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Ian Simmers

Other Exonerations with False Confessions
On Saturday, March 11, 1995, women hiking on the Burke-Gilman Trail along the Sammamish River near Bothell, Washington, discovered the body of 35-year-old Rodney Gochanour. He had been stabbed several times in the back and slashed on the chin.

On March 15, 1995, police arrested 16-year-old Ian Simmers and a 14-year-old friend for a series of acts of vandalism that involved the shooting of a flare gun they took from a boat moored in the river near the trail. The boat caught fire and was destroyed. In addition, several fires caused about $5,000 damage to a nearby King County Parks Department restroom.

Police said that during questioning about the arsons, the 14-year-old implicated Simmers in Gochanour’s murder.

On March 20, 1995, Simmers was charged with first-degree murder. Detectives said Simmers had confessed to murdering Gochanour after waiting along the trail on the night of March 10, 1995 to attack and rob someone. When Gochanour walked by as he headed home from a tavern, detectives said, Simmers stabbed him six times in the back and once in the face, bending the knife in the attack.

Subsequently, Simmers was charged with multiple accounts of burglary and arson. Police said he was responsible for a series of boat and yacht burglaries at Bothell marinas. One boat was burned and another was stolen. A total of 32 boats were burglarized, police said. In addition, Simmers was charged with setting fire to the park restroom and a park shed.

In March 1996, Simmers went to trial as an adult in King County Superior Court. No physical or forensic evidence linked him to the crime. Blood on the knife recovered from the scene did not come from Simmers. A pair of boots by the river that police said may have left boot prints near Gochanour’s body did not belong to Simmers.

The prosecution’s case was based primarily on the confession and the testimony of Kevin Olsen, who was in the King County Jail in a cell adjacent to Simmers before the trial. Olsen testified that Simmers, speaking through a crack in the wall between their cells, said he told Gochanour, “I finally found someone who has the shoes I wanted in my size and you’re wearing them.”

Olsen testified that Simmers said after the attack, he removed Gochanour’s shoes and threw them into the river.

Olsen admitted that he had numerous prior convictions, including burglary, drug possession, and forgery. He said he had been an informant in about a dozen cases, including another murder trial.

Olsen claimed that Simmers told him he gave wrong details in his confession in an attempt to mislead police. Olsen testified that he took notes as Simmers was talking, and that he reported the conversation to police because “It just made me sick inside that someone would act like that.”

Defense attorney John Hicks questioned Olsen's claim that he had not received any benefits for his testimony, but Olsen maintained he had not received any favorable treatment.

Simmers was in special education classes due to attention deficit disorder. He also had a serious inhalant abuse problem, and had abused alcohol and other drugs. Hicks noted that Simmers had been interrogated for about 10 hours and had been driven to the trail before detectives recorded his final statement.

According to notes from the detectives of the interrogation prior to the recording, Simmers made numerous false statements. He told them that he had previously killed 13 people, and that he suffered a bruise on his abdomen from where Gochanour struck him during the struggle. His description of the knife did not match the knife found at the scene. He said that the murder occurred on Saturday night, March 11, even though the body was discovered on that Saturday afternoon and the time of death was said to be just after before 1 a.m. Simmers initially said the crime occurred in Woodinville—nearly three miles from the murder scene.

Simmers’s physical description of Gochanour as a “bum” was also incorrect and his statement that he stabbed the victim six times was wrong—there were eight holes in Gochanour’s clothing.

In addition, although Simmers said he was wearing the same clothes he was wearing at the time of the murder, Gochanour’s blood was not found on them—despite the bloody nature of the crime.

Detectives testified that they were trained in the Reid technique of interrogation. They falsely told Simmers that the 14-year-old had confessed and told police where to find the knife. They also falsely told Simmers that physical evidence linked him to the murder.

Simmers’s family testified that he was at home on the night of the murder, and that their home was 20 miles from the scene of the crime. Simmers did not have access to the family car or have a bicycle. His mother said it was “absolutely impossible” that Simmers could have left the home late on the night of March 10 and returned after midnight would her knowing. Simmers’s stepfather testified that no one could return to the home without the family dogs raising a ruckus that would wake the entire house.

