As Suspect Tells Priest His Sins, Law Eavesdrops

Article excerpt

WHEN CONAN WAYNE HALE bared his soul to a priest, his confessor and God weren't the only ones listening.

Investigators taped the murder suspect's jailhouse conversation, known in the Roman Catholic Church as the sacrament of reconciliation.

Now the question is whether prosecutors may use the tape in court - or if they ruined their own case by making the recording.

"It's an absolute outrage," said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. "They used this priest. They brought him in to perform the sacrament of reconciliation. And then they bugged him."

Hale, 20, is a suspect in the Dec. 21 shooting deaths of three teen-agers in a forest near Springfield, Ore., about 110 miles south of Portland. He is in jail awaiting trial on related burglary and theft charges.

The Rev. Timothy Mockaitis heard Hale's confession in the visiting area of the jail April 22, at Hale's request.

Prosecutor Doug Harcleroad has suggested that the state may try to use the tape in court - a move Hale's attorney, Terri Wood, said she would fight.

The contents of the conversation have not been made public, but Wood told The Oregonian newspaper: "I have absolutely no reason to think Mr. Hale confessed any crimes to a priest. I just don't want anyone confusing a criminal confession with the religious term of art called confession."

Legal experts doubt prosecutors will be able to use the tape in court, even if they were within their rights to make it.

State law says jail conversations except for those between an attorney and client may be taped without the consent of anyone involved. But another state law says conversations between clergy and their followers are confidential.

The question is which law takes precedence.

"We determined it was legal, and we are investigating the deaths of three children in this community," Harcleroad said. "That tends to get lost in this. I was present at the scene and saw those children. It was pretty gruesome. We want to solve this case - legally."

But David Schuman, a law professor at University of Oregon, said: "They will never be able to use the actual confession in trial unless they prove (Hale) waived confidentiality. …