Today’s New York Time’s has an op-ed article by Professor Jennifer Mnookin of UCLA, “Can a Jury Believe What It Sees?  Videotaped Confessions Can Be Misleading”  Prof. Mnookin was a member of the group that helped produced the National Academy of Sciences 2009 report, “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward,” which took a skeptical view of non-DNA forensic sciences.  In this article, Prof. Mnookin trains her skepticism on one of the chief reforms advocated by those wanting to avoid wrongful convictions: recording interrogations.  Prof. Mnookin says advocates should be careful what they wish for: recording interrogations could prove misleading.

Mnookin begins by conceding that support for electronic recording of interrogations is growing in law enforcement; “firsthand experience with recording tends to turn law enforcers into supporters.”  And recording benefits defendants as well, “because the very presence of the camera is likely to reduce the use of coercive or unfair tactics in interrogation.”  But here’s her concern:

[A]ccording to recent research, interrogation recording may in fact be too vivid and persuasive. Even seemingly neutral recordings still require interpretation. As advertisers and Hollywood directors know well, camera angles, close-ups, lenses and dozens of other techniques shape our perception of what we see without our being aware of it….When the interrogator isn’t shown on camera, jurors are significantly less likely to find an interrogation coercive, and more likely to believe in the truth and accuracy of the confession that they hear — even when the interrogator explicitly threatens the defendant.

First thing to notice: Professor Mnookin is not saying that recording interrogations is a bad idea — quite the opposite.  She says, correctly, that recording helps both law enforcement and defendants.

Second, Mnookin says that even recording interrogations under the best protocol imaginable does not guarantee the elimination of false confessions.  Remember that the (false) confessions of the Central Park Five were recorded.  Recording won’t cure all ills.

Third, the research she points to that describes the problem of “camera perspective bias” contains the solution: a requirement that the recording must include both the interrogator and the suspect in the picture.

The take away: recording interrogations represents a positive development, but we can’t just flip on the recording equipment.  We need to have proper protocols for this practice.  For example, we must require recording the whole interrogation, not just the last part in which  the suspect confesses.  (I’ve made that argument  here.)  Adding a requirement to record both interrogator and suspect makes all the sense in the world.

 

 

 

On May 28, 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court published two opinions about whether juries could hear from experts.  In Commonwealth v. Walker, the Court said an expert could tell the jury about the traps and weaknesses involved in eyewitness witness testimony.   But in Commonwealth v. Alicia, the Court  said an expert could not tell the jury about problems with the truthfulness of confessions.   Each opinion featured a different 4-2 vote among six of the Court’s Justices.

This juxtaposition seems so bizarre that the press in our state has noticed.  How does one court, on one day, publish two opinions on virtually the same issue, and end up facing in two completely opposite directions?

The explanation that jumps out from the opinions is the recognition of research and science.    In the Walker majority opinion, Justice Debra Todd discusses how much scientific work on eyewitness testimony has taken place in the last twenty years, since the Court last examined the issue.  In those decades, she says, “advances in scientific study have strongly suggested that eyewitnesses are apt to erroneously identify a person…when certain factors are present, ” and she cites the 2011 opinion of the New Jersey Supreme Court in New Jersey v. Henderson, widely regarded as one of the leading cases on the subject.  The scientific consensus is strong:  “it is beyond serious contention that the statistical evidence on eyewitness inaccuracy is substantial…”  Over the course of the last thirty years, forty-four states have recognized this scientific work and decided that trial courts may allow experts to testify about the problems of eyewitness identification.  Ten of the eleven U.S. Courts of Appeals have done so as well.  (False eyewitness identifications have occurred in almost seventy-five percent of all DNA-based reversals of wrongful convictions.)  Thus Justice Todd and the other Justices in the majority in Walker said that Pennsylvania must recognize the evidence that science has brought to bear.

In contrast, what does the Alicia opinion say about the science on the interrogation of suspects, and how various interrogation techniques may lead to false confessions? (False confessions have occurred in about twenty-five percent of all DNA-based reversals of wrongful convictions.)   Considerable scientific consensus exists on these issues as well; the leading scientists who work on the issue of false confessions published a standard-setting white paper, “Police-Induced Confessions: Risk Factors and Recommendation”  for the journal Law and Human Behavior five years ago. Somehow, this scientific work never even comes up in the Alicia opinion.  It is as if the research on false identifications simply does not exist.

