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.