Trial By Ambush

By Taylor McClain

As a lawyer, I am often asked by a friend or acquaintance about the “Miranda” decision. What they are really asking is “Don’t you think it’s unfair to coddle these criminals, especially murderers, with all these ‘rights’ that some smart (translation: “crooked”) trial lawyer will use to get the punk off on a technicality?”

So, one day I decided to write a short narrative that explained if not defended, the rationale for the Miranda decision that I could hand out, now email, to anyone who inquires about this subject. I call it “trial by ambush’ because that is what all lawyers, prosecutors and defense lawyers, called the tactic.

A grievous example of “trial by ambush” was revealed in the prosecution of nineteen-year-old Harry Solberg for the murder of homemaker Dorothy Thompsen in Litchfield County, Connecticut, on June 15, 1965. The case pitted one renowned Connecticut State investigator, Major Harry Rome, who famously had never lost a case, against a team of local investigators led by ambitious Lieutenant Cleveland Fuessenich.

Rome, who conducted the initial investigation, focused on the decedent’s mother-in-law, sixty-four-year-old Agnes Thompsen, who was living in an apartment on the second floor of the Thompsen home. Her son Arnfen and his wife Dorothy occupied the first floor. Agnes previously was institutionalized in the Connecticut Valley Hospital for paranoid schizophrenia.

On the day of the murder, Agnes’ first words to her son Arnfen upon his return home from work was, “Is she dead yet?”

Arnfin returned Agnes to the hospital the next day.

Rome knew that Agnes was insane and could never be well enough to stand trial for the killing assuming she did it. His task was to try to establish events or thing Agnes knew which would coordinate with the evidence found at the scene of the murder. He was not trying to get a confession from her to be used in court—he was trying to solve a murder for which there might never be a criminal prosecution.

There were plenty of items found at the grisly murder scene that Rome could use to establish Agnes’ familiarity with the event. The attack against her was ferocious. Dorothy had been stabbed in the neck and back multiple times with a meat fork, bashed in the head with a sledgehammer then with a heavy rock, strangled with an electrical cord (though she was probably already dead by this time), dragged through her kitchen and flung off the porch balcony where, because of the electrical cord catching on a rail, she hung until the cord broke.

Rome’s methods of interrogation were theatrical. He even had a fellow police officer pretend to act as Agnes’ legal counsel. The judicial system would not countenance such stark bravado in the politically correct world of today. This was 1965, however, and the famous Harry Rome was heading the investigation. All the questioning took place in the presence of the hospital’s doctors and nurses with the understanding that the hospital staff could halt the bizarre tableau at any time they felt it was detrimental to Agnes’ mental health.

When the questioning was over, Rome was satisfied that Agnes was the killer. She simply knew too much about the crime; had too many details. When his critics, and there were many, decried his methods and questioned the dependability of the verbal ejaculations of a deranged mind, Rome instantiated that, “Even from an insane mind you can get details that can be corroborated. She can’t dream these things up. No matter what inducement you offer, she cannot tell you what she doesn’t know.”

But nine months later, Harry Solberg, mentally slow and ill-educated, was accused of the murder by Fuessenich’s team. If Rome’s investigation was a theatrical farce, then Fuessenich’s was a legal travesty. Over a three-day period, Solberg was ruthlessly questioned, lied to about the evidence supposedly arrayed against him, denied access to his parents, refused legal counsel, given a bogus polygraph examination, and never warned of his Miranda rights even though the investigation focused squarely on him; no one else was even considered as a suspect.

Solberg consistently denied any involvement in the killing and wrote out in his own hand the events as he recalled them on the day of the murder.

On my ride back from Granby I stopped into their house to see if my report information he (author’s note- ‘Arvin’) had gotten for me was there. I went inside because the front door was open and the baby was crying. I was going to leave a note, but no one answered. I walked into the kitchen and I saw blood on the floor and I saw it in the living room, too. Then I saw her, Dotty, out on the ground because the blood went that way. I tried to help her but she was too full of fight so I grabbed the latter (author’s note- ‘letter’) and ran through the house and got out. I was work with my father. This is all I can remember except for the letter. [signed] Harry Solberg.”

Solberg wrote this letter on March 14, 1966, at 8:27 p.m.

But on March 15, 1966, at 12:13 a.m., Solberg, after being tirelessly (some might argue ruthlessly) examined by Lieutenant Fuessenich, answered a series of questions to which he mostly responded “I don’t know” or “I can’t remember.” Here is a portion of that question and answer session.

Q. Why are you here, Harry?

A. Because I am accused of killing Dottie Thompsen.

Q. Did you?

A. Do I have to answer that, right now?

Q. Don’t you want to answer it, right now?

A. No. I killed her. That’s what you want.

Q. Is that the truth?

A. That’s my answer.

Q. Is that the truth?

A. That’s my answer.

Q. Is that the truth?

A. I can only give you my answer.

Q. What is your answer?

A. I killed her.

The state’s attorney, Thomas Wall, who nursed a grudge against Major Rome, used the March 15 statement to reopen the investigation and indict Harry Solberg for capital murder. Astoundingly, Wall never reviewed Rome’s investigative file and never consulted Rome about the case.

Not so surprisingly, as it was the days of trial by ambush, was that the March 14 handwritten letter of Solberg in which he denied any participation in the murder was concealed by Wall from Solberg’s lawyers! Instead, Wall used Solberg’s March 15 forced confession to seek the death penalty for an innocent man.

Luckily, for Solberg, the jury could not reach a verdict at the first trial. In June 1966, the Supreme Court handed down its famous Miranda decision. At the second trial, begun in January 1967, a different trial judge threw out the forced confession based upon the police not reading Solberg his Miranda rights. Wall finally gave up his “Police Inspector Javert” pursuit of Solberg.

Such were the typical events in every jurisdiction of trial by ambush.

Taylor McClain is a practicing attorney and an alumnus of the University of Alabama