On August 3rd, nineteen eighty nine, after a long, hot summer day, Lariat Sue Delisle took their four children out for ice cream and to watch the boats pass by on the Detroit River. When Larry pulled out on the street, the dead ended at the river. A mechanical defect in their station wagon caused the accelerator to stick. The car sped off uncontrollably, and Larry and Suze panicked. Efforts could not save them from launching into the Detroit River laureate's who narrowly survived.
But their children, Brian, Melissa, Kate and Emily tragically did not. When the waterlogged wreck was pulled from the river, the accelerator stuck again during testing an issue raised by hundreds of others about that very make and model station wagon. It was a tragic accident, but that wasn't good enough for the police, the media or the people of Down River, Michigan. After 18 hours of interrogation and the usual tricks, Larry tacitly agreed to hypotheticals posed by the interrogator.
This couldn't pass muster as a confession for a court of law, but it was quickly submitted to the court of public opinion when the police chief went on TV and said that Larry Delisle had confessed effectively poisoning the entire jury pool. Larry was convicted of four counts of murder and one count of attempted murder, despite Sue Delilah's unwavering account of his actual innocence. This tragic accident stole their four children, and the state compounded that loss by stealing what has become over three long decades of Larry's life.
This is wrongful conviction with Jason Pflaum. Welcome back to Wrongful Conviction with Jason Flom, that's me, of course, I'm your host, and today my heart is heavy because of the story you're about to hear and the man you're about to read. I'm proud to call him a friend and I'm proud to be part of the team that's helping to try to bring justice long delayed to this awful, awful case. So without further ado, Larry Delisle, welcome to wrongful conviction.
I'm sorry you have to be here, but I'm glad you're here.
Humbled and honored to be here with you today. And Larry is calling us from prison in Michigan. Where exactly are you, Larry?
I'm in Coldwater, Michigan, which is the Lakeland Correctional Facility.
And when you've gone through is surely unimaginable to almost anyone. You know, the multiple tragic aspects of this case include, obviously, the loss of your family, but also the persecution that was wrongfully inflicted upon you by people that really should have known better.
And, of course, your wrongful incarceration now for over three decades is another thing that nobody could even begin to imagine. But I want to go back to the beginning. Did you grow up in Michigan?
Yes, the wind up Michigan. My grandparents raised me from age, from two years old.
I mean, your childhood was was haunted by a tragedy, a separate tragedy, right? I mean, I don't know how much one person is supposed to take in their life, and I don't even know if you want to talk about that. But it does come into focus with this case as this as this goes on.
You're talking about my father committing suicide. Yes, of course.
I got a call in the middle of the night, early 88, that my father had committed suicide and he drove down somewhere by the river and put a gun to his head, ironically, in the same vehicle that ended up being the central figure in this awful tragedy that befell your family.
Most people would not have wanted to drive the vehicle. I didn't want to drive the vehicle. But my father's wife, she wanted to give us something because my sister and I find away our rights to his house because we didn't want her to have to remortgage or have to move. So she gave me the car. The option of keeping it or selling it. At the time, we had a brand new 1987 Ford Aerostar that we had just bought to go to Disneyland November of 87 when my father had committed suicide.
We were talking about getting rid of the Aerostar, getting a cheaper vehicle so we can make our bills down to a point where we can afford to buy a house. Well, when my father committed suicide, the place that I worked for Tirman, God bless them, they had taken the vehicle. They had it completely cleaned on the inside. Now, when I went there that night to drive the vehicle, I had mixed emotions. When I got in, I started crying right away.
But after a few minutes. I felt calm because my father had taken me everywhere with him when I was younger and older in the station wagon. He left station wagon. I think that was the second or third one. So when I drove the vehicle, I felt at peace. Now it was up to my wife. She drove it. She loved it because it had a lot of power. It just happened to have an intrinsic value as far as helping us to achieve our goals, which would have been to get a house for our children, to get a house for us.
