Confession Tactics Cited in Striking Tyberg Conviction
A state appellate court Thursday overturned the first-degree murder conviction of Charles Tyberg, 20, the deputy sheriff’s son convicted of taking a joy ride in his stepfather’s patrol car that ended in the shooting death of a San Diego police officer.
The 4th District Court of Appeal said the San Diego homicide detectives who questioned Tyberg used “deception to induce a confession,” at one point telling the youth, then 16, “We’re here to help ya.”
The three-judge panel ruled that Orange County Superior Court Judge Myron S. Brown--who presided in the case after it was moved to Santa Ana because of pretrial publicity in San Diego--erred in allowing part of Tyberg’s confession to be introduced as evidence.
Tyberg’s attorneys--who called no witnesses in his defense during a weeklong trial in October, 1983--immediately predicted the case would be retried. But prosecutors were uncertain Thursday if they would appeal the sharply worded, 16-page decision to the California Supreme Court, retry the case or let the decision stand.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Melinda Lasater declined to estimate the chances of winning a conviction at a trial where use of Tyberg’s confession was prohibited. The statement was key evidence of Tyberg’s state of mind when he shot and killed Officer Kirk Johnson early in the morning of Feb. 20, 1983.
“I’m surprised and disappointed with the court’s decision,” said Lasater, who played a tape recording of the confession at Tyberg’s trial. The youth will continue to serve a 27-year-to-life term at the California state prison in Tehachapi while prosecutors determine their next step. Prosecutors have 60 days to decide whether to pursue the case further.
Though Tyberg was tried as an adult in 1983, prosecutors could not seek the death penalty because he was younger than 18 at the time of the offense. That prohibition would remain in effect if he is retried for the killing, Lasater said.
Tyberg, a slight, blond youth, was wearing his stepfather’s uniform shirt and badge and packing the officer’s .357 magnum revolver when he and two young friends hopped in Sheriff’s Sgt. James Tyberg’s patrol car around midnight on Feb. 19, 1983, and drove to Marian Bear Park in San Clemente Canyon. The teen-ager’s parents were on vacation in Mexico.
When Johnson, 26, parked his police cruiser alongside the sheriff’s car, Tyberg fired six times. Five bullets struck and killed Johnson, a three-year police veteran who lived in San Marcos with his wife and two stepdaughters. According to testimony at the trial, Tyberg returned home and bragged to a friend that he had done something that would make him famous.
“The whole thing is ludicrous,” the officer’s recently remarried widow, Patricia Johnson-Geurkink, said Thursday. “It gives me very little faith in our justice system, because all the criminals go free. People who do traffic crimes get worse penalties than this.”
Tyberg’s mother, Christiane Tyberg, said word of the appellate court’s decision was “the best news of the whole day--in all my life.” Though hopeful the ruling will bring a better result for her son, she said her strongest feelings were for the slain officer’s family.
“My husband and I feel very hard for the family. I always have,” said the French-born Mrs. Tyberg, who will become a naturalized United States citizen next month. “That’s what hurt me most, because of the other lady, the parents.” Charles Tyberg was 4 or 5 when Mrs. Tyberg married James Tyberg, a 28-year veteran of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office who retired after a heart attack late last year.
The appellate decision says Ron Newman, a detective in the San Diego Police Department, used “subtle psychological coercion” to elicit Tyberg’s confession during a long police interview a month after the killing, when one of Tyberg’s young companions had implicated him in the crime.
Newman told Tyberg that he and another detective “were primarily interested in (Tyberg’s) welfare and wanted . . . to become friends” with the youth, according to the decision, authored by Presiding Judge John K. Trotter of the court’s Santa Ana division. Newman went on to seemingly minimize the significance of the events, telling Tyberg he understood the shooting was “a crazy, spontaneous thing.”
“I know that your little heart’s going to be pounding right outside of your chest right now, OK,” Newman said, according to the court ruling. “But we’re here to help ya, and I mean we’re here to try to understand how this thing happened.”
The judges derided the detectives’ tactics. “We find it inconceivable the police were there to help the defendant in any way,” Trotter wrote. “This type of ‘softening-up’ and deception to induce a confession has been expressly disapproved by the courts as constituting improper pressure and alone requires reversal.”
Newman--working his last day in homicide Thursday following a decade investigating murders--called the court’s ruling “absolutely incredible.” Prosecutors and senior police officers have long considered Newman the area’s expert in obtaining confessions.
“Nothing surprises me from that court,” added Newman, who is going to work full time for the San Diego Police Officers Assn., of which he is a vice president.
Both Tyberg’s defense attorneys and Lasater said the confession provided critical evidence of Tyberg’s state of mind at the time of the shootings, a central issue for a jury weighing whether the killing was premeditated, first-degree murder or a lesser offense.
“There’s no question he delivered the shot,” said defense lawyer Paul Bell of Appellate Defenders Inc., who argued the case before the appellate court. “There is a very serious question whether it was premeditated or deliberate, and a serious question whether it was first degree or not.”
Ironically, the homicide detectives’ seductive style of questioning was not a major issue in arguments during Tyberg’s trial over the admissibility of the confession. Jack Campbell, Tyberg’s court-appointed defense attorney at the trial, instead focused on concerns over police delays in allowing Tyberg to talk with an attorney during the police interviews.
In an interview Thursday, Campbell acknowledged that the appellate court ruling could add fuel to the fire of critics who complain that judges too readily set aside the convictions of inarguably guilty defendants--concerns at the heart of the campaign over the retention of state Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and two other high court justices.
But Campbell said the decision instead should be viewed as a matter of fairness. “The point is that he did not get a fair trial, and now he’s going to get one,” Campbell said. “It’s not that he be set free, not that cop killers roam the streets.”
Johnson-Geurkink, the slain officer’s widow, nonetheless was angered by the ruling. “You can’t win for losing when somebody’s guilty,” she said, defending the homicide detectives’ strategy in questioning Tyberg.
“They had to be nice to him,” she said. “If they would have treated him the way they would have liked to, they would have been told they were being unfair to him, because he’s innocent until proven guilty.”
Tyberg’s mother, however, said the appellate judges had rightly zeroed in on the unfairness of the detectives’ tactics.
Newman “told him he was there to help him,” Christiane Tyberg said. “Charles, knowing his father was a police officer, thought (Newman) was his friend. He just talked to him like a second father.”
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.