Chief Justice Ronald Castille is at least consistent in these two cases: he wants no experts in court on either eyewitness identifications or confessions, so he dissented in Walker and joined the majority in Alicia.  Castille’s dissenting opinion in the Walker case gives us some insight into the thinking of those who want none of this science before the jury.  In his dissent, Chief Justice Castille scorns the very idea that there could be real scientific work on these subjects.  Indeed, he puts the words science or scientific in derisive quotation marks eight times in just the first three pages of his opinion.  While he admits that “a properly trained chemist can usually reliably explain the chemical composition of a substance,” science about human beings cannot claim any reliability: “studies of human beings, human nature, human perception, and human recollection inevitably have a heavy dose of subjectivity.”   Justice Castille’s position betrays a strong misunderstanding of what science is, and of the process of doing scientific work and of using the scientific method to test a hypothesis.  The real question is not whether we are dealing with so called “hard science” — work done with beakers and bunsen burners.  Rather, the question is whether the work is done reliably and rigorously, according to the scientific method, and in accord with principles and protocols that protect against human biases in the laboratory.  So for now, juries in Pennsylvania will have to do without the best scientific knowledge on why we might have false confessions.

But, even more important, the issue of whether experts can testify on these subjects is not a new one; courts in most jurisdictions resolved this issue years ago.  Instead, every institution that forms part of our criminal justice system in PA should be focused on prevention: establishing protocols for police to follow that will keep dangerous mistakes  eyewitness testimony and interrogation from happening in the future.   The research is there; the best practices are known.  Nevertheless, we remain stuck in the past, arguing about expert witnesses.

 

Over a year ago, the chief of police in Pittsburgh resigned during a corruption scandal.  (He subsequently pled guilty and has been sentenced to eighteen months in federal prison.)  Very shortly after that, the incumbent mayor announced he would not seek re-election and would leave the selection of a new chief to the next Mayor.

In one of the posts I wrote about these events, I asked what process a new mayor should follow in searching for a new chief.

Mayor Bill Peduto took office in January of 2014, and announced that he would first select a new Public Safety Director.  (In Pittsburgh, the Public Safety Director oversees not only the Pittsburgh Police Bureau, but also EMS and fire services. )  The Mayor would appoint a new chief after that, with the advice of the new Public Safety Director.

The new Public Safety Director, Stephen Bucar has begun his job (he is acting Director, since the City Council has not yet confirmed him).  An article in today’s Pittsburgh-Post Gazette describes the porcess that the Mayor and the Public Safety Director plan to follow:

Six months after Mayor Bill Peduto took office, he announced plans Wednesday to conduct a series of public meetings aimed at giving officials insight into what residents hope to find in a new Pittsburgh police chief.The mayor, through a spokesman, outlined plans to conduct meetings in conjunction with the public safety councils at each of the city’s six neighborhood police stations.He also unveiled a new website where people can leave their suggestions….“This is going to be a public outreach directly to the people of Pittsburgh asking them what they want in a police chief,” Mr. Peduto said in a statement.

The  article also mentions a “search committee tasked with developing a list of candidates for the Mayor and [Mr.] Bucar to consider,” but gives no detail about the committee, its composition, or its duties.

This process is leaps-and-bounds different from the usual way that Pittsburgh mayors have made high-level appointments.  The pubic has a chance to have input.  Though it’s less than clear how much what the public wants will matter, the step of opening the process up means that the Mayor recognizes just how important this appointment is to the public.  In my opinion, the citizens of Pittsburgh should give the Mayor and the process the benefit of the doubt as we go forward.

Readers: what do you think of the process outlined here?  What would you do differently?  What did your city do differently when it last faced this choice?
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In my last post, I discussed the significance of the new US DOJ policy, effective July 11, that creates a presumption that all federal law enforcement agencies — the FBI, the DEA, ATF, and all the rest, will record interrogations of suspects.  This will put these federal agencies on par with the several states and many hundreds of state and local departments that have recorded interrogations for years, as a matter of course.