Nonetheless, on March 28, 1996, the jury convicted Simmers of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 46 years and eight months in prison.

Simmers later filed a motion for a new trial after discovering that Olsen, the jailhouse informant, had falsely testified when he said he received no benefits. Months after Simmers was convicted, Olsen testified as an informant for the prosecution in an unrelated case. In that case, the defense attorneys obtained extensive information about Olsen’s past criminal conduct from the Washington Department of Corrections. This information revealed at least five additional instances of Olsen’s criminal conduct that the prosecution had not disclosed to Simmers’s defense.

At a hearing on the motion, the State also agreed that in the month before Simmers went to trial, police reports existed showing that Olsen was under investigation for crimes involving fraud, stolen property, and passing a bad check. In addition, Olsen volunteered at the hearing that he had received about $200 from Crime Stoppers for providing information about Simmers. All of this undisclosed information could have been used to impeach Olsen’s testimony, Simmers’s defense argued.

The motion for a new trial was denied. The judge ruled that the information would not have made a difference—the jury would have convicted Simmers anyway.

In May 1999, the Court of Appeals of Washington upheld the conviction as well as the ruling denying Simmers a new trial.

In January 2016, Simmers sought a reduction in his sentence and release. He was granted a hearing before the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board, which has the authority to review and reduce sentences imposed on defendants under the age of 18 who were convicted as adults. However, the board declined to reduce his sentence or release him.

On behalf of Simmers, attorney Maureen Devlin contacted Steven Drizin, one of the nation’s leading experts in false confessions and a professor at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. Drizin reviewed the confession as well as the police reports and trial transcript. He concluded there were serious concerns that the confession was false.

Drizin noted that Simmers’s intellectual shortcomings, substance abuse problems, and youth left him particularly vulnerable to the detectives. Drizin noted that the Reid interrogation technique was responsible for numerous false confessions.

In addition, in the years since detectives interrogated Simmers, considerable research had shown that adolescents were particularly vulnerable to confessing falsely.

Devlin received Drizin’s report in May 2017 and provided it to the King County Prosecutor’s office with a request that the case be reinvestigated. The ensuing review by the prosecution included DNA testing of the knife, as well as fingernail clippings from Gochanour. The tests revealed a mixture of DNA that excluded Simmers and Gochanour.

On February 19, 2019, Devlin filed a motion for a new trial and at the same time, the prosecution also filed a motion requesting that Simmers’s conviction be vacated.

Devlin cited Drizin’s review and criticism of the confession. “In the more than two decades since Mr. Simmers was arrested, there has been a sea change in understanding about adolescent brain development and the causes and consequences of false confessions,” Devlin’s motion said. “Little or none of this information was available at the time to police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges or juries in confession cases.”

The motion noted the lack of evidence linking Simmers to the crime, as well as the new evidence undercutting the credibility of the jailhouse informant and the DNA test results. “Taken together,” it stated, “this would cast significant doubt on the only remaining bit of evidence against Mr. Simmers: the custodial statement. A jury hearing this new evidence would be unlikely to find (the) statement to be a valid ‘confession’ and would be likely to acquit.”

The prosecution motion, filed by Carla Carlstrom, senior deputy King County prosecuting attorney, said, “The State has not and does not agree that the defendant is innocent of the crime or that he was wrongly convicted.”

However, the prosecutor conceded that Simmers was entitled to a new trial. As a result, “given the difficulty in retrying this case decades after the crime, the fact that the defendant was 16 years old at the time of the murder and that the defendant has served over 23 years in confinement, the State has determined that a new trial would not be in the interests of justice.”

The prosecution motion revealed that during an interview, Simmers told prosecutors that he overheard detectives discussing the case during his interrogation. From that, he learned details of the crime that he repeated to the detectives, and his statements were interpreted as showing knowledge only the killer would have. The surviving detective denied this occurred, the motion added.

On February 26, 2019, the motions were granted and Simmers’s conviction was vacated. The charge was dismissed and he was released.

The prosecution said the DNA profile obtained from the most recent testing was not suitable for submission to the FBI DNA database.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/8/2019
State:Washington
County:King
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1995
Convicted:1996
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:46 years and 8 months
Race:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:16
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*