Well, with four kids, you have obviously and you're a mechanic and Larry is known in the prison as someone who can fix basically anything but even still raising four kids on that salary. Happy an easy task. All right. This case was featured in the Netflix documentary series The Confession Tapes by the wonderful Kelly Lautenburg and encourage everyone to watch that episode. But let's go back to the night of this awful accident. And we're talking about the evening of August 3rd.
Nineteen eighty nine and ninety degree hot summer day and the hottest part of the summer.
This this was a very, very hot day and it was a very busy day. I worked close to 10 hours a day running around on my feet. I got out of there as quickly as I could, got the kids in the car and away we went.
Larry and his wife and the children, Brian, Melissa, Katie and Emily had gone for ice cream and were watching the boats along the Detroit River, which I know the kids enjoy doing that. You had issues with your legs.
I was just not properly hydrated and it caused my muscles to cramp up at different points. I've had problems most of my youth with cramping in my legs.
It actually happened to me in the gym this morning when I was stretching. So it's not an uncommon thing, especially when you're dehydrated, like on a hot summer day, which is what the situation was with you.
But there are a number of things that played into this unspeakable disaster. And what really happened was as you were leaving to go home, you were on Eureka Road, which dead ends at the river. You stepped on the gas, your leg cramped right up, the car shot off in pain. You reached down to pull your foot off the gas, but the car continued to accelerate. Now, you didn't know it at the time, but there was a defect that caused your accelerator to jam, propelling the car with the six of you inside, terrified and screaming through the barricade at the end of Eureka Road, right into the Detroit River.
I mean, you must have relived it thousands of times in your head.
No, I try not to. The still painful today when the accelerator stuck, it threw me off. I didn't know what was stuck. I got my foot off the gas. My foot was off. My wife even testified my foot was off. She thought at my foot was off, but the car did not slow down. Before I could even do anything further, she reached over in an attempt to help me, it was an inadvertent act. But it startled me for a second and I froze.
And before I could decide what I was going to do, we ran out of street. The whole thing took seven to 10 seconds, according to officials, seven to 10 seconds.
We're talking about a section of the street that was three hundred and ninety six feet long. We've already talked about the fact that the car had a powerful engine and it wouldn't take any car very long to cover is basically just a little bit further than a football field. So add to, I mean, all the other elements of pure panic and terror. The fact that the kids are in the car, I'm sure they're screaming, just grabbing the wheel, et cetera, et cetera.
You're staring at the water. And on top of that, you didn't know how to swim, right?
No, I can't. I can tread water thanks to my high school coach, but that's about it. But in the impact itself, I was thrown forward, half of my head hit around the visor area. There was a bright light, a sharp pain from my neck all the way down my spine. So I was disoriented once I was in the water. I don't even know how I got out of the car. Well, I mean, you know, it's impossible to probably imagine, and the fact is that this particular vehicle had known issues.
There were over a hundred people who had reported the accelerator jamming on this exact make and model station wagon with a 77 Ford LAPD station wagon for 60 cubic inch, four barrel carburetor.
There was a mechanic who examined the car, Jim Coxwell, and he had identified three separate defects, one of which could have caused this uncontrolled acceleration. One was a kink in the accelerator cable that caused the cable to stick. Secondly, the throttle plates could be heard scraping inside the carburetor. And thirdly, the engine mount was broken in this vehicle, which caused the tilt of the engine and the tilting pulled at the accelerator cable. So the combination of these factors turned deadly.
As it turns out, they chose to ignore their own test because when they tested the vehicle after it was pulled out of the river in one of the times when they test drove it, the accelerator did, in fact, jam. Yes.
When they were testing the vehicle and the accelerator had stuck. You had two mechanics there, one for the state who actually was just a bus mechanic who couldn't even start the vehicle for testing. We had an AC certified master mechanic for us, who is the one who found all the problems with the vehicle, had to start it for them before they could even test it. And an engineer, they were all there today. That test happened when the accelerator stuck the arresting officer.
