The state of Idaho learned the measure of one of its most terrible crimes this week.
Chris Tapp died Sunday. Tapp served 20 years in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of the 1996 murder of Angie Dodge in Idaho Falls. He died at age 47.
So it turns out the state took a bit less than half of his life.
Tapp through the glass
The first time I met Tapp in person, it was across the glass in the visiting room at the Bonneville County Jail in 2014, where he was temporarily held for a court appearance. A series of reports from former FBI agents and other experts had recently been handed to me as a story assignment. They seemed to show that almost every detail of Tapp’s confession had been fed to him by the detectives who interrogated him.
The more I read those detailed reports, the more I thought it was likely that Tapp was innocent.
To prepare for the interview, I had looked through the archives of the Idaho Falls Post Register, where I was a reporter at the time, and had seen pictures of Tapp at trial, a skinny 20-year-old kid who looked 15. And terrified.
So I was caught a bit off guard when a big, muscular man with his arms covered in tattoos sat down across from me. I knew he had been in prison for more than 15 years, but that was abstract. Seeing how completely different he looked, I started feeling the weight of the time that had been taken from him.
That weight felt like guilt — mine, not his. Because I am part of the society that took his freedom.
In a 2020 lawsuit, Tapp detailed much of his treatment during his wrongful imprisonment. He was physically attacked nearly every year, as the Post Register reported. At some point during his incarceration, he caught tuberculosis that wasn’t diagnosed or treated until after his release.
I also remember Tapp walking down the stairs of the Bonneville County courthouse on the day the judge ordered his release. He was overjoyed. But he also looked completely overwhelmed, his eyes locked open wide and darting around the crowd that was cheering him on, his breath quick and shallow.
The last time I saw Tapp was when I bumped into him at a farmers market about a year ago. He seemed to be having a completely normal, relaxed Saturday. We caught up for a few minutes and then went about our business.
I am glad that he got at least a few years as an exonerated man. I am sorry he did not have longer.
And I wonder how many other innocent people are right now sitting in cells near Kuna and Pocatello.
We should all be feeling the weight of that uncertainty right now because the state of Idaho has neither sought to hold accountable those responsible for Tapp’s wrongful conviction nor put in place adequate safeguards to prevent it from happening again.
So it is very likely Tapp is not the only one.
How was Tapp wrongfully convicted?
Basically, Tapp was a random kid from Idaho Falls. He became involved in the case because he happened to be friends with a kid named Ben who was a friend of Dodge’s. Police suspected that Ben committed the murder. (He didn’t; it was Brian Dripps, a man they briefly questioned and released.) The police seem to have thought they could use Tapp as a witness against Ben.
Once they got him in an interrogation room, police fed Tapp nearly every detail of the crime over days and days of interrogations and polygraph sessions. They told Tapp he could get the gas chamber if he didn’t tell them the truth, but also that he might not consciously know the truth — we repress terrible memories, they said, and the truth lay somewhere in the depths of Tapp’s subconscious. Only the polygraph operator could tell him if what he said was true, like some kind of oracle.
They convinced Tapp so thoroughly that when police at one point suggested a new detail, implicating yet another innocent person, Tapp made a new confession and then turned to the polygraph operator to ask if the machine had determined it was true or false.
It was false. The oracle behind the polygraph said it was true.
When police received DNA results from the crime scene, all of them pointed to one man who was neither Tapp nor Ben. Instead of admitting they’d botched the whole thing, they invented a third participant and began demanding Tapp tell them who it was. He named just about everyone he could think of, hoping to avoid the threatened execution.
(Tapp was not the only one to report receiving such treatment. One of the key witnesses in the case, a young woman who testified she overheard Tapp confessing to the crime, recanted years later, saying she had been threatened by the same police officers who squeezed a false confession out of Tapp.)
At the end of the day, the police had no evidence to implicate Ben. Tapp was left holding the bag.
Tapp was convicted on the absurd theory that he, Ben and the mysterious third man all killed Dodge — but the unknown third man left behind all the physical evidence. Invent enough uncharged defendants, and you can explain any set of evidence you like.
Idaho failed to impose accountability
The key evidence in this case was false testimony from the investigating officers.
As the Idaho Court of Appeals wrote, “The crux of the State’s case was that Tapp’s confession provided accurate forensic details which the officers had not divulged to him prior to his confession.”
The officers who gave that testimony were the ones who told Tapp how Dodge was killed, where her house was and numerous other details of the crime. They were the ones who took Tapp on an unrecorded in-person tour of the location where the murder happened.
So there is good reason to suspect this testimony was not only false but knowingly false.
But as far as I can tell, no serious criminal investigation has ever taken place into the officers involved in the Tapp conviction, many of whom are now enjoying their pensions. They faced no consequences that I know of, certainly none commensurate with their actions.
No wrongful conviction reforms
And Idaho has failed to institute basic structural reforms that could prevent wrongful convictions, like the creation of a Conviction Review Unit dedicated to investigating plausible claims of actual innocence, which are operating in other places around the country.
The only real reform undertaken in the wake of Chris Tapp’s exoneration was the creation of a state compensation system, so that the wrongfully convicted aren’t simply given their old clothes and a bus ticket home. That’s good, but grossly insufficient.
Idaho has one more chance to take this problem seriously. We did this to Tapp. We need to make damn sure we never do it to anyone else.
You never know how long someone has. And when a piece of that finite time is taken away, it can’t be replaced.
Bryan Clark is an opinion writer for the Idaho Statesman.