Public Safety

Defense in toddler's death trial tries to discredit Cody Stevenson's confession

Expert says false confessions happen, many times to protect others

Cody Stevenson watches as the jury enters the courtroom during his first degree murder trial at the Linn County Courthou
Cody Stevenson watches as the jury enters the courtroom during his first degree murder trial at the Linn County Courthouse in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. Stevenson is accused of punching his girlfriend’s child in the abdomen multiple times on June 30, 2017, according to the criminal complaint. The trial was moved from Iowa County due to pre-trial publicity. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — A professor of psychology and social behavior testified Thursday that false confessions sometimes happen when a person wants to avoid worse consequences or to protect someone else, as a Williamsburg man, charged in the death of toddler, is claiming.

Lindsay Malloy, an associate professor with the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Ontario, Canada, said suspects with a lower IQ or intellectual disability are more vulnerable to providing false confessions because they can be easily manipulated by police tactics, such as suggesting a theory for a crime.

Malloy, who said she has done extensive research in investigative interviewing and interrogation techniques, said she hadn’t met Cody Stevenson, who is on trial this week for first-degree murder, and hadn’t read any reports in the case. She was asked by the defense to provide research regarding false confessions and about children or juvenile witnesses.

Stevenson, 30, is accused of punching his girlfriend’s daughter, 2-year-old Izabella “Bella” Loffer, three times in the abdomen on June, 30, 2017. Bella died from her injuries July 3.

The trial was moved from Iowa County because of pretrial publicity. The prosecution rested Wednesday, and the defense started its case Thursday. The trial could wrap up Monday or Tuesday.

According to testimony this week, Stevenson admitted to investigators that he punched Bella, but the defense says Bella’s mother, Amanda Loffer, actually punched her daughter and Stevenson is covering for her. Stevenson only admitted the assault to police to protect Loffer, according to the defense.

Malloy said mental illness and lower age and IQ can play a role in false confessions, studies have shown. Those factors make someone more vulnerable to interrogation tactics — such as suggesting what happened during a crime or traumatic event or even the length of the interview — and can lead to a false confession.

People with a lower IQ have a higher need for approval, and they are more compliant and easier to manipulate, Malloy added.

Malloy said the most common reason for making a false confession is to protect someone else. A confession is a “powerful piece of testimony,” and it’s difficult to convince people that someone would confess if they weren’t guilty.

Malloy also testified about studies she has conducted or been part of dealing with memories of children being influenced by police, parents or others involved in a case.

The defense wants to discredit the testimony of Bella’s three siblings who testified earlier this week about hearing Bella cry and scream while in Stevenson’s sole care, and one may have seen him hit her. The siblings’ accounts of incidents in court were different from earlier depositions, according to testimony.

The trial of Cody Stevenson, who is accused of punching his girlfriend's child in the abdomen multiple times on June 30, 2017, continues as reporter Trish Mehaffey live-tweets from the courtroom.

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Malloy said memories of adults and children are fragile and can be easily contaminated or reconstructed over time with outside influences. There have been studies where children are exposed to an event, then parents read them accounts of that same event. When later asked about the event, children may remember what was read to them, as opposed to the event they experienced, Malloy said.

On cross examination, Assistant Iowa Attorney General Doug Hammerand asked Malloy if her experiences with children were only in clinical settings and not in treatment situations.

Malloy said yes. She said she has conducted lab studies but hasn’t treated children who have gone through trauma or witnessed a traumatic event.

Hammerand asked if some people who confess to a crime actually commit it or may regret they did it later.

Malloy said that’s true.

In other testimony, Frank Gersh, a licensed clinical psychologist from Iowa City, testified about Stevenson’s psychological evaluations. He said Stevenson had to be read one of the tests because they are meant for someone with at least an eighth-grade reading level to understand it — Stevenson reads at a fifth-grade level, Gersh said.

The 195 true and false questions concern cognitive functioning and beliefs, and assess personality disorder and mental health issues, Gersh said. The test showed Stevenson was passive, and wants to please and protect others. He also showed symptoms of dependent personality disorder — he has trouble making decisions and wants others to assume responsibility, Gersh said.

Gersh said Stevenson seemed to be truthful and not attempting to provide false answers.

As part of the evaluation, Gersh gave Stevenson an IQ test, which showed his at 78 — considered borderline. Someone with an IQ of 70 and below is considered to have a mental disability. Stevenson’s mental age is 14 based on his IQ, Gersh said.

Gershs said an average IQ is 100 to 110, 90 to 100 is normal, and 70 to 80 is borderline intelligence.

“He’s at the high end of borderline, correct?” Hammerand asked on cross examination.

Yes, Gersh said.

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