He was sitting next to the state trooper sergeant during their test and they're testing it with his foot on the accelerator, testing the brakes to see how long it would take to stop the vehicle. And I imagine it would be quite a long ways with only manual brakes working, you don't have the power assist because when you're accelerating, you don't have power assist your power. Brakes don't work. You have to stand on them to get it to stop. And the state trooper, sergeant, and he had to do that so hard it broke the seat.
In any case, the arresting officer, he's taking notes, he wrote across the top of his notepad in bold letters, accelerator sticking and swore under oath when he was up on the witness stand, he had no idea why he wrote that there was nothing wrong with the car when the accelerator stuck. The bus mechanic, the master mechanic and an engineer, they came running over to the vehicle, according to my lawyer, and the state trooper waved them away, said, no, no, the problems inside the car, you have engineers and mechanics there at a confined get out of the car.
Let them find out what's sticking right now. And he refused to do it because the arresting officer probably didn't want them to find it, because if they found a problem, it would prove what I've been saying from the very beginning and what my wife had been saying from the very beginning, the accelerator stuck because it did for you. You shut it off. He testified that he shut it off because it startled him. He's sick for 300 pounds and it startled him when you were expected to remain calm.
Yes, I'm so I'm I'm expected to remain calm. He said he was going to start the vehicle back up and put it in gear and see how fast it would go. At that point, all you had to do was put it in gear when he shut it off, avoided the test, and they never got a chance to test it again, because by the time they gave it over to the defense, the engine had been so roughly treated during their acceleration test that the engine blew up end of testing and of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that there was a problem with that station wagon.
This episode is brought to you by Stand Together, Stand Together is a philanthropic community dedicated to helping people improve their lives. For more than 20 years stand together and its partners have been on the front lines of criminal justice reform by empowering people to take action, supporting nonprofits and working with businesses. Stand together, tackles the root causes of problems in our communities and empowers those closest to the problems to drive solutions. Solutions like reducing unjust prison sentences to the first step act, empowering community based programs that help people re-enter society, and now working to bridge divides in our communities.
To learn how you may get involved, visit. Stand together. Dogged conviction. In a tragedy like this, community members have a very difficult time reconciling the fact that these type of tragic accidents happen when a child is lost, it's easier psychologically for people to assign blame to someone because the randomness of it is too terrifying, especially for people with children to imagine. And in this case, I think that as well as other sort of confirmation biases took hold.
You were targeted by the media. They hounded you and basically set up camp outside the house of the grieving parents until you agreed to give an interview. And then it becomes and we've seen this in so many cases, whether it's Amanda Knox or so many others, where the media or the authorities feel you're either too sad or not sad enough or too hysterical or too calm.
I don't think the people are aware of the fact that that first interview I did in the backyard, that I had had a couple of volumes given to me by a family member. And I don't even remember the interview. All I remember was an airplane going over the top. So if I didn't show emotion for people, it just makes me angry that they're going to point to the fact that I'm not classical as far as how I was supposed to react to losing my children, being hounded by the press.
I'm sorry, it's just very upsetting. Well, let's move on from there. This is a false confession case that has all of the hallmarks that we see again and again just to paint a picture for everyone. A week after this UN imaginable loss, the police picked you and to your wife up at 7:00 a.m. and interrogated you till 1:00 in the morning. So that's 18 hours. And we know that when this process goes on interminably, eventually everybody has a breaking point.
And even though you told him again and again, Larry, I didn't do this, et cetera, et cetera, they just wouldn't listen. Is that right?
They continue to tell me that I wasn't telling them everything he wanted to hear. And I didn't understand what he meant at that point because I was answering all of his questions.
I can't leave alone the idea that they were expecting you to recite over and over again exactly what happened when you didn't actually know what happened. In fact, you could not have known that this car was defective or you wouldn't have been driving the damn thing.
