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

After hours of interrogations that started on Dec. 11, 2020, Lori Ackerman confessed to killing her fiance at their home in Smithville.

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

When the jury’s verdict was read 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 about false confessions.

“There’s just certain things in life that are completely counter-intuitive,” said Geis, who is also a psychiatry professor at the University of Missouri - Kansas City.

But research shows “that this not only happens, but that it’s much more common than you would imagine,” he said.

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

What jurors “watched in that courtroom that whole week definitely opens people’s eyes to what can happen, does happen,” Ackerman said.

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

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

Murder or suicide?

Ackerman had known Shannon Tate through family members since they were about 10 years old. They began dating in October 2019.

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

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

When they got back home, Ackerman took a pistol they kept under their bed for protection and put it under her chin.

“He takes it away from me and I run down the hall and outside my bathroom in the hallway and I hear the worst sound ever,” she said.

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

He was transported to a hospital while she was taken into custody.

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

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

During that time, Ackerman was held and interrogated several times by detective Amber Bedow with the Clay County Sheriff’s Office and detective Elizabeth Neland with the Smithville Police Department.

Throughout the first interview, which runs 75 pages long in a transcript, Ackerman tells them Tate killed himself.

“He pulled the trigger.”

“He shot and he fell.”

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

“Never would I shoot him.”

Police read the Miranda warning and Ackerman said she remembered thinking, “Why do I need an attorney when I didn’t do something?”

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

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

The detectives do not believe her. They thought the angle of the gunshot wound was suspicious.

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

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

“We’ll walk you through it. OK? When you had the gun and you had your finger on the trigger, where were you pointing it?”

Ackerman replies: “At him.”

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

Bedow says, “I told you we’d walk through this with you.”

Ackerman says, “I don’t — 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 abided by the department’s policy on interrogations.

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

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

Bedow is still with the sheriff’s office. Neland has a police officer license but is not commissioned by a law enforcement agency, according to Mike O’Connell, a spokesman for the the Missouri Department of Public Safety.

How do false confessions happen?

Vernon, Ackerman’s attorney, said he understands that authorities “can coerce a true confession.” But in Ackerman’s case, the police “made her challenge her own perception of reality.”

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

In 2017, the Missouri legislature broadened the rules for expert testimony.

Geis, the psychologist and researcher, was allowed to testify in front of the judge last Thursday and the jury on Friday.

Geis told The Star that there are several factors that can lead to a false confession. One is a person’s “authority adherence,” meaning how much a person respects those with power and follows the rules. He conducted an evaluation on Ackerman and said she fit that trait. She had never been in trouble before and excelled at school and work.

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

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

“People don’t confess at the beginning of these things, they confess after being tortured so long they wear out,” Geis said.

He pointed to several studies that show false confessions happen and linking them to interrogation tactics by police including introducing false evidence or even lying, making promises and showing sympathy.

“Some of these high pressurized techniques, while they can be effective and catch the perpetrator, have a real high vulnerability to create a false confession,” Geis said.

Ackerman spent 14 months in jail before she made bond. She was released on house arrest which allowed her to go to work, her attorney’s office and get groceries.

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

A swift deliberation

The trial began on April Fool’s Day. 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 a casing located 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 began — namely, the police interrogations — was disappointing. But its outcome shows the system can work.

Ackerman said she will always feel responsible because she took the gun out.

On one of her days of newfound freedom, she was golfing with her son. She began to zone out, she said, and felt like screaming.

She has to “figure out how to grieve.”

While it is still weird to leave her house without telling someone, she is happy to be spending time with family and making up for the last three-and-a-half years. She’s considering getting involved with organizations working on innocence cases or suicide prevention.

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