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Lawyers Battle Over Boy Arsonist’s Confession Defense Says 11-Year-Old Couldn’t Understand His Rights; Doctors Say He Did

Fri., July 11, 1997

A child psychologist said Thursday that 12-year-old Ray DeFord has terrible reading skills but can comprehend verbal explanations, including the Miranda rights a detective read to him before he confessed to setting a deadly fire.

Prosecutors say DeFord, then 11, understood he was waiving his rights to remain silent and to have a lawyer present when he confessed to setting the blaze that ravaged his apartment building the night of June 28, 1996. Eight people were killed, including five children.

Defense lawyers say that because of brain damage caused by beatings from his father, DeFord doesn’t have the mental capacity to understand his rights. They have asked Circuit Judge Timothy Alexander to throw out DeFord’s confession.

Dr. Lorah Sebastian testified Thursday that DeFord scored in the low average for his age in the verbal portion of his last IQ test, taken in November 1996. The scores were much lower for reading comprehension.

Sebastian said, however, that DeFord probably understood the Miranda rights explained to him by Washington County sheriff’s Detective Michael O’Connor four days after the fire.

“If the rights were read to him, I think he would comprehend them,” she said.

During the taped interviews, DeFord told O’Connor he was experimenting with fire when he tossed a lighted match onto a stack of newspapers in the stairwell of the apartments in Aloha, a suburb west of Portland.

O’Connell, irritated by the defense’s portrayal of DeFord as a victim, spoke about the case outside of court for the first time Thursday.

“The real victims are the five children and three adults who died in that fire,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell said he took special care in questioning DeFord, asking him to define each Miranda right in his own words to show he understood its meaning. O’Connell said it was the first time he had used that strategy.

Dr. Richard Hulteng, a forensic psychologist at the state mental hospital, said DeFord also showed a familiarity with the wording of Miranda rights when Hulteng interviewed him. DeFord told him he knew about the rights from watching the TV show “Cops.”

But Hulteng added that DeFord said he thought he had no choice but to submit to questioning by O’Connell.

“He said, ‘I kind of figured I was under arrest. A cop just don’t read you your rights for no good reason,”’ Hulteng said of DeFord’s remarks.

DeFord appeared bored with Thursday’s proceedings. Wearing a green sweatshirt and a mop-top haircut, he fidgeted in his chair and doodled pictures of a rainbow, clouds and a sun on a sheet of paper.

The hearing began with cross-examination of the defense’s expert witness, Dr. Orin Bolstad, a child psychologist who acknowledged that DeFord is better at understanding spoken words than reading.

Bolstad said a teacher at the Christie School, where DeFord is being held, said DeFord had bragged that his case is “magnificent” and predicted he would “get off.”

But he said DeFord couldn’t have comprehended the abstract ideas related to his rights. Bolstad said DeFord’s fear of his abusive father helped explain why he went back to bed after the fire grew out of control instead of running for help.

More details also emerged about DeFord’s dismal home life. During interviews with doctors, he said he first got drunk at the age of 8 or 9. He said his father taught him how to make wine out of bananas and rhubarb, and how to make a crude marijuana pipe out of a carrot.

The three-day hearing ended Thursday before Washington County Circuit Judge Timothy Alexander.

Alexander gave the defense an extra week to prepare motions and briefs. Closing arguments in the hearing are scheduled for July 24. Alexander will likely make a ruling on the confession the following week, probably by letter.

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