I commented that, without access to the DOJ memorandum itself, there was no way to know whether the new policy would require recording of the whole interrogation, or just part of it (usually, the part that shows a confession, but not what lead up to it).  I promised to post again when I had more information.

The full DOJ memorandum is now public, and it requires that the agency records the full interrogation: not just the confession, but the whole session.  Here’s what the memorandum says:

I. g.   Scope of Recording.  Electronic recording will begin a soon as the subject enters the interview area or room and will continue until the interview is completed.

For proponents of recording interrogation, this is good news.   A partial recording could only give a partial picture of what went on in the interrogation room.  At worst, a partial recording could be downright misleading; at the very least, a recording that only contained the confession at the end of the interrogation would tell us nothing about the context — about how the police obtained the interrogation.  So the Scope of Recording requirement is a very important part of an effective recording system.

According to reports this morning by the Arizona Republic, National Public Radio, and other outlets, the U.S. Department of Justice has decided that federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, will electronically record interrogations of people in custody.  This will bring the FBI, DEA, ATF and other federal law enforcement agencies into line with the best practices in law enforcement that have been adopted (in whole or in part) in 20 states and hundreds of individual U.S. police departments, as well as a number of other countries.

Former members of federal law enforcement call this change a “radical departure” and the end of  “an insane policy.”   These descriptions seem correct, since the FBI has been one of the law enforcement agencies most resistant in the U.S. to change on this issue.  The new policy — a presumptive requirement, with exceptions for imminent, life-threatening danger and for national security intelligence-gathering interviews — will take effect on July 11.

(One important fact to note: the information available so far does not indicate whether the new policy will require recording of the entire interrogation — that is, beginning with the administration of Miranda warnings and continuing through to the end of the interrogation.  This requirement is absolutely necessary, because without it, interrogations will contain only the confession of the suspect at the end, without showing its full context.  I am looking for more information on this now and will post again when I learn something about it.)

 

As recently as 2006, the FBI said in a confidential memorandum that agents could not record interrogations without the express permission of a senior supervisor.  According to the memorandum, agents should generally not record interrogations for several reasons, among them:

[T]he presence of recording equipment may interfere with and undermine the successful rapport building interviewing technique which the FBI practices…[Additionally,] perfectly lawful and acceptable interviewing techniques do not always come across in recorded fashion to lay persons as proper means of obtaining information from defendants.

As to the first idea, there is no evidence to support the idea that recording would interfere with interrogations.  According to a 2004  study by Thomas Sullivan, former United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, and his colleagues, none of the hundreds of law enforcement agencies surveyed reported that recording interfered with officers’ ability to interrogate suspects.   As for the idea that certain “perfectly lawful…techniques do not always come across” to jurors as proper, that may be because, lawful or not, any juror can see how these techniques — for example,  lying to suspects about the result of supposedly iron-clad forensic evidence or polygraph results — smack of deep unfairness and exert a degree of pressure that may — and sometimes does — resulted in false confessions.

As readers of my book Failed Evidence and this blog know, recording suspect interrogations is one of the most important safeguards against wrongful convictions and abuse during interrogations.  And law enforcement agencies that have the longest experience with recording back it enthusiastically.  For example, Minnesota has required recording of interrogations since 1994.   In a 2002 article that appeared in the Washington Post, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, who was then the elected prosecutor of Hennepin County, Minnesota, argued that “videotaped interrogations have strengthened the ability of police and prosecutors to secure convictions against the guilty.  At the same time, they have helped protect the rights of suspects…”

The DOJ changed the policy with no fanfare — indeed, without even any announcement.  Nevertheless, it represents an undeniable step in the right direction.  The facts of any recorded interrogation will mostly be beyond dispute.  Needless litigation and motions will be avoided, and cases will move through the system (and usually toward guilty pleas) more rapidly.  The worst abuses will be curbed, and a better system will result.

 

Those of you who follow this blog have read (e.g., here and here) about conviction integrity units (CIUs): small groups of attorneys in a district attorney’s office who have the mission of investigating claims of wrongful  convictions in past cases tried by that same office.  These units, just like homicide units, major crimes units, or others in the DA’s office, are dedicated to one type of work: investigating claims of wrongful conviction.  grity work.

