Suspect denies killing victim: Spielman initially confessed to murder; expert testifies about false confessions

GREENFIELD — All at once, the jury leaned forward to listen more closely.

Spencer Spielman’s voice — a recording of a phone call he made from the Hancock County Jail — crackled through the speakers of a laptop computer at the front of the courtroom. His speech was muffled at times, but his message to the friend on the other end of the line was clear.

He didn’t kill 52-year-old Patricia Dresser as police believe, he said; but he saw her body not long after she’d died. When he saw the sash of her bathrobe wrapped around her neck, he removed it, tossed it onto the floor and ran from the home.

Prosecutors are working this week to convince a jury of 12 Hancock County residents Spielman is lying, that he is guilty of murder and robbery. They say the 21-year-old Greenfield man killed Dresser in her home in October and stole a television from the house after he ransacked the place.

Police say Dresser’s killer used the sash of the bathrobe she was wearing to strangle her to death. A pathologist confirmed during testimony this week that Dresser died from asphyxiation on Oct. 13.

Spielman admitted to killing Dresser, who had hired him as a handyman, according to investigators: he was found driving her car the day after her body was found, and he told Greenfield police detectives intimate details about the crime scene, according to testimony.

In phone calls to acquaintances after his arrest — recordings of which were played for the jury Thursday — Spielman said he didn’t have any reason to kill Dresser. He always felt welcome in her home and often stayed there.

He’d been doing yard work at Dresser’s home on Morningside Drive in Greenfield on the day she died, Spielman said during the phone calls.

He left briefly and returned to find her body slumped on the couch, the sash of her red bathrobe wrapped tight around her neck, he said.

When police found him driving her car, Spielman admitted to killing Dresser because he was scared and worried about going to prison. He thought admitting to something would get him out of trouble, not into it, he said.

This and other testimony Thursday — the fourth day of Spielman’s trial — gave jurors a clearer look at the man’s defense.

Throughout questioning, Spielman’s attorney, John Merlau of New Palestine, suggested someone else is responsible for Dresser’s death, and his admission to the crime came only after feeling pressured by police.

Proceedings switched briefly Thursday afternoon from the state to the defense, with Merlau calling his first witness in the case — an attorney and professor from Massachusetts who specializes in the study of false confessions.

Alan Hirsch told jurors he has read extensively about wrongful admissions and has testified as a witness in trials across the country. He added few colleges or universities offer course material in that area.

Hancock County Superior Court 1 Judge Terry Snow allowed Hirsch to testify about his studies but stopped short of allowing the man to give an opinion on whether he considered Spielman’s admission to police a false confession.

Hirsch said studies show that 5 percent of innocent suspects give false confessions to the police because they believe “they will be better off.”

Hirsch said it’s common for false confessions to come after hours-long interrogations with police that have become confrontational. He said often in these instances, detectives mention details about the evidence during the lengthy conversation. An innocent suspect might repeat those facts back to the officer in hopes of ending the interview.

Spielman’s interview with police lasted three hours. Spielman was taken into custody for questioning when he was found driving Dresser’s car, according to court records.

For their part of testimony Thursday, prosecutors tried to focus on Spielman’s whereabouts in the hours before his arrest.

Brandon Humphries, a friend of Spielman’s, was called to the stand to tell jurors he and Spielman used Dresser’s car on the day she died to visit several pawn shops in Indianapolis before driving to Kentucky and back.

Humphries told the jury he wasn’t aware at first that the car they were riding in belonged to Dresser; Spielman had said he borrowed the vehicle from his mother. Nothing about Spielman’s behavior seemed out of the ordinary, he said.

As they made their way back to Greenfield after the trip to Kentucky, about a dozen police cars met them on the south side of the city, Humphries testified. Spielman immediately began to panic, Humphries said.

During his turn questioning Humphries, Merlau asked about rumors that had circulated among Spielman’s friends, that someone else killed Dresser.

Humphries confirmed having heard others were involved in Dresser’s death, but he didn’t believe the story. And Humphries denied being involved.

“They can investigate me all they want,” Humphries said. “They’d be wasting their time.”

Spielman faces a murder charge in addition to one Level 5 felony count of robbery and one Class A misdemeanor of driving with a suspended license. He is being held in the Hancock County Jail on $250,000 cash bond.

The jury will not hear testimony Friday. Proceedings, which are open to the public, will reconvene at 8:30 a.m. Monday in Hancock County Superior Court 1.

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.