BBC News


Page last updated at 11:35 GMT, Friday, 4 April 2008 12:35 UK

The need to share a dark secret

By Julian Joyce
BBC News

Felix Dennis
Felix Dennis now says his drunken confession was a 'load of hogwash'

Multi-millionaire poet and publisher Felix Dennis has retracted a drunken murder "confession" made to a newspaper journalist.

But even if Mr Dennis's words turn out to be - as he says - "a load of hogwash", how unusual is it for genuine murderers to risk their freedom by sharing their secrets?

According to the Times, Mr Dennis - one of the original founders of the counterculture magazine Oz in the 1960s and now a publisher with an estimated 750m fortune - confessed to a murder "about 25 years ago", in order to protect a woman.

After several bottles of wine were shared, he told writer Ginny Dougary: "I've killed a man... pushed him over the edge of a cliff."

The unnamed man had, according to Mr Dennis, been making the unnamed woman's life a misery. The man "beat her up, beat up her kids, wouldn't let her alone, kept on, kept on - weren't even his kids, so in the end, I had a little meeting with him, pushed him over the edge of a cliff. Weren't 'ard."

Mood swings

Later Mr Dennis wrote to the Times to explain that during the interview he was suffering from mood swings and "severe exaggeration" brought on by a mixture of medication and alcohol.

David Lee Patterson
David Lee Patterson faces up to the consequences - prison custody

But experts say it is not unusual for genuine criminals to make apparently unforced confessions, for a variety of motives.

Last week, in Dallas, Texas, a 60-year-old black vagrant, David Lee Patterson walked into a police station and confessed to a murder committed 17 years previously.

According to Sgt Kevin Perlich, Mr Patterson "just said he had some stuff on his mind that was bothering him, and that was the reason he thought he might be having a rough time."

The homeless man had been sleeping in a doorway in Portland, Oregon in May 1991 when two white men allegedly attacked him whilst shouting racial abuse. Patterson drew a gun and fired. Eric Lamon, 21, was shot in the back and later died after surgery.

Chief deputy district attorney Rod Underhill told journalists: "He just wanted to get it off his shoulders. It just weighed on him."

Maxwell 'murder'

High-profile figures have also shared their darkest secrets - but unlike David Lee Patterson, they perhaps did not think through the consequences of their confessions.

There is a general need for people who have committed a terrible crime - such as murder - to tell at least one other person about what they have done
Professor Gisli Gudjonsson, confessions expert

In 2006 it was revealed that at the time of his death the millionaire publisher and owner of the Mirror newspaper Sir Robert Maxwell was being investigated for war crimes, after he let it be known he had shot a German mayor during WWII.

It stemmed from a disclosure Maxwell made to biographer Joe Haines about his actions during the war.

In a letter to his wife, included in Haines' authorised biography, Maxwell - then a captain in the British Army - described how he ordered a German mayor to tell some soldiers defending a town to lay down their arms and surrender.

The mayor told the British soldiers that the surrender had been agreed. But, Maxwell wrote, "As soon as we marched off, a German tank opened fire on us. Luckily, he missed, so I shot the mayor and withdrew."

Some commentators have theorised that the knowledge that Maxwell may have faced a life sentence for the shooting may have influenced him to take his own life in 1991.

Hidden in novel

Sometimes a feeling of sheer bravado may be enough to prompt a murderer to throw caution to the wind. In the case of former East End gangster Freddie Foreman it may have paid off when he confessed, during a Carlton TV documentary, to being a hitman for the notorious Kray twins.

Krystian Bala
Krystian Bala being found guilty for a crime that mirrored one in his novel

The Crown Prosecution Service later confirmed they would not be pressing charges, even though Foreman admitted killing Frank Mitchell and Tommy "Ginger" Marks - crimes of which he had been acquitted in the 1960s.

Lawyers concluded under the then "double-jeopardy" rule, Foreman could not be tried twice for the same crime. And police said there was "not enough evidence" to prosecute him for perjury.

Yet a Polish author who not only gloated over a grisly torture-murder - but even wrote about it in a best-selling novel - was not so fortunate.

Krystian Bala was jailed for 25 years after police linked the description of a murder portrayed in his novel "Amok" with the killing of a businessman Dariusz Janiszewski in 2000.

Bala was so confident that he would get away with his crimes that he even taunted the police by sending them mocking e-mails from computers in the Far East.

It was only when detectives read the book and discovered close similarities between details of the Janiszewski killing and those of the fictional character in "Amok" - some of which were never publicised - that Bala came under suspicion.

Confessions expert

He was finally trapped when the e-mails boasting about his "perfect crime" were traced to internet addresses in South Korea and Indonesia - where Bala had been deep-sea diving at the time.

Internationally-renowned confessions expert Professor Gisli Gudjonsson said it was "unusual" for serious criminals to keep their deeds totally secret.

"In my experience there is a general need for people who have committed a terrible crime - such as murder - to tell at least one other person about what they have done," says Mr Gudjonsson, who is professor of forensic psychology at King's College, London.

So why do people confess to a deed that has often been largely forgotten and could land them in prison for the rest of their lives? Mr Gudjonsson identifies three main reasons why murderers share their secrets.

"If you commit a murder it is often very difficult to keep it to yourself - we know from research that in general people have a need to get things off their chest and talk about it - especially if they have committed sexual and violent offences. They need to discuss it with someone - they may feel remorse; they may feel guilty.

"They may just feel that they have to share the secret with at least one other person. People have a need to share information."

Threat to behave

Sometimes, says the professor, the "confession" can take the form of a threat to other people to behave - or the same thing will happen to them.

This may have been Dutchman Richard Klinkhamerr's motivation when he reportedly taunted his neighbours with remarks like: "This pit is for you - right next to my wife", whilst standing over the grave of his murdered spouse.

Finally, says Professor Gudjonsson, the advances in forensic science have so reduced the chances of a "perfect murder", that many criminals see confession as a way of advancing an inevitable process.

"With the developments in DNA detection rates, many murderers feel it is just a matter of time until they hear the knock on the door," he says.

"They feel, they might as well get it over with."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Your e-mail address
Town/city and country
Your comment

The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific