Posts Tagged ‘cold case’

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.

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.

Today the U.S.  Supreme Court hears arguments in Maryland v. King, the Court’s latest foray into  DNA testing.  Most reports have focused on the clash between law enforcement’s desire to test every arrested person in order to try to solve old cases, and those who advocate for a strict interpretation of the Fourth Amendment’s protection of privacy.  For example, a report by the excellent Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio discussed the positions of police, who believe taking a sample from every person arrested is a minimal intrusion that can have a big payoff, and the arguments of defense attorneys and civil libertarians, who feel that allowing testing of all arrestees would surrender the basic principles of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unlawful searches and seizures.

But there’s a question that may be far more important: from a crime fighting point of view,   is it a good idea for police to take and process a DNA sample for everyone who gets arrested?   Of course there will be some cases — such as the King case itself — in which the time-of-arrest sample leads to an arrest for a different, serious crime.  But taking samples from every arrestee may actually hurt our efforts to use DNA most effectively to make ourselves safe.  According to an article in Slate by Brandon Garrett and Erin Murphy, real public safety gains from DNA lie not with taking samples from every jaywalker and burglar and hoping for a hit in a cold case, but instead in taking many more samples from crime scenes.  In other words, we get more hits when we process samples from active crime scenes and match them against our already-large DNA database, instead of fishing for leads among the whole population of more than 12 million people arrested every year.  And all of those additional samples from arrestees crowd out and slow down the processing of samples from real crime scenes and victims, creating backlogs.  In other words, bigger DNA databases is not the answer to crime.

[B]igger is only better if DNA databases grow in the right way: by entering more samples from crime scenes, not samples from arrestees. DNA databases already include 10 million-plus known offender profiles. But a database with every offender in the nation cannot solve a crime if no physical evidence was collected or tested.  And police collect far too few such samples….The police solve more crimes not by taking DNA from suspects who have never been convicted, but by collecting more evidence at crime scenes.  Even worse, taking DNA from a lot of arrestees slows the testing in active criminal investigations….Backlogs created by arrestee DNA sampling means that rape kits and samples from convicted offenders sit in storage or go untested.

The bottom line: even if the Supreme Court says we can take a sample from every person arrested, doesn’t mean we should.

 

The main point of my book Failed Evidence is to explain the real reasons that law enforcement resists science, and with that understanding to enable us to break through that resistance in order tohave better police work that reflects the best scientific  knowledge that we have.

So what a relief to find an example of law enforcement embracing science in a big way.

In the November 13 New York Times, “Jane Doe Gets a Back Story” tells how police have been aided by science in some very cold cases.  They have turned to isotope analysis to pinpoint the geographic origin of some unidentified human remains, and scientists have been able to do this with almost uncanny precision.  In other words, the scientists have not been able to identify the corpses, but they have pinned down where they came from, which might then lead to an identification.  The case featured in the article involved the frozen body of a woman found floating in a lake under a highway overpass northeast of Tampa, Florida, forty-one years ago.  The best guess was that the woman was white or Native American, and 17 to 24 years old.  Police got nowhere with this scant information.

Fast forward to this year, when scientists used shavings of tooth enamel and bones to come up with some “startling” findings:

The best evidence suggested that she grew up in Greece and came to the United States less than a year before she was killed. (Tarpon Springs, north of Tampa, has a large Greek-American population.) The research, according to Detective [Darren] “turned the case upside down.” Based on the findings, he provided information for an article that was published Oct. 11 in The National Herald, an international Greek-language newspaper. It was accompanied by the new reconstructed image of the victim and her clothing.

The case is still not closed. The woman’s identity has not been determined, and Detective Norris acknowledges that it is still a long shot. But he is confident that he is on the right track. “The best lead that has ever come in this case came because of the science,” he said…

What’s fascinating to me is the strong embrace of this scientific work by the police.  Because as readers of Failed Evidence know, that is not a given.  So what accounts for that embrace, while science on far more basic and common law enforcement methods like eyewitness testimony, interrogation of suspects, and basic forensics gets rejected?