He was asking what could have happened, why the accelerator had stuck. And I didn't know I had my shoes off. Did a shoe get stuck in there? Was the accelerator sticking? Why wasn't it slowing down? Would you take your foot off the gas pedal? It's supposed to slow down, period. Let's face it, there was no explanation that you could have provided that would have satisfied them, because this is a very high profile case. The media is all over it, and everyone had already come to their own conclusions that you must have done this.
So then it gets to the point where they give you a polygraph and polygraphs are wildly inaccurate anyway, but they're effective in terms of getting people to falsely confess. I'm Dr. Michael Abramsky. I am a clinical and forensic psychologist. At the time of the wild case, I was studying false confessions and I was retained by the court to examine the confession. So I was provided with a videotape of the entire interrogation. The first half an hour to 45 minutes, the police officer Parmentier kills himself up as as an expert and infallible.
And he also did the same thing with a polygraph. He said the polygraph could read minds. It was infallible. It's never wrong. It gives to lie all the tests, which only consist of a few questions. And he leaves the room and he comes back with his head shaking and says to the law, you know, you failed the polygraph you rely on. The technique is to make the defendant feel that their situation is totally helpless. So basically, you set up a dilemma since the polygraph is infallible, you think you're telling the truth.
It puts you into a state of cognitive dissonance. You have to find an explanation that entails both of those things. So Parmeter spends hours pumping him and largely it's not asking questions, is telling him scenarios, telling him why he did this, that, oh, you're tired and families are a burden and I know how hard your life is. So he is empathic with him, tells him he understands, implies that, you know, you're not a bad person for this.
Lots of people are under stress. They do something rash and the people will be understanding. Basically, what he's trying to do is get Larry to make incriminating statements. And the implication is always that, you know, you're not going to suffer bad punishment for this.
Some of the things that this man was saying were actually disturbing to hear. He would try to convince me that he liked to scare his wife. He said he'd drive up really fast behind parked cars and slam on the brakes just to scare her. And he asked me if I ever wanted to do that. He even talked about he gets so mad at his kids, he'd want to stick them in a garbage bag and throw them in a closet. And you ever want to do that?
And I got angry at him for even suggesting something that heinous to be done to any child. I never said I wanted to do that. But then later on in his interrogation, somehow he had me parroting it. But they were not confessions. They were brought about by this man instilling guilt in me, making me feel that I was responsible. One hundred percent above and beyond the mechanical problems down there. Parmeter keeps on trying scenarios where Larry will implicate himself and he doesn't.
And finally he tries out a scenario that makes Larry. But he basically says to Larry, do you know about the unconscious? And Larry does not. He tells them that in conscious means that we do certain things that we don't really know, that we've done them. You know, even though you did it, you're not really responsible. It was your unconscious that did it. And that starts giving Larry an explanation. And so at some point, he makes an equivocal statement, such as, you think that could have happened?
Or he starts questioning Parmentier and he never says that he did it, but he starts questioning and implying that maybe that did happen and that the interrogation is over because what he's done is accepted committers theory that he did drive the car into the river and that he did want to hurt someone. He just didn't know it at the time. But, you know, under the law, that doesn't make any difference. The police chief himself went on the news and proclaimed that Larry Darlow has confessed.
At that point they only need a trial. To his credit, the judge, Raymond Colombo Jr., did actually suppress the confession. And people are beginning to say, oh, good. But the fact is it didn't matter at that point because they refused to change venue. So it's very important to understand the psychological atmosphere was occurring. First, the news stations had a stock shot of the car being lifted out of the river by a crane, and everybody knew there were four dead children in there.
And night after night that was playing, people then started gathering down by the river, demanding justice for these four kids. And then after he was questioned, they announced that he had confessed to the. From which, of course, he had not, but you put that in the crowd's mind, it's almost impossible to reverse. The next thing that happened was, of course, a suppression hearing. And that's where I testified that the confession was involuntary.
I described the techniques that were used and why what he said was not voluntary. Judge Colombo ruled in Delilah's favor and he threw out the confession, except the problem was that it had already been in the newspaper. And the retractions from the newspaper said things like Lawrence L'Isle statements that he intentionally killed his family cannot be used in court against them. And when you try to tell people that it's invalid, they believe, oh, no, the guy just just realized that he got himself into trouble.
