In 1980, there was a triple murder at the Fairlanes Bowling Alley in Houston, Texas. It happened during the worst crime wave to ever hit the city. The killings were in the news for weeks. The crime was senseless and brutal. The police didn’t have any leads at all.
Six weeks later, they caught a break. They picked up Max Soffar on a stolen motorcycle in nearby League City. When they took him to Houston homicide detectives, he started talking. He confessed to the murders and was sentenced to death solely on the basis of his confession.
In the years since Soffar’s confession and conviction, it’s become clear that people often confess to crimes they didn’t actually commit. Studies have shown that of the individuals who have been exonerated of their crimes by DNA evidence, around thirty percent had initially confessed to the crime they didn’t commit. That’s enough cases to identify certain patterns or clues that indicate a confession could be a fall confession, such as the attitude of police when they’re conducting the interrogation, the mentality of the suspect when they’re arrested, and the way the case is ultimately presented in the courtroom.
In Soffar’s case, which is true: his confession or his denial?
Max Soffar’s story
“I’d been awake for days, been injecting methamphetamines,” Soffar told Scott, recalling the day in 1980 when he first confessed. “Police pick me up on stolen motorcycle, and tell me I’m going to be locked up on it. I told them I knew about murders in the bowling alley. Then it just blew up, everyone came down to police station, all the bigwigs.”
“What made you just confess to the crime?” asked Scott.
“I was having a conflict with a person,” said Soffar. “I watched TV, saw the composite drawing, and dreamed up scheme to tell police he had done it to get reward money. I’m trusting this people to go arrest him, and hand me fifteen thousand dollars. To start counting those greenbacks up. I never thought it would go this far. I never thought they’d try me for something I didn’t do.”
It can be hard to believe that Soffar would dream up such a harebrained scheme, much less confess without understanding the consequences. To understand him, you need to understand his past.
When he was born, his doctors noted that he had telltale signs of brain damage, likely caused by his mother’s drinking. Four days after his birth he was adopted by an older couple. He was a hyperactive child so his adoptive mother fed him barbiturates to calm him down.
From a young age, the police knew who he was. He would often hang around the police station and get rides in police cars. At age 12, Soffar’s adoptive parents sent him to the Austin State Mental hospital. Richard Laminack was a young social worker at the hospital. He’s now a personal injury lawyer in Houston. Scott interviewed him at his office.
“The treatment of the kids bordered on abusive,” Laminack said, adding that they were often sent into solitary confinement for minor infractions. “They were there because no one wanted them. No one wanted to take care of Max.”
Laminack described Soffar as one of the bright spots at the institution, and that he would often care for the younger kids. “The biggest problem we had with Max was the stories he liked to tell,” Laminack said. “The kids on weekends would run away from facility and by Tuesday they came back cold or hot and hungry and Max always came back with wild tales. Anything that happened in the city of Austin, Max was involved in. No matter what it was, a bank got robbed or a house burned down. It was impossible for him to have done it. But we were always amazed at level of detail and how descriptive he could be of what he pulled off and what he had done.”
Soffar spent two years in the mental hospital and soon after, dropped out of school. By the time he was 18 he was a heavy drug user and police informant. His handler, a cop named Bruce Clawson, used Soffar cautiously, knowing he would make up stories to get attention. It was Clawson who delivered Soffar to Houston homicide detectives. He told his fellow officers Soffar often lied, but also discouraged Soffar from getting a lawyer.
There’s no evidence that Houston detectives doubted Soffar’s guilt. And they could be right. So let’s take a look at their investigation and what they were working with when they pulled him over for riding a stolen motorcycle.
The night of the murders was chaos. Police and paramedics rushed to the scene, as did reporters. A news report shows them crowding the bowling alley while bodies still lay on the floor. A few hours later, the owners of the bowling alley ripped up the bloodstained carpet and cleaned the place up so they could open for business the next day.
The police didn’t get much from the scene of the crime. But there was an eyewitness: Greg Garner, one of the victims. He was shot in the head, lost an eye, and suffered a severe concussion. But he lived. At first his statements were surreal — he said the killer was 20 feet tall — but eventually remembered what happened. The police even had him help create a composite sketch.
Garner said the man came to the door and asked for water for his car, carrying a plastic jug as a prop. When they let him in, he pulled a gun, forced one of the employees to open the safe, and then ordered everyone onto the floor. Garner remembered him saying one word, “Goodbye”, and then shooting each of them in the back of the head. No one screamed.
News footage shows a plastic jug sitting on the counter. But the cleaning crew threw it away the next day, and it was never tested for fingerprints.
When the police picked up Soffar six weeks later, they were desperate. They interrogated him for three days. In his first two signed confessions, Soffar said that a man he knew named Latt Bloomfield did it while he sat in the car. In his third and final written confession, he stated that he shot two victims and Bloomfield shot the other two.
When the details don’t add up
When evaluating a confession, police are looking to make sure the suspect knows things that only the perpetrator would know. That was difficult in this case, because almost all the details the police knew, ended up in the media. Still, each of Soffar’s statements got key details wrong.
First, he confessed to having already robbed the bowling alley the night before the murders. The police already had the people who did that in custody.
