Posts Tagged ‘interrogation’

According to an article from the Syracuse Post Standard and, New York State has announced it will offer grants to law enforcement agencies for the purchase of equipment need to record police interrogations.  Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office announced the availability of the funding on July 15.  Recording interrogations, the Governor said, would prevent wrongful convictions and protect officers from false accusations.  In his words:

“Fairness and integrity form the foundation of our justice system and New York state is committed to providing local law enforcement with the resources necessary to improve the effectiveness of the process,” Cuomo said in a news release. “Wrongful convictions not only harm the innocent, but they allow the actual perpetrators of crime to remain free. The new equipment that will result from this funding will improve the strength of New York’s criminal justice system, making all New Yorkers safer as a result.”

What’s interesting to notice is how the issue is framed in terms of public safety and the integrity of the system.  Yes, recording will prevent the catastrophe of convicting the innocent, but at least as important, convicting an innocent person leaves the real predator on the street, able to kill or rape again.  And the thrust of the idea is to bolster the “fairness and integrity” of the system, because wrongful convictions eat away at both.

Readers, does New York State have mandatory standards, or any standards, for the recording of confessions?  Does your police department record interrogations?  The article states that “345 law enforcement agencies in 58 of the 62 counties statewide video record suspect interrogations, according to the governor’s office,” and supplies a partial list.

With the news that the District Attorney of Brooklyn is re-examining convictions in 50 cases featuring the work of one particular detective (see stories here and here ), we see two issues that have surfaced on the Failed Evidence blog before: false convictions and Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs).

First, the cases under re-examination all involve retired NYPD Detective Louis Scarcella, who had a penchant for getting confessions out of suspects when other detectives could not. According to Scarcella, “there were cases where suspects talked to one detective and they got nothing, and they called me and I got statements. A lot of guys don’t know how to talk to people.”   Some of these suspects who allegedly confessed said that they had told Scarcella nothing.  Scarcella also relied regularly on testimony from one particular drug-addicted prostitute; among the many times she served as Scarcella’s “go-to witness,” she gave crucial eyewitness testimony in two separate murder cases against the same man.  According to one prosecutor who had the woman testify in two trials, “It was near folly to even think that anyone would believe [her] about anything, let alone the fact that she witnessed the same guy kill two different people.”

But there is also this: the re-examinations are being handled by the Brooklyn DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), which I wrote about in connection with the exoneration and release of David Ranta, here.  As readers of the Failed Evidence blog know, CIUs are  dedicated units within prosecutors’ offices, just like  homicide or fraud units, that take on the task of re-opening old convictions now in doubt.  The first CIUs were established by DA Craig Watkins in Dallas and former DA Pat Lykos in Houston, and they have begun to pop up in other places.  In New York, both the Brooklyn DA and the Manhattan DA have established CIUs.

The CIU model for examining possible wrongful convictions isn’t perfect; a CIU is, by its nature, not independent of the DA’s office, and could be stopped in its tracks or dismantled completely just as easily as it could be created.  But as I’ve argued here before, they at least represent a step toward accountability for wrongful convictions, in a field in which too few elected prosecutors will touch prior convictions at all.  We should pay careful attention to how this large-scale investigation by the Brooklyn DA’s CIU works out; it will say a lot about whether CIUs can be part of the solution going forward.


In my previous post, I included a link to Psychology Today’s Shadow Boxing blog, which carried a brief interview in which I was critical of the Reid Technique, the most commonly used technique for interrogation taught in American police training.  This prompted an email to me from Joseph Buckley, the President of John T. Reid and Associates, Inc., in which he defended the Reid Technique.  I advised Mr. Buckley that I could not include his entire missive, but would be glad to include some of it.  He said, in part:

False confessions are not caused by the application of the Reid Technique, they are usually caused by interrogators engaging in improper behavior that is outside of the parameters of the Reid Technique – using improper interrogation procedures – engaging in behavior that the courts have ruled to be objectionable, such as threatening inevitable consequences; making a promise of leniency in return for the confession; denying a subject their rights; conducting an excessively long interrogation; etc.