He's just denying it now. So they never believe the confession is false. They believe the denial of the confession is false.
I mean, I don't know if they have caves in Wyandotte that you could have found someone who didn't own a TV or newspaper. But short of that, you're looking at jurors who aren't aware of the tactics that were used to elicit a confession and who can't reconcile the idea that anyone with confessed to a crime he didn't commit. But it happens all the damn time and they charge you with four counts of murder. One count of attempted murder. And prosecutor was a guy named Kevin, some guy.
He painted you as a guy who was overwhelmed by that. Fact of the matter is, I was not overwhelmed with debt. I owed less than thirteen point five and made over thirty thousand dollars a year. I just got a house that they didn't have to make any payments on for an entire year. And I take great offense every time they keep trying to bring up oh, he was deeply in debt. As a matter of fact, the headlines wanted to point out, oh, he was trying to get rid of his burdens.
Well, the police were trying to save my debt with my burdens, but the people looked at my children, my burdens. That's how they were trying to convict me.
And here's a very, very important thing to me. Your wife, Sue, now she's gone through the same horrendous loss that you have, and I think it's fair to say that everyone in her position, if they had even a sneaking suspicion that you might've done it on purpose, she would have been the number one witness for the prosecution. She, in fact, was the only witness to the crime, except for some woman that was out on her balcony on the 11th floor across the street.
Let's even go there. But she didn't turn on you.
She was there. She knows exactly what happened. She saw my foot off that. She tried to help. She was actually demonized by the public for years. She had to move away from down river because they were harassing her. Somebody tried to break into the house. Somebody would call on the phone, leaving threatening messages. She couldn't get a job anywhere because of her last name, all because she wouldn't turn on you even though she was doing the right thing.
So the jury deliberated for nine hours over two days.
They came back originally, tended to the judge sent them back. They came back the next day, 11 to one. He threatened to keep them through the weekend if they didn't come back with a decision. We know that in those jury rooms, extreme pressure is exerted by people who want to go home.
But you can send a note to the judge, you're allowed to do that and just say, your honor, I'm not budging. I'm done here. I'd say 99 percent of people serve on juries. Don't even know you could do that. You just send it out to the judge and say, I'm done. I'm not voting to convict. And then the judge has a decision to make the idea that so many people like you, Larry, are spending the rest of their lives in prison because somebody needed to get home back to their job.
This is not a unique thing and it's something that needs to be addressed when they file back in. What were your thoughts?
I could tell when they came in, some of them were smiling, but some of them had their arms crossed. And I stood up. And when they. Said guilty. I couldn't stand anymore. I had to sit down or I would just pass out, I was in so much shock if this were a boxing match. We won every single day. The prosecutor helped prove our case. Even when the accelerator stuck and the police officer waved the mechanics away, saying, oh no, the problems in the car, you had a problem with sitting next to you taking note, he wrote specifically across the top of his notepad accelerator, sticking and swore under oath.
I have no idea why I wrote that there was nothing wrong with the car bullshit. You knew the mechanics and engineer that was there would have found the problem. It would prove that I was innocent.
The big mistake to me that my all the other mistakes was judge not allowing a change of venue because, you know, maybe you could have gotten a fair trial.
But what was disheartening, too, is that there was a problem with that vehicle that Ford did recall that engine, but only on the pickup trucks, not on our station wagon for that year. My lawyer tried to enter it into trial at the time, and the judge said that because it was not the pickup truck recall, he wouldn't allow him to enter in evidence until the trial was over with. So the jury never got to hear it. So you've been in prison for 30 years.
I know you recently survived covid on top of everything else, but can you explain the prison experience, how I wasn't there for my wife at the funeral for our children.
