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.