Archive for the ‘False Confessions’ Category

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

In mid October, police in New York City announced that they had solved the mystery of the “Baby Hope” case:  at last, they had the killer of a four-year-old child whose body had been found in 1991, 22 years ago.  And the accused killer, Conrado Juarez, had confessed.

Days later, Juarez  recanted the key part of his confession.  He said that under intense pressure by police during a long interrogation, he had lied:  he had not killed the child.  He had only helped his sister dispose of the body at her request.  He said that he had lied about killing the little girl because  “after a while and after so much pressure [from police], I accepted it and said what they wanted,”

The accused may have been telling the truth when he said he killed the victim, or when he said that he actually didn’t.  I certainly don’t know the answer to that.  But one thing that would help to resolve the question would be a video and audio recording of the entire interrogation, from start to finish.  A judge or jury could then look at the entire thing and decide whether the accused was coerced or not.  And over a year ago, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly announced that, after a long pilot project, the NYPD would begin recording all interrogations in homicide, felony assault, and sexual assault cases.

But in this case, that was not done.  Instead, a recording of only the confession itself — a statement of guilt by Juarez at the end of the process — was made.  No recording was made of the questioning that lead up to it.  So we have no record of how police got to the point of getting the admission of guilt.  And that leaves the confession in dispute: the accused will argue that he was coerced, and the police will say they did nothing to coerce him.  But there will be no recording for a judge or jury to see.

Why did this happen?  According to the NYPD spokesman quoted in media reports, “only 28 detective squads — there are more than 76 across the city — have an interview room set up with recording equipment.”  The interrogation did not take place in one of those 28 squads.  Getting the equipment into all of those police facilities just takes time, and so far, the Department remains a long way from completely implementing Commissioner Kelly’s order.  (It is worth noting that the detectives in the Baby Hope case did not take the suspect to one of the buildings that already has the equipment  necessary to record.)

Or maybe it’s something else else.  According to Michael Palladino, the head of the NYPD’s detectives union, it’s better if interrogations don’t get recorded.  “There are certain tricks of the trade, I should say, that I think should not play out in front of the jury.”   But the cost of hiding these “tricks” is that we now have uncertainty in the Baby Hope case.  And, after so many cases of wrongful convictions including false confessions — they show up in 25 percent of all DNA-based exonerations — there is a loss of public confidence.

Here’s hoping that things move faster as the NYPD transitions to the recording of confessions.  Assuming that they have the real killer of Baby Hope, we all want the guy off the street.  We don’t need uncertainty introduced because there’s resistance to recording.

According to a new study by researchers at Florida International University, the use of standard interrogation techniques can prompt false confessions by juveniles; the risk is higher with juveniles than with adults.

Dr. LIndsay Malloy, the lead researcher on the study, says that “people need to understand that juvenile suspects are especially vulnerable in the interrogation room,” because “the ways in which we question youth can have potentially devastating consequences in some cases.”

The study by Dr. Malloy and her colleagues, “Interrogations, Confessions, and Guilty Pleas Among Serious Adolescent Offenders.” appears in the journal Law and Human Behavior.  It was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.  Here’s the abstract::

In the present study, we examined (a) the prevalence and characteristics of youths’ true and false admissions (confessions and guilty pleas), (b) youths’ interrogation experiences with police and lawyers, and (c) whether youths’ interrogation experiences serve as situational risk factors for true and false admissions. We interviewed 193 14- to 17-year-old males (M = 16.4) incarcerated for serious crimes. Over 1/3 of the sample (35.2%) claimed to have made a false admission to legal authorities (17.1% false confession; 18.1% false guilty plea), and 2/3 claimed to have made a true admission (28.5% true confession; 37.3% true guilty plea). The majority of youth said that they had experienced high-pressure interrogations (e.g., threats), especially with police officers. Youth who mentioned experiencing “police refusals” (e.g., of a break to rest) were more likely to report having made both true and false confessions to police, whereas only false confessions were associated with claims of long interrogations (>2 hr) and being questioned in the presence of a friend. The number of self-reported high-pressure lawyer tactics was associated with false, but not true, guilty pleas.

According to the researchers, the results call for “specialized trainings for those who interrogate youth, recording interrogations, placing limits on lengthy and manipulative techniques, and exploring alternative procedures for questioning juvenile suspects.”

You can see the full abstract here.  The study supplies yet another set of reasons to examine carefully our interrogation practices, to give up on interrogation for the purpose of getting a confession (instead, use the UK’s PEACE method), and to record all interrogation as a precondition to using them in court.

 

 

For those in the Chicago area, I’ll be speaking about my book “Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science” on Wednesday, October 16, at 5 p.m. at Gage Gallery, 18 S. Michigan Avenue.  The event is free and open to the public.  The event is sponsored by Roosevelt University’s Joseph Loundy Human Rights Project, and is part of their annual speaker series.  The link to the event is here.

The next public event for “Failed Evidence” will be in Pittsburgh on November 6, at noon at the Harvard Yale Princeton Club, 619 William Penn Place, The talk will be sponsored by the Allegheny County Bar Association and the Pitt Law Alumni Association.  More details to follow.

Of the 311 cases of wrongful convictions documented by The Innocence Project, about 25 percent include a false confession or false statement of guilt.  Yet false confessions remain the least understood type of justice system error.  Most people still ask, “why would anyone confess to a serious crime he did not commit, without physical abuse, a mental handicap or lack of sobriety?  I know I would never do that.”   Twenty years ago, I would have said the same thing.

Well, if you want to know how false confessions happen — how an innocent person could confess, even supplying details of how the crime was committed that only the perpetrator would know — and if you want to know how this could happen with a fine police detective operating according to the rules — you must listen to the latest episode of the radio show This American Life, called “Confessions.”  Here is the link to the show.  The story (one of several on the theme of confessions) runs approximately 28 minutes

A very brief summary, without giving anything away: A Washington, D.C. detective investigating a murder participated in the interrogation of the main suspect.  The woman denies any involvement at first, but after seventeen hours of questioning, she finally admits to participating in the crime, and supplies many incriminating details.  After the suspect is charged but before her case goes to trial, follow up investigation by police causes the case to fall apart, and a judge orders her released from jail after nine months.  The case is never solved.  Some years later, the same detective is assigned to a cold case unit, and he begins to look into the case again by watching a video tape of the interrogation.  What he sees reveals what went wrong, and it lays out an incredible lesson in exactly how the false confessions come to be.  And we learn that the video tape recording of the full interrogation was actually made just by chance; in the usual course of things, there would have been no recording, and none of this would have been discovered.

For anyone interested in police interrogation, for anyone still asking how an innocent person could ever confess, I cannot recommend this program more highly.  And it’s yet another endorsement of the idea that we must record interrogations if we are ever to solve this problem.