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Alleged murder confession contested in Moorhead strangling

The victim of a 1993 fatal Moorhead strangling was a prostitute who had engaged in erotic asphyxiation, the detective who obtained the alleged confession in the case testified on Monday.

Clarence Michael Burcham
Clarence Michael Burcham

The victim of a 1993 fatal Moorhead strangling was a prostitute who had engaged in erotic asphyxiation, the detective who obtained the alleged confession in the case testified on Monday.

New details in the cold case were revealed in Clay County District Court on Monday as Det. Ryan Nelson testified for nearly three hours in a hearing to determine if the confession last summer by Clarence Michael Burcham will be admissible at trial.

The two 2009 interviews Nelson had with Burcham - one on March 6 and the follow-up on June 2 - are central to murder charges he faces for the killing of Sharon Stafford.

Though he's long been a suspect in the Nov. 2, 1993, slaying, Burcham wasn't charged until after he allegedly confessed. Nelson said Monday neither his DNA nor his fingerprints were found at the scene. A lie detector test Burcham took shortly after the death was inconclusive, Clay County Attorney Brian Melton said during questioning on Monday.

Nelson called Burcham a top suspect in his investigation in part because his story about the evening kept changing. The 46-year-old from Center, N.D., who lived in the same trailer park as Stafford, was also the first to find her body.

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In the first interrogation, Burcham told Nelson that Stafford wrapped the cord of a clock radio around her own neck while they had sex and pulled on the cord herself. He waffled in his recollection of the incident, saying at different points that she was alive when he left her trailer and that she wasn't, the detective said.

Nelson said interviews with "people who had dealt with her in the past" confirmed Stafford's interest in erotic asphyxiation, the intentional restriction of oxygen during sex.

But he consulted a medical examiner between the pair of interviews, and she told him she had never heard of a case in which a person died choking themselves for arousal's sake. It does happen in hangings, the doctor told him.

Nelson later said Stafford worked as a prostitute, at least at times. "She was living kind of a dangerous lifestyle," he said.

Tracy Eichhorn-Hicks, a Twin Cities defense attorney, grilled Nelson about the interviews, suggesting he'd coerced a false confession and saying Burcham was "parroting back" what Nelson was alleging.

"That wasn't what you wanted to hear, was it?" said the defense attorney, referring to a point when Burcham said he knew he did not do anything wrong.

"I wanted to hear the truth," Nelson countered.

Eichhorn-Hicks sought to show that while Burcham was given Miranda warnings before the interviews, both which lasted more than three hours, he didn't waive his rights in a "voluntary, knowing and intelligent" manner.

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Earlier this year, the defense asked Judge Galen Vaa to rule Burcham was unfit to stand trial, claiming his mental capacity to be too slight to assist in his defense. Vaa disagreed and ruled he was fit for trial.

Nelson was misleading a mentally challenged man, Eichhorn-Hicks argued. He took issue with a comment Nelson made in questioning Burcham that referred to the two of them passing on the street without incident if he'd come clean. "If he confesses to murder one, where on the street are you going to see him?" Eichhorn-Hicks asked.

Nelson said Burcham did grasp what was going on in the interviews.

"There was nothing that struck me as he didn't understand," he said.

Vaa told the attorneys to file briefs on the motion by the end of the month. He plans to rule on the suppression motion by Dec. 29.

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