Monday, January 9, 2012

Lies, Damn Lies, and Confessions

By Fuzzyone

NPR had a great (in a horrifying way) story the other day on a sixteen year old girl who police coerced into falsely confessing to murdering her thirteen month old son.  (Listen to the audio version, the printed one at the link leaves out a lot.)  After two hours of lies, intimidation, and just abusive interrogation of a minor the police extracted a confession to murder. Fortunately for the girl, Nga Truong, the interrogation was videotaped so the judge hearing her case could see what had occurred and rule the confession inadmissible.

Though there was no physical evidence that a murder had occurred, and there was evidence of illness that could have led to the boy's death, the detectives were convinced that Truong had killed her son, in part because she was present when her three month old brother had died when she was eight. This despite the fact that her brother's death was ruled the result of SIDS by the coroner.  Despite the clearly abusive practices of the Detectives here, they are still working "with the full support of the department" according to the NPR story.

What is so important about this story is that it is not unique. In May the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the conviction and life sentence imposed on Jonathan Doody.  [Full disclosure: I worked for the firm that represents Doody for a few years in the early-mid 90s and did some work on his case.] Doody was seventeen when he was accused of murdering nine people, including six monks, in a Thai Buddist Temple in Arizona in 1991.  Police initially arrested and obtained confessions from four other men.  When it became clear that they were innocent police arrested Doody based on a tip and extracted a confession from him in an interrogation that lasted 12 hours. The Ninth Circuit found that Doody's Miranda rights had been violated and that "nearly thirteen hours of relentless overnight questioning of a sleep-deprived teenager by a tag team of officers overbore the will of that teen, rendering his confession involuntary." The court knew this because Doody's interrogation had also been recorded

False confessions are particularly pernicious because they are so convincing.  Why, after all, would anyone confess to a crime that they did not commit? But people do and juries believe the false confessions.  The Innocence Project found that 25% of DNA exonerations were the result of false confessions.

The best way to solve this problem is what saved Truong and Doody: record all police interrogations. Some states have made reforms in this direction but not enough.  Such a reform was recommend here in California by the Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, but so far no action has been taken.

The other much need change is in that police departments and prosecutors need to change their attitudes. There is no indication that any discipline was given to the officers involved in these case, indeed, as in most such cases the police and prosecution deny wrongdoing even after losing in court.  That is no way to run a justice system.  Without these simple changes more wrongful convictions are virtually assured.

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