The first conviction integrity unit in the country was established by Dallas DA Craig Watkins, in order to have a regular way to investigate the claims of wrongful convictions that his office already faced, and others that might arise in the future.

I support CIUs.  They assure that the DA’s office has a built-in way to address any substantive claim of wrongful conviction.  They can work in partnership with local innocence projects, which can serve as screeners for claims of innocence, in order to point CIUs to cases with real, tenable claims.  (This was the arrangement between the Dallas DA’s CIU and the Texas Innocence Project when I researched and wrote my book Failed Evidence.)  CIUs are far from a perfect solution; they are, after all, part of the DA’s office that may have made the alleged mistakes being investigated, and so they lack independence.  But without a better alternative — for example, a state-created agency like North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission – CIUs can do the job, and can be created immediately, on the orders of the DA.

CIUs have begun to spread to DA’s offices across the country.  And with that visibility comes some serious thinking about how best to assure conviction integrity.  A conference will take place this Friday, April 4, and Saturday, April 5, called “A Systems Approach to Conviction Integrity,” sponsored by the Quattrone Center at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia.  The event is free, and will be live streamed on the internet for those (like me) who cannot get to Philadelphia to attend.

Take a look at the description of the conference and the agenda.  It’s designed to help people involved in the criminal justice system learn to use quality control systems from experts in laboratory science, aviation and aeronautics, medicine, public health, transportation and other fields who have created mechanisms and institutional cultures designed to reduce and ferret out errors.  Here’s a sample of the conference statement, just to give everyone a sense:

The problem of quality control pervades many of the systems in our society.  Panelists, each expert in quality control and systems error reduction in a complex, high-risk field, will explore efforts to address quality control in a range of other important areas, such as healthcare, aviation, laboratories, etc., and how maintaining quality in the criminal justice system may be similar to and different from quality control in these other areas.

If you are interested in the problem of reducing wrongful convictions going forward — that is, not just correcting the errors of the past, but avoiding them in the future — I urge you to attend or watch via the web stream.  The conference will be a milestone along the road to a better, more accurate criminal justice system, with a ton of information we can all use.

 

On February 4, the National Registry of Exonerations published its yearly report for 2013.  The Registry, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School, collects information on exonerations that have occurred since 1989.  The headlines on the new report (from the New York Times to NBC News to the Huffington Post) nearly all focused on one fact: 2013 saw 87 exonerations, the highest yearly total yet in any year since 1989.

This is a significant fact.  But two other things in the report got less notice and deserve more.

First, for most people, “exoneration” is synonymous with “DNA exoneration.”  This is how the world looks, whether on television (think of CSI and its many clones) or in any news source.  But this view doesn’t reflect the real world.  As the report points out, only about 21 percent of the exonerations in 2013 involved DNA (p. 6).  Despite the impression one gets from the media, this has always been the case; of all of the exonerations since 1989, 72 percent were not based on DNA.  And that difference seems to be increasing.  In both 2012 and 2013, non-DNA exonerations increased significantly, while DNA exonerations decreased (p. 12).

The other fact that many in the media did not notice: for the last two years, the percentage of all exoneration cases resolved with the cooperation of the police or prosecutors has risen dramatically.  In 2012, almost half of all the cases featured cooperation of the police or prosecutors in re-examining cases, leading to exoneration; the average percentage in all the years before (1989-2011) did not reach 30 percent.  The trend continued this year, with almost police or prosecutors cooperating in almost 40 percent of all exonerations.  (A few media organizations, such as Fox News, NPR, and the Christian Science Monitor, featured this fact in their headlines and/or stories.)

This is a very welcome and important development.  While some exonerations have always come about with law enforcement cooperation, this was not the trend.  Despite assurances from Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association that “we always did that, we just didn’t” have a name for the process (see his quote here), the data on the last two years do show a greater willingness to re-examine old cases than in years past.  According to Samuel Gross of the University of Michigan Law School, who edits the Registry, “the sharp, cold shower that DNA gave to the criminal justice system has made us realize that we have to re-examine” closed cases whether with DNA or not.  That idea appears to be sinking on a much wider basis.  And that is all to the good.