The Legal Status of a Criminal Confession in AA

By Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli 09/30/14

AA encourages members to admit their wrongs, past and present. But are the rooms of recovery as sacred as a church's confessional booth?


When Paul Cox joined AA he never drank again. 

But working the steps dredged up old memories and by the time he reached his fourth and fifth, the nightmares began. He was shocked at visions too heinous to consider. And he pushed them aside for a time, but the haunting dreams continued until, in a tearful confession, he spilled it all to his girlfriend, also in AA. What followed was a series of confessions, first to his AA sponsor who asked, according to court documents, “What’s the matter? How bad could it be, you didn’t murder anyone did you?” 

The thing is, Cox was pretty certain he had because his nightly apparitions revealed pieces of an alcohol-induced black-out from a much earlier time. As Cox shadowed his own deeds he became more certain, watching frequent re-runs of his crime: The brutal stabbing of a sleeping man and woman in his childhood home. 

So his sponsor sought the counsel of a more seasoned AA member, who also sought the counsel of yet another. And each time, they said, “Don’t drink, go to meetings and don’t tell anyone.” But the confessions continued until the circle grew to seven. It was his girlfriend who eventually outed him, tipping off the cops to what he had done. That led to the interrogation of the remaining confessors, and along with a matching fingerprint from the scene, they had enough to charge Cox with second degree murder. 

The legal battle that ensued shed new light on issues of anonymity and AA confessions. A ping pong between courts had lawyers bantering about such things as cleric-penitent privilege (confessions made in private to a member of the clergy) and how it did or did not apply to Alcoholics Anonymous. In the first trial, the jury was unable to reach a verdict, and a mistrial was declared. A second trial found Cox guilty of manslaughter. But on appeal, Federal Judge Charles Brieant overturned the conviction, and in an unprecedented ruling said that AA was a religious organization, and a confession made to a member could not be used as evidence. A third appeal overturned Judge Brieant’s decision and Cox was again convicted.

So what about all those budding AA neophytes diligently working the steps and preparing to admit to God, themselves and another human being the exact nature of their wrongs? How can they be pushed to confess and then convicted if the deeds are too heinous or in conflict with the confessor’s morals? Some say Step Five is the path to freedom, or is that freedom dependent on the exact nature of the wrongs? Perhaps the real issue is that anonymity is not sacred and a sponsor cannot absolve the penitent of their sins. “The problem with telling people in a meeting, you are subject to the values and mores of those in the group,” says H. Westley Clark, MD, SAMSHA’s director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. “AA cannot pressure a confession and then assure anonymity exists, it is a mischaracterization to offer anonymity…anonymity is not inviolate.” 

Consider the fate of Jamie Kellam Letson who confessed that she killed her college friend with two bullets to the head 30 years earlier. Letson’s sponsor guided her to write a letter to her dead friend and then drove her to the cemetery to read it. That was before the sponsor turned her in and used the letter as evidence. Or Bob Ryder’s AA confession that he had a dead body in his basement that was starting to smell? His sponsor suggested pouring baking soda on the decomposing woman before turning him into authorities two weeks later.

And such confessions of guilt are not limited to the hallowed halls of AA. Back in 1998, more than 200 members of the online support group, Moderation Management, were witness to the online drunken confession of Larry Froisted who admitted to being “wickedly” drunk, purposely setting his house on fire and killing his five year-old daughter, Amanda. Of the 200, only three reported the confession to police. Froisted was later arrested and convicted of his crime.

Crimes committed while drinking and drugging are still crimes, not merely collateral damage from a substance abusing past. And that may be where the confusion lies for the newly sober. Many experts suggest caution and discretion before disclosing information in an AA meeting or to a sponsor.

“Theoretically, everything that is said in an AA meeting is supposed to be kept confidential by all the other attendees, so there would have to be a breach of the AA code if law enforcement is contacted to report a confession,” says Carole Lieberman, MD, Beverly Hills forensic psychiatrist. “Nonetheless, if an alcoholic patient of mine, who was attending AA meetings, asked if he should confess to a crime at an AA meeting, I would certainly counsel him against it.”

Additionally, Lieberman says she would explore with her patient why he wanted to do so. “Was he feeling guilty about his crime and trying to sabotage himself, so that someone would report it and he would be punished?” she says. “Obviously, this would be a self-destructive means of repenting or making amends. If he committed a serious crime, and wanted to turn himself in, then the best way to do so would be to contact law enforcement in the company of one's attorney.”