He also confessed to a lot of other crimes. He told police that he and Bloomfield were on a crime spree and even named the store they robbed. But when the police investigated, the owners of the store couldn’t remember having been robbed.
Soffar took the detectives to the oil fields outside Houston, saying he was going to show them the bodies of other murder victims. That ended up being a waste of time. He also promised to take them to the gun. But when they arrived, it was gone.
And then there was the fact that Soffar’s confessions contradicted what the surviving witness told police.
- Soffar stated there were two robbers and that Bloomfield wore a mask. Greg Garner said in multiple interviews there was only one killer and he didn’t wear a disguise.
- Soffar said there was a loud struggle. Garner was adamant that the victims were silent and cooperative.
- Soffar said the victims were on their knees. They were shot lying down.
- And Soffar got the order of the bodies wrong.
At trial, the prosecution explained away the discrepancies saying Garner’s account was probably wrong due to his head injuries.
All interrogations are inherently coercive but that doesn’t mean they’re abusive. Most cops use a method known as the Reid technique. It works like this:
First, if you think the suspect is lying, don’t allow him to deny the crime — just start talking over his denials.
Second, tell him there’s evidence against him, whether or not it’s true.
Third, help him minimize the crime, and
Fourth, tell him a confession is in his best interest.
The Reid Technique has been shown to effectively convince guilty people to confess. It can also convince innocent people to confess.
Soffar wrote to his lawyer shortly after his confession. He described the police telling him that the witness had identified him, even though the witness had not identified him. He said he was told things would be worse if he didn’t confess. It was classic Reid Technique.
It’s said the wheels of justice move slowly, but in Soffar’s case, they grind along.
Soffar filed a federal appeal arguing ineffective counsel, and in 2002, that appeal reached the Fifth Circuit, a very conservative court. At first Soffar’s appeal was denied. But one of the judges, Harold DeMoss, wrote a strong dissent.
“I have laid awake nights agonizing over the enigmas, contradictions, and ambiguities,” DeMoss wrote, “which are inherent in this record. However, my colleagues in the en banc majority have shut their eyes to the big picture and have persuaded themselves that piecemeal justice is sufficient in this case. That is, of course, their privilege but I am glad I will not be standing in their shoes, if and when Soffar is executed solely because of the third statement he signed in this case.”
Soffar’s case was reconsidered, and in 2004, a majority of the Fifth Circuit agreed. The judges said there was no excuse for his lawyer not calling Greg Garner as a witness or investigating the ballistics evidence.
Kathryn Kase took on Soffar’s case after the 2004 opinion. She’s a prominent Houston defense attorney and head of Texas Defender Services.
“Max had Joe Cannon, the most infamous lawyer ever in Houston,” Kase said. “He slept through trials. He had a two-inch folder for Max Soffar. I had 60 boxes of material. The jury didn’t hear much about Max’s confession except it was a lie.”
Jurors in death penalty cases must be “death-qualified.” That means they’re asked if they can impose the death penalty and they have to state they are willing to do it. Research shows death-qualified juries almost always convict.
Kase tried to get the state to drop the death penalty. She collected news clippings to prove that Soffar could have learned everything he knew from the press. She even tried to bring in new evidence that implicated a man named Paul Reid. Reid was a known serial killer whose MO exactly matched the bowling alley murders. He had also admitted to an accomplice that he committed the murders.
In the end, none of it worked. The judge wouldn’t waive the death penalty, wouldn’t let her submit the news clips, and threatened Paul Reid’s accomplice with jail time for his role in an attempted murder if he took the stand. “So you have the state shutting down the true story,” said Kase.
Kase had another factor working against her: time. The retrial happened almost 30 years after the murders. This caused all sorts of problems. The jury was likely aware that Soffar had already been sentenced to death. The surviving witness, Greg Garner then got on the stand and said that the man who shot him looked like Soffar — even though he couldn’t pick Soffar out of a lineup six weeks after the murders. In addition, Garner’s original statements don’t match Soffar’s confessions.
“In closing argument the Assistant District Attorney, Lynn McClelland, told the jury that Max had to have committed these murders because he had information that no one else had about them,” said Kase. “I mean that is an affirmatively untrue statement that Max had special knowledge. Max had no knowledge. In fact, he repeatedly had the wrong knowledge and had to be corrected by the cops. This would be hilarious if the consequences weren’t so severe.”
The jury found Soffar guilty again. He’s back on death row and his situation’s not good. A few months ago Soffar was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. His current lawyer, Andrew Horne, is trying to secure his freedom so he won’t have to die in prison. He’s appealed to the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole for compassionate release. The board denied the request. Max Soffar’s last chance is the governor of Texas.
Scott is investigating the case for the forthcoming documentary Freedom Fighters, which will broadcast on PBS.
Anatomy of a Murder was edited by Casey Miner and produced by Zach Hirsch and Kaitlin Prest.
Austin Sarat provided scholarly advice on the story. Sarat is Associate Dean of the Faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College and Hugo L. Black Visiting Senior Scholar at the University of Alabama School of Law.
Credit for the photos of Max Soffar (left) meeting with Chris Scott at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas are stills from the documentary, Freedom Fighters which is in production.