innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

False Confessions

Part 11 of Series: John Moss
Multiple Confessions
In Triple Murder
Probe Provoke Questions:
Did Juvenile Do It?


By Elizabeth Perry
The Innocence Institute of Point Park University

An outlaw motorcycle club associate, Paul Reggettz, 35, worked for UPS, while his wife, Vanessa, 26, cared for their two children. He later admitted he repeatedly beat his wife and abused his family, once telling his son “he wished he’d never been born.”

Twelve days before Christmas in 1979, Mr. Reggettz told police he found the murdered bodies of Mrs. Reggettz, Paul Eric, 7, and Bernadette, 4, in their St. Albans, West Virginia home.

Mrs. Reggettz, 5-foot-tall and 94 pounds, was beaten strangled with an extension chord and stabbed with household scissors. Her son was choked with a power chord from a radio and drowned. Her daughter was strangled with a vacuum cleaner cord and hanged on a door facing their Christmas tree.

A Deeply Flawed Investigation

State Police immediately suspected Mr. Reggettz because he was deep in debt, had numerous domestic problems and showed no emotion after summoning them.

After 14 ½ in custody, when he said he was tossed on the ground and had a gun held to his head, Mr. Reggettz confessed.

He said an argument that began with his wife over the children’s rambunctious play escalated after she pulled his hunting rifle on him. He grabbed the gun, beat her with and stabbed her with scissors to be certain she was dead.

Mr. Reggettz told police he bound and strangled his son then put him in a water filled tub because Paul Eric “liked to swim.” Bernadette had been hung by her neck because she “liked to swing.”

The next morning, he reenacted the killings for the officers at his home and was charged with all three murders.

Later, Mr. Reggettz testified police led him through the confessions after he decided to “Tell them whatever they wanted to hear so they would leave me alone.”

Bloody Questions

While police had a confession and a motive, one piece didn’t fit – blood collected at the scene by a Fred Zain, a West Virginia Crime Lab specialist who would later face numerous challenges about his work, did not match any family member.

Concurrently, Mr. Moss’s uncle told police his delinquent nephew was in the area prior to his incarceration for the rape and shooting of a female bus driver and might know something.

In the prison, troopers secured three vials of his blood and Mr. Zain ruled blood splatters from the crime scene matched Mr. Moss.

Not yet ready to file murder charges, troopers saw an opportunity to talk with Mr. Moss, who was incarcerated in Ohio on a violent assault case, when they saw he had a court date in an unrelated case that later was dropped.

On the six hour drive he was interrogated without a lawyer or parent present and claims he was beaten while in handcuffs until he confessed to the Reggettz murders.

Stop the Tape

The 27-minute taped confession took an hour to record because troopers testified they stopped the tape “two or three times” to clarify things that originally conflicted with the physical evidence.

When asked what else he did to Mrs. Reggettz, who was stabbed with scissors, Mr. Moss replied, “I stabbed her with a knife or something.” When asked again if he remembered what he stabbed her with, Mr. Moss said, “No, I don’t know, I stabbed her.” Recently, he said he did not know what happened to Mrs. Reggettz, but police coached him before and during his confession.

Two days later other troopers testified he confessed again, though neither recorded this second confession on tape or in writing, and Mr. Moss denied it.

Thirteen days later, Judge John Hey, who later surrendered his law license for drinking on the bench, released Mr. Reggettz after he passed the second lie detector test. He failed the first one.

Trial By Error

After four years, West Virginia prosecutors succeeded in certifying Mr. Moss as an adult and his trial began in February 1984, with his lawyers trying to shift blame to Mr. Reggettz due to his own confessions.

On the stand, Mr. Reggettz admitted he fought with his wife and frequently beat her, but insisted he did not kill his family. He said he confessed not out of guilt but fear.

After a jury listened to Mr. Moss’ taped confession, he denied the crimes and said he confessed because of police abuse.

The blood evidence sealed Mr. Moss’ fate when Mr. Zain, a serologist, tied blood found at the scene to the teenager who says he wasn’t there.

On April 30, 1984, Mr. Moss was convicted of the murders and sentenced to three life sentences. He won a second trial in 1990 because of prejudicial out of court comments by a prosecutor, only to be convicted again.

In his closing arguments of the second trial, the prosecutor told a jury even if they discounted the confessions: “Look at the blood; look at the reliability of the blood, ladies and gentlemen.”

Discredited Serologist

Three years later, a wide-ranging investigation revealed Mr. Zain, the serologist, repeatedly faked forensic evidence he did not test properly.

Gary Wells, a psychology professor at Iowa State University and expert in identification issues who’s written about the Zain scandal, said the supposed expert failed organic chemistry.

“Fred Zain couldn’t do these tests, he didn’t know how, he just made them up.” said Mr. Wells.

The West Virginia Supreme Court issued a decree in 1993 condemning any testimony or evidence offered by Mr. Zain as “invalid, unreliable and inadmissible” and barred its use in deciding whether or not to award a new trial after a panel investigating 30 cases in which he was involved and found he falsified evidence in all.

Appeals Denied

Mr. Moss’ appealed, but was denied because of his confession and Mr. Zain’s work in his case had been aided and supervised by another serologist. Mr. Zain died in 2002.

Mr. Moss, now 52, maintains he is innocent and refuses to give up.

When asked about his confidence in Mr. Moss’ conviction, Judge James Stuckey, the prosecuting attorney in the first trial remained: “Very confident, I don’t hesitate; I don’t have a doubt in my mind that the juries made the right decision. Zain has certainly given me pause with scientific evidence and death penalty, but not with John Moss.”

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