Mr. Harris suggested that the goal of the Reid Technique is to get a confession – that is not correct; it is to learn the truth.

On page 4 of our training manual and page 5 of Criminal Interrogation and Confessions (5th ed, 2011) we state that the objective of an interrogation is to elicit the truth from a subject, not a confession.

In a subsequent email, Mr. Buckley suggested this link to his web page,  particularly the entry for March 11, 2012.

For my part, I stand by what I told Shadow Boxing, and I stand by everything I said about the Reid Technique in my book, Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science.

For starters, I did say that the goal of the Reid Technique is to get a confession.  Mr. Buckley says that isn’t true.  What he doesn’t say is that until 2011′s fifth edition — through all of the previous editions — what the book said was “an interrogation is conducted only when the investigator is reasonably certain of the suspect’s guilt” (or words to that effect). This statement was changed after many commentators quoted it as perfectly descriptive of the Reid Technique’s reliance on an underlying assumption of guilt for all interrogations.  But even after changing the statement, the presumption of guilt underlying the whole process did not change.

But to me, what this comes down to is which side, Mr. Buckley or his many critics, have the science behind them.  On this dimension, it’s not a close call.  Rather than pull all of this out here, take a look at an excellent article by Keith Findley and Michael Scott, “The Multiple Dimensions of Tunnel Vision in Criminal Cases.”  (The link is to the abstract; you can then download the article for free.) Go right to page 333–340, where the authors lay out the case against the Reid Technique and (unlike Reid’s own materials) support their arguments with a vast amount of research literature.  Here’s a small slice (with footnotes omitted):

[T]he process of assessing an interview is likely to produce misjudgments about the suspect’s veracity and guilt. Police are trained to look for signs of deceit in the interview process to help them determine whether to shift from an interview to an interrogation. Police also use their interpretations of guilty responses to help them shape the remainder of their interrogation, and the content of their testimony at trial. Yet, considerable research indicates that people are poor intuitive judges of truth and deception.  In clinical studies, people consistently perform at only slightly better than chance levels (with typical accuracy rates of about 45 to 60 percent, when chance is 50 percent) at distinguishing lies from truth…Indeed, most studies indicate that trained detectives and others with relevant on-the-job experience “perform only slightly better than chance, if at all,” and do not perform more reliably than untrained individuals…Additionally, the signs that police officers are trained to believe indicate lies are not empirically related to lie detection…Research confirms that most police officers rely on such indicators.  But research also convincingly shows that such cues are not indicative of fabrication, and can actually reduce accuracy.

Read and evaluate.  You decide.

There is more talk than ever about how to safegaurd the criminal justice system against false confessions.  One reform that can help avoid these catastrophic errors is for police to record in-custody confessions.  With a recording of the entire interrogation (not just the part where the subject admits his or her involvement), the worst abuses are curbed, the jury or judge can see and hear exactly what happened, and there are many fewer legal issues about whether Miranda warnings were properly given.  The results, according to the police departments that have been required under state law to do this for years (most notably, Minnesota since 1994 and Alaska even earlier) have been almost uniformly positive.

Thus I was encouraged by a news item I saw from Pennsylvania, my home state, in which a county prosecutor seemed to take a forward-looking stance: she was launching a pilot program in which county detectives will record interrogations of murder suspects:

“Police and prosecutors need to be on the front lines of making sure we are doing things the right way … It’s up to us to do our jobs with integrity and maintain integrity in our investigations,” Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said…[S]he said she was drawn to the issue after serving as a member of the Joint State Government Commission’s advisory committee on wrongful convictions. The committee issued a report in the fall of 2011.

Applause for Ms. Fermin…except for one thing.  She is against any requirement that recording  be mandatory.  Rather, police and prosecutors should get to decide for themselves whether they want to do this.

