prosecutors here didn't videotape Hobbs' initial confession, but they did have a recording of him reading a statement explaining how he had argued with the girls and killed them.

My column, written in the wake of a spate of stories about mothers killing their kids, was about how society often regards a mother who murders her children as "sick," while a father charged with murdering one of his offspring is deemed "a monster." All people charged with crimes are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

"I haven't seen people approach him (Hobbs) with the same sense of presumption of innocence," Lake County Public Defender David Brodsky said about his client at the time.

Lake County prosecutors affirmed that presumption Wednesday when, in the face of DNA evidence found at the girls' murder scene from a man currently incarcerated in another state, they dropped the murder charges against Hobbs.

Hobbs is a free man after spending five years behind bars awaiting trial. His case brings to mind the $8 million judgment Will County was ordered to pay Kevin Fox, a father who also wrongly confessed to murdering his young daughter and was jailed until DNA evidence led to another man being charged with that murder.

Most of us can't understand false confessions. We can't imagine the mindset of a guy who admits to butchering his daughter and her little girlfriend when he didn't.

"It's really not that big of a deal to get someone to confess. It happens pretty regularly," says Daniel T. Coyne, clinical professor of law at Chicago-Kent College of Law. "It's really a very troubling process."

There are, of course, a few bad cops who illegally use threats and torture to force suspects into false confessions.

There are twisted people who willingly confess to crimes they didn't commit. But there also are decent law enforcement officials who don't want to send an innocent man to death and truly believe they have the right guy after their long hours of work finally result in a suspect admitting to a crime.

The legal and widely accepted interview and interrogation techniques, including subtle things such as sleep deprivation, sometimes produce lies, Coyne says. While expert witnesses testify about the hows and whys of DNA, fingerprints and ballistics so a jury can decide how much weight to give that physical evidence, jurors don't get to hear the hows and whys of a confession.

"Illinois should allow juries to hear evidence of false confessions," Coyne argues.

You can't always believe a confession, even if you watch it on videotape.

"The videotape only shows the confession. It doesn't show the why," Coyne says. "You keep coming back to the piece of info that is missing, and that is 'What would ever convince someone to confess?'"

As the Hobbs case proves, things aren't always the way they seem.