Posts Tagged ‘recording suspect interviews’

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.

 

 

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.

In Illinois, the governor has signed legislation expanding the requirement that police record interrogations.  According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, the new law will require police to record interrogations in cases involving “any of eight violent felonies, including aggravated criminal sexual assault, aggravated battery with a gun and armed robbery.”

In 2003, after a spate of wrongful conviction in Chicago cases based on false confessions, Illinois enacted a law requiring that police must record all interrogations in homicide cases.  (This article reports on the passage of the earlier law.)  The law signed this year originally proposed extending the recording requirement to all cases, but it was watered down in response to opposition from prosecutors and police.

The law in Illinois on recording has what one could call an enforcement provision: no recording means (usually) the statement can’t be used.

…[A]n oral, written, or sign language statement of an accused made as a result of a custodial interrogation conducted at a police station or other place of detention shall be presumed to be inadmissable as evidence against the accused, unless an electronic recording is made of the custodial interrogation and the recording is substantially accurate and not intentionally altered…

With ten years of experience with the 2003 law, it is significant that further reforms were considered both needed and acceptable (at least at some level — law enforcement did not accept the need to record all interrogations).

Attorney Peter Neufeld, one of the founder of the Innocence Project, famously called Chicago the Cooperstown of false confessions.  (See his comments in a 60 Minutes interview here.)  Perhaps these continuing reforms can change Chicago’s reputation — at least a little bit.

 

According to an article from the Syracuse Post Standard and syracuse.com, 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 trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Travon Martin now underway, we can see that most of what is happening in the trial is not that different from most other murder trials one could see on an average day in any Florida courthouse.

But this week, we have seen that there is one big difference.  In this case, the jury has the opportunity to know what Zimmerman said, from an actual recording of the actual police interrogation.  They can see the questions police asked, the answers Zimmerman gave, and his tone and demeanor when he gave the answers .  The jurors will know Zimmerman’s exact words, and whether he hesitated or seemed confident he gave an answer.  They will know all of this for themselves, without it being filtered through a police officer’s memory or note taking.  (In fact, we can all experience this first-hand evidence; use the link above to pull the interrogation up on YouTube.  You can also find a recording of Zimmerman’s re-enactment of the shooting for police. )

That’s the difference: in Florida, the usual case wouldn’t necessarily include a recording  of the interrogation, because Florida  does not require recording of interrogations.  Even in murder cases, state law does not mandate electronic recording of the interrogation process.   Twenty states require recording of interrogations in at least some cases under their laws, but Florida is not one of them.

I’m not taking a position here on what’s in the recordings, or whether the jury should believe Zimmerman or not.  What I am saying is that the jury can make up its own mind about what was said, under what conditions, and whether it represents the truth.  That’s what recording of interrogations does for the trial process: it improves the quality of evidence that the jury sees, and it means that bogus claims — whether they come from the defendant or from the police — have much less traction.

In  Zimmerman’s case, there are other recordings too, and the jury can see those as well.  But in most serious cases in Florida, the jury will have to rely on the imperfect recollections and notes of a detective who was involved in the interrogation.  And that’s just not good enough, with the stakes so high.

 

 

In another sign that resistance to better, science-based practices will eventually have to yield, a news report indicates that a member of the South Carolina has  introduced a bill that would require police to record interrogations of suspects.

The bill, proposed by Rep. Todd Rutherford of Columbia, “would require judges to instruct jurors that they could ‘draw an adverse inference’ if a law enforcement officer failed to record the questioning of a suspect unless there was an equipment failure.”  That required instruction would effectively require that the police record interrogations, because jurors would hear from the court that the interrogation might be suspicious.

Even if the bill does not pass, the significance of the proposal is hard to miss.  An increasing number of states and jurisdictions require recording of interrogations under various circumstances (see the Innocence Project’s map here), and the research shows that the recording requirement does not harm the investigation process.  In fact, recording turns out to be a great help to the police overall.  The research of Thomas Sullivan on the practical effects of recording has been particularly insightful and helpful on this issue, and academics such as Richard Leo, Saul Kassin, and Richard Ofshe have made tremendous contributions in the area of false confessions and why recording can help.

More to the point, South Carolina would not be viewed by anyone as a jurisdiction that has been particularly favorable to defendants on criminal justice issues.  The fact that the legislature in South Carolina now has a proposal to consider on recording interrogations means that, little by little, we are nearing a tipping point, which will bring us closer to what the scientific research shows us.

 

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?

 

 

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.

In connection with my talk on Failed Evidence at U. Minnesota Law School Thursday, Nov. 8, take a look at my Commentary piece in today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune, “In Some Areas, Law Enforcement Still Resists Science.”  Here’s a sample:

Everywhere you look, law enforcement and science seem to have formed a partnership. Look at the headlines on any given day, and there’s something like “DNA convicts killer in 1992 cold case.” Turn on the television, and there are the police in “CSI” and its innumerable clones solving cases with high-tech gadgets and test tubes and computers. The message is clear: The bad guys don’t stand a chance against the police officer and the scientists working together.

There is some truth to this: DNA has become an identification tool of unequaled power. But look beyond DNA, and you’ll see something different: When the science concerns eyewitness identification, suspect interrogations, or more traditional, non-DNA forensic testing, law enforcement doesn’t embrace science. Most police agencies and prosecutor’s offices in the United States actively resist the scientific findings on these common types of police investigation.