“When you’re working in law enforcement and you’re working on the street … you learn there are any number of ways to do” things, Ms. Ferman said. “Why would you try to hamstring police? The goal should be: do it right, do it properly, do it with integrity and do it fairly.”

I can’t agree.  First, police and prosecutors in Pennsylvania have the power, right now, to decide to make recording of interrogations standard practice.  Despite the fact that it is universally applauded by law enforcement in every jurisdiction in which it is required — see the many comments here and in Failed Evidence from police and prosecutors experienced with recording — most agencies still don’t do it.  Second, recording really does make for better law enforcement and better outcomes and fewer false confessions. So there comes a time when those resisting should not get to continue to resist, just because they think they know better.

If a doctor wanted to keep using leeches because he thought he knew better, would we let that continue?



This week, Jurist, a national and international legal reporting website, is featuring my commentary on Failed Evidence.   Here’s a quick sample:

[The] image of a deep alliance between police work and modern science is misleading at best. With the exception of DNA work and certain kinds of classic chemical analysis, law enforcement generally does not embrace existing scientific work. In fact, police and prosecutors in the US resist science. The scientific work I am referring to involves the testing of the more traditional techniques of law enforcement investigation and prosecution: not the high-tech sheen of the DNA lab, but scientific testing of eyewitness identification, the interrogation of suspects and the more traditional forensic methods such as fingerprint identification. This is the daily bread and butter of law enforcement, and scientists have found it wanting. The science on these basic police investigation methods has existed for years — some of it for decades. It is rigorous, and has undergone peer review, publication and replication. It tells us what the problems with traditional police work are, and also gives us some straightforward ways of solving these problems. Yet, most — not all, to be sure, but most — of American law enforcement continues to resist this science and refuses to change its basic tactics to reflect the best of what science has to offer.

Jurist mixes straight reporting and commentary from the U.S. and around the world; it’s a great source for anyone interested in issues of justice and how it plays out in domestic and international situations around the world.  (Full disclosure: Jurist is supported by my own institution, the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, and has been guided and run since the beginning by my esteemed colleague, Professor Bernard Hibbitts.)  Check it out.

In a headline-grabbing New York murder case, we will soon get to see whether recording the interrogations of suspects will help cases stand up in court and persuade juries.

In my September 2 op-ed piece in the New York Daily News, I discussed the case against the killer of Etan Patz, a young boy murdered over three decades ago in New York City.   The investigation had been dormant until this past spring, when the NYPD announced the arrest of Pedro Hernandez, a New Jersey resident.  The NYPD said that Hernandez had confessed, and — because the interrogation took place in New Jersey and not New York — the NYPD had a recording of the confession.  This recording would likely not have been made in New York, because — at least at that time — the NYPD continued to refuse to record interrogations, as it had for many years.  (The rule changed in September, when NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly announced that the NYPD would begin to implement a plan to record interrogations in all murder and sexual assault cases.

At the end of last week, Hernandez appeared in court for a hearing.  According to multiple media accounts, Hernandez will plead not guilty.  The reason: according to his lawyer, Hernandez had confessed falsely because he is mentally ill, and there was no other evidence that implicated him aside from the conviction.

The case will thus make for an interesting test of the utility of recording.  Back in May, when Commissioner Kelly announced Hernandez’s arrest, he made a special point of saying that the NYPD had the interrogation recorded.  For those who had long advocated recording as fundamental to better interrogation practice, the reaction was at once “great!” and “so why are you still resisting the idea of doing this regularly, if it was a good enough idea to do in this important case?”

Whether the defense team will be able to prove that Hernandez was mentally ill at the time of the interrogation, and if he was to prove also that his illness made a difference in the interrogation, remains to be seen.  Even persons with long histories of mental illness aren’t necessarily incapacitated or hurt by these illnesses in every circumstance in which they find themselves.   My guess, without having seen the recording, is that the recording will make it easier for the prosecution to convict.  And that, I hope, will increase the momentum behind making recording of interrogations standard best practice in law enforcement.

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?

