This week's cover story, "House of Lies," explores the disturbing journey of Lawrence Montoya — who, at the age of fourteen, went through an emotional, high-pressure interview with Denver homicide detectives that transformed him from peripheral witness to prime suspect in a high-profile murder case.
Although much of Montoya's "confession" was later ruled to be improperly obtained and thus inadmissible in court, Montoya's lawyers say the detectives' dubious tactics sent the investigation in the wrong direction — and sent their client to prison for thirteen years for a crime he didn't commit. Released in 2014, after DNA tests not only failed to link him to the crime scene but implicated another suspect who was never prosecuted, Montoya is now suing the City of Denver and the detectives who built a case against him for $30 million.
One of the central claims of the lawsuit is that widely accepted police interrogation methods, derived from the Reid Technique developed fifty years ago, are designed to extract confessions, true of false, rather than discover the truth. Critics of the approach say it's inherently coercive — and particularly dangerous when used on juveniles with cognitive impairment. (Montoya scored in the sixties on IQ tests and was found to be functionally illiterate, with mild retardation or developmental disability, shortly after his arrival in the Colorado Department of Corrections.)
Were the detectives who questioned Montoya more focused on getting a confession than on its plausibility? Here are five scenes from the 150-minute encounter that provide a glimpse of the process Montoya went though before he agreed to "tell the story."
1. We Already Know the Story, But We Want to Know What You Know
Accompanied by his mother, Mary Torres, Montoya went to Denver police headquarters on January 10, 2000, to meet with detectives Martin Vigil and Michael Martinez. At first the detectives want to know what Montoya heard about the murder of Emily Johnson from other teens who drove him around in a Lexus on New Year's Day; the car had been stolen the night before after Johnson was fatally beaten. But as Montoya reluctantly admits hearing something about how "they hit the lady in the head with a rock," Vigil presses him to tell "the whole story." He must know more, the reasoning goes, and his failure to tell it merely implicates him further. Since the detectives really don't want to see him involved in this — note the paternal "son" and comforting hand on the arm — he'd better come clean, thus involving himself. The only way out is to "tell the story," which the officers claim to already know.
2. The Evidence Ploy
A key tactic of the Reid Technique, seen in a zillion Law and Order episodes, involves Making Shit Up. You claim to have evidence you don't have, or witnesses who don't exist, or statements from accomplices fingering the suspect as the mastermind of the whole crime. If the bluff works, the suspect cracks on the spot or blurts out something useful. ("I was only the wheel man! Paulie shot her!") But the tactic can also inculcate confusion and despair in innocent but gullible people, who begin to believe that the system or the universe is stacked against them. Here Lt. Jon Priest seizes Montoya's shoes mid-interview, declaring that "this is the pattern we have at the homicide scene." In point of fact, the shoes in question don't match the bloody footprints found at the scene — but that won't stop Priest from returning to the interview room later to claim that they do.
After fifty minutes or so, the detectives persuaded Montoya's mother to leave the room. They then proceeded to press harder. This scene begins with another evidence ploy, a bogus claim that co-defendant Nick Martinez has already implicated Montoya in the murder. That's followed by offering a litany of excuses for the murder, in the hope that Montoya will grab one as a kind of lifeline, a way of minimizing his own involvement: he was just there to jack the car and things got out of hand, he was afraid of Nick, the older teens made him do it, and so on. Montoya refuses to bite, but toward the end he begins to sob as Vigil leans in, asking loaded questions with no good answer: "Who hit her first?"
4. Telling the Story
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Well into the second hour of the interview, Montoya's story begins to change. Under Vigil's prompting, he selects the lesser of evils in a series of terse answers to yes-no questions. He wasn't inside the victim's house, so he must have been waiting outside. No, not in the street, on the corner. When he says the killers went in the front, Vigil is skeptical — "Are you sure they went in the front? I don’t think they went in the front" — until Montoya, now a cooperative pupil, corrects his answer: "The back." But he still can't get the details right; he claims the killers busted in the back door, but there was no sign of forced entry. Similar glaring factual errors show up throughout his confession, which simply doesn't fit the evidence.
The first part of this clip shows Montoya further improvising details about what the killers said and did. Although still tearful and rubbing his eyes, he seems mostly exhausted — even yawning. The second segment, which starts about three minutes in, jumps ahead to Priest's re-entry to the room to announce that the shoes he'd taken from Montoya match the bloody footprint depicted in crime scene photos. It's a gotcha moment designed to get Montoya to admit he was in the victim's house and a more direct participant in the murder than he's let on. But Montoya has nothing more to offer; he's told the story the detectives kept telling him they wanted to hear, and it still doesn't make sense.