Especially in an era of social media and cell phones, caution is advised when discussing things with participants, according to SAMSHA’s Clark. “Sometimes someone can be almost tricked into disclosing and you don’t know the motives of your sponsor,” he says. “There is no ethical surveillance…you need to give pause before disclosing.”

The problem for the newly sober is poor cognitive discernment and according to Dix, NY LCSW Richard Buckman, who has been in recovery for many years, “What happens in early recovery is that you say things you shouldn’t say,” he says. “That’s why sponsorship is encouraged.”

According to Buckman, when someone confesses to a crime, members of the group could help them see how to do the right thing. “I know stories of people who have gotten sober and in an effort to live life fully, they turn themselves into authorities.”

So how do 12-step groups build trust under the shadow of possible arrest after a Step Five confession?

“A huge component is trust and feeling safe talking about what they have done,” says Faye S. Taxman, PhD, a university professor in the Criminology, Law and Society Department at George Mason University and director of the Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence at the Washington, DC university. “If it results in negative consequences, they will feel suspicious…If arrests become more prevalent it undermines communities for self-help.”

AA was founded on spiritual principles of anonymity and disclosure. Interestingly however, AA literature defines anonymity at the personal level: anonymity provides protection for all members from identification as alcoholics. The Understanding Anonymity pamphlet never mentions safety from disclosure of a crime. 

In Cox’s situation, his confessions were to appease his gnawing guilt and on appeal the court ruled that his discussions were not to seek spiritual guidance, many occurred outside AA and were therefore not protected. 

William Nottingham Beebe perhaps wishes he had stopped at Step Eight (make a list of those we have harmed). His Step Nine, a letter apologizing to the woman he raped at a UVA fraternity house more than 20 years earlier, led to his arrest in Las Vegas. Much like Cox, Beebe admits he had spoken over the years to his sponsor and other AA members about the incident and it appears he had no intention of serving time for his crime. The letter, to many, seemed merely a way to advance his recovery, appease guilt, and justify his actions as alcohol-related. The problem was, the letter re-opened wounds for Liz Seccuro, his victim, and she decided to press charges. 

In her victim statement Seccuro wrote: "I recognize he has 'turned his ship around,' but that does not mitigate the need for punishment. In his apology, he was grasping at moral absolution so he could move on with his life. He wanted a blank check, a clean slate."

And according to USA Today, Prosecutor Charles Worrell said that Beebe's “decision to apologize was selfish--a decision that traumatized Seccuro all over again. The genesis of AA and the use of step nine in this particular instance was a way for Mr. Beebe to deal with the demons he had within himself." 

Such confessions can reinjure victims and can cause problems for those hearing the confession. Sometimes it is too difficult for the individual to hear. Buckman explains that vicarious traumatization can occur. And what that means is that the person hearing it can be impacted emotionally.

He says the best thing for sponsors is to guide the newly sober into using caution before disclosing. “It is not in their best interest to confess to a crime in that setting,” he says. “It’s best to reserve that for someone with a great deal of experience or a clergy member…it’s best to have the guidance of a mentor with experience.”

There are many in AA who believe a healthy, solid recovery means making amends even if that means going to jail for past crimes. “Imagine a scenario where someone confesses and the community helps the person recognize his or her responsibility to do the right thing, like turning themselves in,” says Taxman. “The process of recovery is taking ownership of what was done. They need accountability. I think we as a society need these types of community-based groups to help us deal with our problems.”

Taxman continues. “Keeping the trust is extremely important. The arrests sends a poor message to the community and they become suspicious of baring their soul in a meeting. The most important part for self-help communities is to realize they have responsibility and sometimes it is legal.”

Neil Kaltenecker Campbell, the executive director of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse and a Faces & Voices of Recovery board member, who is also in recovery, says an important question when considering such things, is what will keep someone sober? 

“You have to own up to your past and take responsibility for saying what you did in your addiction,” she says. “Recovery is about personal responsibility.”

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli has written for the Washington Post, the LA Times, USA Today and American Medical News, among other publications. She last wrote about gambling in high places and the state of addiction funding research.

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Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is an artist, writer, and award-winning documentary photographer and journalist. You can find her on Linkedin or check out her blog,here.