Oil Impacts Are No Excuse For Bungled Arson Case In Dickinson


“Police work is difficult, but more so in western North Dakota.”

That’s the lead-in for a Dickinson Press article over the weekend regarding the bungled investigation into a fire set at Trinity High School in Dickinson. The editorial seems to want to give a pass to the local officials who lead the investigation because of oil impacts:

Working with local law enforcement on a daily basis, we know they don’t accept mistakes and do everything within their power to eliminate them. This case, as big as it was, is only one of the many serious crimes that five years ago were so rare. This isn’t so today.

Unlike folks from the eastern part of the state, we certainly have a far better understanding of the unprecedented challenges faced by local law enforcement in western North Dakota because of our rapidly growing population.

The Dickinson Police Department, Stark County Sheriff’s Office and other area law enforcement have done a remarkable job keeping us safe despite the many challenges they face in this unprecedented time in western North Dakota. We appreciate their dedication and sacrifices, and that they put themselves in harm’s way to protect us every time they go to work.

The challenges western law enforcement officials face from booming populations in the oil patch is understandable, but invoking those challenges in this case is extremely inappropriate and does a grave disservice to the cause of justice.

Here’s what actually happened in the case:

Thomas Sander, a former principal at the high school, recanted his previous confession saying he was coerced by law enforcement. As someone who has worked in criminal defense in the past, I can say that coerced confessions happen more often than anyone in the law enforcement community care to admit. And Sander’s charge gets weight from the fact that his statement to police was ultimately thrown out by a judge because he wasn’t informed of his rights (the famous “Miranda rights” statement). That’s basic law enforcement stuff, and improperly Mirandizing has little to do with oil boom impacts and everything to do with law enforcement competence.

Other evidence gives even more credence to Sander’s claim that he had been coerced.

Sander’s defense attorney pointed out that law enforcement flat-out lied about their evidence. They told Sander that a handwriting analysis of a note left at the scene of the arson was a 10-point match for Sander’s own handwriting. But this wasn’t true. The analysis was actually inconclusive. Law enforcement also told Sander that they had him on video committing the crime. They did not.

Law enforcement also did not credit a confession from a student at the school which provided details about the fire apparently not known to the public. I guess that evidence didn’t fit the narrative they already had in place about Sander’s guilt.

It becomes easier to understand why someone – locked in an interrogation room and being sweated by less-than-scrupulous cops – might become so distraught as to confess to a crime he did not, in fact, commit when we consider what the police were telling Sander. It may seem strange, for those of us who haven’t been through this sort of interrogation, that someone would confess to a crime they are not responsible for. But being accused of this sort of a crime, and going through the interrogation ringer, can be a terrifying ordeal.

Especially when the cops aren’t being honest.

And there is evidence at hand supporting Sander’s innocence. His defense team had three witnesses lined up to provide an alibi for Sander the night of the fire.

Ignoring a separate and credible confession. Glossing over exculpatory evidence. Misrepresenting the facts of the case. Failing to properly protect the rights of the accused. These are not things that can be explained away by oil impacts and overworked cops.

Forgetting to Mirandize a suspect might be chalked up to human error. But lies and misrepresentations require calculation.

That’s a shame, because it may well be that Sander was responsible for the fire. The charges against him were dismissed, but he wasn’t acquitted (he is innocent until proven guilty). But proving his guilt, if he is guilty, is likely impossible now.