I ate lunch at the Kings Korner bar most weekdays for several years. One of the regular customers who shared the small dining area in which I got my roast beef or chicken parmigiana sandwiches was a congenial man in his 60s whom everybody called “D.” He sat at a corner table every day conducting his business. Men would sit across from him and discuss the terms by which they could get money from him. D was a loan shark. I suspected that his work was stressful, but he never showed any signs of agitation, anxiety, or depression. He seemed remarkably content, indeed unequivocally happy. Convinced that he had found the key to a joyful life, I asked how he had achieved this state of bliss. He answered with two questions and an explanation.

“What were you doing between 1964 and 1967?” he asked.  I was in school, I answered. “Well, I was in jail,” he explained. “And what were you doing between 1970 and 1973” he inquired. I was still in school, I answered. “Well, I was in prison again. You see, doc, I got it out of the way. I did my time. You haven’t done your time.” Because I was unaware of his time incarcerated and was concerned by his suggestion that I might someday face prison, I asked what crimes he had committed to get himself jailed. He was amused by my naivete and explained, “I didn’t do the crimes.  I took the raps for the guys who did. Then they owed me.” Simply put, he claimed he had confessed to crimes he did not do to gain favor with criminals who helped build and protect his business.

Two weeks ago, Stephen Smerk confessed to murdering Robin Lawrence of Springfield, Virginia.  Mr. Smerk called investigators to notify them he had stabbed and killed this young woman 29 years ago. Mr. Smerk was living in Niskayuna, New York, when he offered this confession to detectives from Virginia who were investigating this very cold case.  They told him to go to the nearest police station and surrender. He followed their instructions and made a full confession, including the detail that the murder was a random act of violence.

His confession came after an independent laboratory analyzing DNA from the crime scene constructed a sketch of the perpetrator that resembled a driver’s license photo of Mr. Smerk from 1998. He was considered a person of interest because a DNA sample from one of his relatives seeking information on their family roots was similar to DNA left at the murder scene by the presumed killer. Mr. Smerk volunteered a sample of his DNA acquired with a cheek swab. He is being extradited to Virginia to face prosecution for second degree murder. There is no statute of limitation in Virginia or New York for murder.

That he confessed to the murder does not establish that he was the murderer.  Even the finding of his DNA at the murder scene is not conclusive, although it is certainly compelling evidence of his participation in the crime. The problem with confessions is that some, or possibly many, are false, especially in high profile violent crimes. 

John Karr, a convicted pedophile facing prison time in Thailand, confessed to the strangulation murder of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey in Boulder, Colorado, in 1996.  His confession to this horrific crime got him a trip to the United States, courtesy of American taxpayers. Further questioning revealed that he knew nothing more about the murder or the crime scene than had been released to the press. His claim of guilt competed with those of Gary Olivia, a convicted sex offender, who insisted that he had killed the little girl. Unfortunately, for those trying to identify the child killer, Olivia’s DNA did not match any of the samples found at the crime scene.

There are obviously many reasons why people confess to crimes they have not committed. Sometimes it is for notoriety. Sometimes it is for professional advancement. Sometimes it is simply a consequence of a psychotic delusion. Whatever the reason, confessions in high profile incidents can be distracting, as well as befuddling.

When Richard Cheney was Vice-president under George W. Bush, he accidentally shot a friend in the face while on a hunting trip. Alcohol was suspected to have played a role in the mishap, but this was never confirmed or officially investigated. When the press sought to establish who was responsible for this near fatal accident, only one person stepped forward…the victim.  He confessed that his injuries were his fault for getting in the way of the errant shotgun discharge. He even offered a public apology to Mr. Cheney for causing so much distraction from their delightful trip.

We have come to expect confessions, even if they make no sense. The current President’s son, Hunter Biden, faces ten years in person for not confessing that he was using illicit drugs when he applied to purchase a handgun. Second Amendment advocates (NRA, etc.) of unrestricted access to firearms have paradoxically developed mutism in connection with this case. Fifth Amendment advocates (ACLU, etc.) are apparently too busy with other issues to address the problem of self-incrimination as required on the weapons purchase application. What is clear from the endless exploration of Hunter Biden’s life and actions is that he has numerous problems unrelated to that pistol. Fortunately for America, Hunter Biden is not running for President, even though all of the attention he is getting suggests otherwise.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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