HomeTop StoriesSmithville woman confessed to killing her fiancé, but she didn't do it....

Smithville woman confessed to killing her fiancé, but she didn’t do it. How she was freed

After hours of interrogations beginning on December 11, 2020, Lori Ackerman confessed to killing her fiancé in their Smithville home.

Last week, Ackerman, 50, was acquitted of second-degree murder by a Clay County jury.

When the jury’s verdict was read out on April 8, “It was like the world was lifted off my shoulders,” she said. “It was huge.”

During the trial, her attorney Eric Vernon and psychologist Bill Geis presented evidence of false confessions.

“There are just certain things in life that are completely counterintuitive,” says Geis, who is also a professor of psychiatry at the University of Missouri – Kansas City.

But research shows “that not only does this happen, but it’s much more common than you might think,” he said.

The National Registry of Exonerations has recorded more than 440 cases dating back to 1989 where a suspect falsely confessed.

What jurors “saw in that courtroom all week long definitely opens people’s eyes to what could happen is actually happening,” Ackerman said.

Clay County Prosecutor Zachary Thompson did not answer questions about the case but said in a statement that the legal system requires jurors to unanimously agree to charges beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Juries are instructed that unless they are firmly convinced that a suspect is guilty of a crime, they should give the suspect the benefit of the doubt and find him not guilty,” he said.

Murder or suicide?

Ackerman had known Shannon Tate through relatives since they were about ten years old. They started dating in October 2019.

They loved each other. But Tate could be jealous and had trust issues. In addition to the problems they were having in their relationship, Ackerman said Tate, 48, was also having a hard time at work and with another family member.

On December 10, 2020, the couple met some friends at a bar. The two got into an argument.

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When they got home, Ackerman grabbed a gun she kept under their bed for protection and put it under her chin.

“He takes it from me and I’m running down the hall and outside my bathroom in the hallway and I hear the worst noise ever,” she said.

She called 911 and told a dispatcher that Tate had shot himself.

While she was taken into custody, he was transported to a hospital.

Initially, Ackerman thought she would answer a few questions and then be released so she could go to the hospital.

She never saw Tate again. He died the next day.

During that time, Ackerman was detained and questioned several times by Detective Amber Bedow of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office and Detective Elizabeth Neland of the Smithville Police Department.

During the first interview, which is 75 pages long in a transcript, Ackerman tells them that Tate committed suicide.

“He pulled the trigger.”

“He shot and he fell.”

“I don’t remember what he said before he shot himself.”

“I would never shoot him.”

Police read the Miranda warning and Ackerman said she remembers thinking, “Why do I need a lawyer if I didn’t do something?”

In the second interview, Neland introduces the idea that both Ackerman and Tate had the gun in their hands when it went off.

During the third interview, Ackerman repeats himself: “I would never shoot him.”

The detectives don’t believe her. They found the angle of the gunshot wound suspicious.

“There’s still something you’re not telling us,” Bedow says at one point in the transcripts.

“You’re telling us pretty much the same story you told us before and that’s not what happened,” she says later.

‘We will guide you through it. OK? When you had the gun and your finger on the trigger, where did you point it?

Ackerman replies: “On him.”

At the end of the third interview, which spans 59 pages in transcript, Neland says, “Thank you for being honest.”

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Bedow says, “I told you we would go through this with you.”

Ackerman says, “I don’t want to believe it.”

She was charged with second-degree murder and armed criminal action.

Sarah Boyd, a spokeswoman for the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, said Bedow complied with the department’s policy on interrogations.

“Investigators use the known evidence available to them and the suspect’s responses in forming their line of questioning,” Boyd said. “The primary goal is always to establish the truth.”

Smithville Police Chief Jason Lockridge echoed Boyd’s comment. He also said the department’s policy in effect in December 2020 did not specify interrogation techniques.

Bedow is still with the sheriff. Neland is a police officer licensed but not on assignment from a law enforcement agency, said Mike O’Connell, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Public Safety.

How do false confessions arise?

Vernon, Ackerman’s attorney, said he understands authorities “can extract a true confession.” But in Ackerman’s case, “the police forced her to question her own perception of reality.”

“They assumed they knew the truth,” he said. “They kept questioning her until they got the answer they wanted.”

In 2017, the Missouri Legislature expanded the rules for expert testimony.

Geis, the psychologist and researcher, was allowed to testify in court last Thursday and before the jury on Friday.

Geis told The Star that there are several factors that can lead to a false confession. One of these is the degree to which a person adheres to authority, which means how much a person respects those in power and follows the rules. He conducted an evaluation on Ackerman and said she fit that trait. She had never had any problems before and excelled at school and at work.

Other factors include being in a state of traumatic stress or hyper-arousal, and the length of time an interrogation continues.

According to Vernon, Ackerman was interrogated for six hours. They walked through the night of the shooting several times while also delving into her relationship with Tate. At times, Ackerman would cry and be desperate for information about how Tate is doing.

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“People don’t confess these things at first, they confess after being tortured for so long that they become exhausted,” Geis said.

He pointed to several studies showing the occurrence of false confessions and linking them to police interrogation tactics, including introducing false evidence or even lying, making promises and showing sympathy.

“Some of these high-pressure techniques, while they can be effective and catch the perpetrator, are very vulnerable to creating a false confession,” Geis said.

Ackerman spent 14 months in jail before making bond. She was released from house arrest, which allowed her to go to work, her lawyer’s office and run errands.

Even though she had not been convicted of a crime, it took her several months to find a job. She was hired by a company that sells construction materials and works as a project coordinator.

A quick deliberation

The trial started on April 1. Ackerman didn’t know if that was funny or not.

In addition to information about false confessions, Vernon also presented forensic evidence. Tate’s DNA was identified on the gun’s trigger and on a shell casing in the hallway. Ackerman’s DNA was not on those items.

The jury deliberated for less than two hours.

Vernon said the way Ackerman’s case started — namely the police interrogations — was disappointing. But the outcome shows that the system can work.

Ackerman said she will always feel responsible for pulling out the gun.

On one of her days of newfound freedom, she was playing golf with her son. She started to swerve, she said, and felt like screaming.

She has to “figure out how to grieve.”

Although it’s still strange to leave her house without telling anyone, she’s happy to spend time with her family and make up for the past three and a half years. She is considering becoming involved with organizations that focus on innocence issues or suicide prevention.

“I’m looking forward to moving forward,” she said.

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