I’ll be speaking about my book Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science (2012) this Thursday, Nov. 8 at the University of Minnesota Law School at 4:30 pm in Mondale Hall.  My talk will be followed by a panel that includes Ramsay County Attorney John Choi and John Harrington, former chief of police in St. Paul and currently the police chief of the Metro Transit Police Department.  The event is free and open to the public.  The Law School is located at 229 19th Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55455.

Because I’ll be in the Twin Cities speaking about the book, let’s ask: how does Minnesota stand on the issues covered in Failed Evidence: faulty eyewitness identifications, false confessions, and basic types of forensic evidence?

A good place to start is with interrogations and false confessions.  Minnesota was one of the first two states to require its police officers to record interrogations. Here’s the story.

In 1994, the Minnesota Supreme Court decided the case of State v. Scales.  The evidence of the defendant’s guilt, including statements he made to the police, was overwhelming, and the Supreme Court did not overturn his conviction.  But the justices used the case to require  recording of interrogations in all future cases.

…[W]e hold that all custodial interrogation including any information about rights, any waiver of those rights, and all questioning shall be electronically recorded where feasible and must be recorded when questioning occurs at a place of detention.  If law enforcement officers fail to comply with this recording requirement, any statements the suspect makes in response to the interrogation may be suppressed at trial.

Minnesota thus became the first state with a large population to require recording.

How did this mandate go over with law enforcement?  By all reports, not so good at first; predictably, there was resistance and widespread prediction of a public safety crisis.  But a funny thing happened on the way to this apocalypse: the police became big believers in recording interrogations when they figured out that doing so helped them get convictions and did away with bogus claims of constitutional violations by defendants.  One quote, attributed to Neil Nelson, a former St. Paul police commander, shows up again and again: Nelson called recording of interrogations “the best tool ever shoved down our throats.”

If you are or were part of law enforcement in Minnesota, what are your thoughts about recording? Your experience gives your comments great value.


In the October 15 issue of The New Yorker, Nadya Labi’s “The Hit Man’s Tale” (see the abstract here) tells the story of Vincent Smothers, a killer for hire who plied his trade in Detroit.  It is by turns insightful, horrifying, and fascinating.  And by the end, it turns into another story: how another man confessed to the murder of several people and remains in prison for the crime — even though Smothers says he committed  it.

As is true with many career criminals, Smothers was finally caught, and he confessed to nine homicides, including one involving multiple killings on Runyon Street.  He gave details.  His interrogator believed he was telling the truth, and his statement checked out — all except for one case: the killing on Runyon Street.  Hearing that he had confessed to the Runyon Street killings, a police officer told Smothers, “That’s impossible.  We got the guy…A kid confessed.”  It seems that, seven months earlier, a young man named Davontae Sanford had told the police he had committed those crimes.  Despite inconsistencies between his confession (which he changed multiple times) and the details of the crime, Sanford was convicted.

Interview for the article, Steven Drizin of Northwestern School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, said Sanford’s youth and naivete made him a sitting duck.  First, he was a minor, and young people are uniquely vulnerable to pressure in interrogations.  Second, both the judge in his case and his own lawyer told him he should take a plea offer instead of contesting the case at trial.  Sanford did, and remains incarcerated today — despite Smothers having admitted to the crime himself.  And the police fed Sanford details of the crime, which he repeated in his confession, making his words more credible.

The article makes fascinating reading, not least because it morphs from the story of the hit man into the story of a false confession.  And it illustrates the unique power of a confession.  Even without much in the way of other evidence, and with the confession of a man who authorities admit is a contract killer, little may change for Sanford.




I was a guest on WYPR Public Radio’s “Midday” program today, discussing Failed Evidence.  Today was the monthly “Midday on Science” show, and host Dan Rodicks and regular science contributor John Monahan asked great questions on everything from DNA to more traditional forensic sciences to eyewitness identification and false confessions.  Listeners asked terrific questions too.

You can hear the whole show by clicking here and clicking on the audio button.