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Dave Roepke, Published January 20 2011

Murder suspect to seek expert on false confessions

A man who admitted to a 1993 strangling is planning to have an expert on false confessions testify at his murder trial, his defense attorney said Wednesday.

Clarence Michael Burcham, 46, of Center, N.D., is facing a first-degree murder charge in Clay County District Court in the death of Sharon Stafford.

Burcham has long been a suspect in the killing, police say. He was living in the same Moorhead trailer park as Stafford when she was strangled to death on Nov. 2, 1993, and told police he discovered her body.

He wasn’t charged until the summer of 2009, after the Moorhead police detective assigned to the cold case interviewed Burcham twice, allegedly extracting a confession on June 2.

Burcham’s fingerprints and DNA weren’t found at the scene, making his own admission the state’s key piece of evidence.

Last month, Judge Galen Vaa ruled the interrogation will be admissible at trial, denying a defense motion seeking to suppress Burcham’s statements. Defense attorney Tracy Eichhorn-Hicks had argued that his client was coerced and was only “parroting back” what the detective wanted to hear.

In an earlier ruling last year, Vaa also decided that Burcham was fit to stand trial. His lawyer argued that he wasn’t mentally competent enough to assist in his own defense.

In a scheduling hearing on Wednesday, Eichhorn-Hicks asked Vaa to delay the murder trial, once set to begin in March, to give him time to arrange for an expert on false confessions.

Vaa agreed, pushing the trial start back to June 20.

Burcham has until Feb. 25 to disclose who would testify and what they might say. Prosecutors will have until April 25 to identify any rebuttal witnesses.

The delay doesn’t ensure that a jury will eventually hear from a false confession expert, said Assistant Clay County Attorney Heidi Davies, chief of the office’s criminal division.

“Whether or not those opinions are admissible or not remains to be seen,” she said.

Vaa will hear arguments on whether to allow the testimony on May 9. He said his initial thought is he wouldn’t let the experts speak to Burcham’s police interview specifically.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535