My grandparents who raised me passed away while I was in here. These are just the emotional ones there. This has nothing to do with the pain that I went through dealing with all these people in the beginning. I could tell you that the first 10 years were horrible. Matter of fact, the first five I have had more death threats, evil stares, things thrown at me every day nonstop for five years. I'm surprised I even survived. And then the next five years, instead of being daily, it would be once or twice a week and then eventually, once or twice a month and then finally down to once or twice a year.
Now I can go several years before I heard discouraging word from somebody, but I have over the last two decades made a lot of good friends. And here you are, a company you keep. I try to keep company with people I would have as my friends and neighbors out in the world.
Can you describe, you know, a ray of light that you can identify?
The best thing that's ever happened to me was getting on maintenance 22 years ago. I've had the opportunity to learn so much about things that I never knew before, so much about repairing buildings, appliance repair, heating, air conditioning, electrical. I spent hundreds of dollars on books and thousands of hours studying to get as good as I am now. I'm very good at what I do today.
You've had appeals over the years, but it hasn't resulted in any relief. Can you explain why that process has dragged on for so long?
Well, my lawyer, Frank Eaman did an excellent job throughout the entire process. I owe him everything. The system itself is very slow. The courts don't care if you're innocent or not. They just care to get a fair trial. I didn't get a fair trial and I went through the federal courts where they split politically eight to seven. I don't remember if it's Democrats or Republicans, Republicans or Democrats, you're supposed to be impartial. You're supposed to vote your conscience.
What you see, you're like a referee in a football game. You're supposed to judge everything by what you have before you. Every one of the judges said that they are disappointed in the state of Michigan for allowing suppressed evidence to be released to the media before trial. You would think that would get you to the United States Supreme Court, but it didn't. I guess some clerk putting in there, my case doesn't want you going before the highest court in the land.
My life, my constitutional rights violated and it doesn't go before the highest court in the land.
There's still one remedy left for clemency from Governor Wittmer. You've recently submitted your clemency petition. You know, clemency is to me something that I've been telling anyone who would listen, including people in power, that this is an underused power that is given very deliberately to governors and presidents because they are meant to serve as the last sort of stopgap to prevent injustices from being allowed to stand. And your case cries out for it, as I think anyone who's just listened to this podcast agrees.
So is there anything people can do to help generate momentum for your clemency petition?
You could write to parole board, try to contact the governor. I've got thousands of signatures on this petition begging her to hear my case to show clemency. This is the petition website signed a petition. If she can hear that people are concerned, she may do something.
We're going to put a link to the petition in the show. Notes, please use your voice. Let's help bring Larry home together. This nightmare has gone on for far too long. Barry, we have a section of the show that is my favorite part each episode. First of all, I thank you for being here and for your courage and for sharing your story. So thank you, Larry Delisle. You know, our thoughts are with you and we're going to build momentum for you with this podcast.
This section of the show is called Closing Arguments. And this is where I turn my microphone off. I'm going to kick back, close my eyes and just listen to your words. First off, I would like to say that I am so proud of so many activists out there who are protesting both social and racial injustice, the protesting against wrongful convictions. You have to salute our heroes on the front line in health care who are taking everyone who has covid-19 all these tragic deaths that are happening in everyone's family.
My heart goes out to you. I would like to thank Ashley Ross and Karla Beck for everything they've done to get to this point. They have been very staunch supporters. They started the petition. They've supported the petition and I love them to death. There are so many people that have written me since the Netflix documentary came out. Bless you all. Thank you very much. Please, please stay safe out there.
Don't forget to give us a fantastic review wherever you get your podcasts.
It really helps. And I'm a proud donor to the Innocence Project, and I really hope you'll join me in supporting this very important cause and helping to prevent future wrongful convictions. Go to Innocence Project Dog to learn how to donate and get involved. I'd like to thank our production team, Connor Hall and Kevin Ortiz. The music and the show is by three time Oscar nominated composer J. Ralph. Be sure to follow us on Instagram at wrongful conviction and on Facebook at Wrongful Conviction podcast.
Wrongful Conviction with Jason Flom is a production of Loba for Good podcast in association with Signal Company No. One.