Coercing Confessions and Wrongful Convictions

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interrogatorAs researchers are able to analyze wrongful convictions, we have learned that, among other factors, false confessions play a large role in a sizable number of these cases.  For instance, in late December we reported that Brandon Garrett combed more than 250 wrongful convictions in his book, Convicting the Innocent, and found that nearly 20% of those involved a false confession.

The question is how do these occur.  Some of these cases occur by accident, where, as Professor Garrett writes, “We now know that in many of these cases, police contaminated the confessions by disclosing facts to the suspects.”

However, in some cases, these were coerced.  The widely-employed Reid technique, described in detail by writer Douglas Starr in his Dec. 9 New Yorker article “The Interview,” has been called into question by criminal justice scholars because of the number of false confessions it has produced.

Most of law enforcement now uses what is called the Reid Method.

“The Reid Method,” as Phil Locke describes in a 2012 article, “is a psychologically structured interview and interrogation technique developed by, and taught by, John E. Reid & Associates.”

He writes, “The method starts with a ‘behavioral analysis interview (BAI).’  During this phase, the interrogator maintains a ‘friendly’ demeanor, but poses structured questions designed to provoke responses that can indicate guilt.”

“If the interrogator decides that the suspect is ‘guilty,’ the method then proceeds to the ‘interrogation’ phase, which is confrontational. There are nine separate steps to the interrogation phase, and they are psychologically designed to get the suspect to the point where he believes his ‘only way out’ is to confess,” Mr. Locke continues.

This is what happened in a case reported by the Dallas Morning News on Friday where a woman won a false arrest lawsuit against Dallas Detective Dwayne Thompson, three years after she was arrested and later released on a murder charge when her boyfriend committed suicide.

“A jury in federal civil court ruled Friday that a Dallas homicide detective, Dwayne Thompson, violated [Hephzibah Olivia] Lord’s civil rights by maliciously having her arrested for a killing she didn’t commit, which landed her in jail for nine days. The jury also awarded her about $800,000,” the paper reports.

According to the report, Ms. Lord told the police that her boyfriend, who died in 2010 from a gunshot wound to the temple, had committed suicide.

“A medical examiner’s office field agent on the scene and a hospital emergency room doctor agreed it was an apparent suicide, court records show. The manner of death has since been listed as undetermined,” the paper reports.

Detective Thompson remains convinced of her guilt, he testified.

The jury ruled that Detective Thompson acted in “reckless disregard” for her rights and “did not act in good faith.”

The paper reports, “Thompson and his murder cases have been featured prominently on the popular A&E reality show The First 48. The show’s premise is that officers’ chances of solving a murder are ‘cut in half if they don’t get a lead within the first 48 hours.’”

She alleged in her suit “that he lied about certain evidence while ignoring other evidence that was favorable to her.”

The paper continues, “In a video of the interrogation, Thompson asks Lord basic questions about what happened that night. He then explodes without warning into a rage and screams accusations at Lord, telling her over and over that she is lying and that he knows she killed Burnside.”

Kim Sanders, a retired homicide detective, “told the jury he believed Lord was innocent based on his review of the evidence. He also questioned Thompson’s tactics while questioning Lord shortly after her boyfriend died.”  The paper adds, “About the interrogation, Sanders said the interview amounted to intimidation and called the tone and line of questioning a ‘formula for a false confession.’”

In the meantime, the New York Times reported last week that New York’s highest court heard arguments on Tuesday and “plumbed the question of how far the police can go in lying to suspects during interrogations — even to the point of telling suspects a dead victim is still alive, but might survive if they confess to precise details of the crime.”

“What is acceptable pressure?” Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman asked Kelly L. Egan, a lawyer representing the Rensselaer County district attorney’s office. “What’s O.K. and what’s not O.K. in terms of deception?”

In one case, a confession was made after detectives lied to the defendant repeatedly during a long interrogation.

Among other things, the defendant was told that “the baby’s condition was an accident and that he would not be arrested. Several times they threatened to arrest his wife if he did not confess to abusing the baby, prompting him to say he would ‘take the rap.’ Later they told him his son, who was already brain-dead, might die if he did not help doctors by describing how he hurt the boy.”

After two days of interrogation, he said he had “thrown the infant down onto a bed forcefully three times and had hit the baby’s head accidentally against his crib. The boy would soon be declared dead. Convicted at trial of depraved indifference murder, Mr. Thomas is now serving a 25-year-to-life term in prison.”

In a similar case in which a man, Paul Aveni, was convicted for criminally negligent homicide in the 2009 death of his girlfriend, Angela Camillo, though the victim had already died from a drug overdose, “a detective told Mr. Aveni that doctors were trying to revive her and needed to know what drugs she had taken to keep her alive. Mr. Aveni immediately admitted he had injected her with heroin and had given her Xanax.”

In the first case, an appellate court upheld the conviction, ruling that the tactics the Troy police had employed “were not of the character as to induce a false confession.”   However, the second case was thrown out, ruling that the police had implicitly threatened Aveni, saying that “his silence would lead to Camillo’s death, and then he could be charged with her homicide.”

The question is where the line should be drawn.  Past court rulings allow police to deceive suspects, but “only if the final confession is voluntary, and the officer’s lies do not create a risk the suspect will also lie about what he did.”

The Times reports:

“We have precedent that says the police can use deception,” Judge Victoria A. Graffeo said about the Thomas case. “What we are trying to figure out is when you enter this area of inappropriate pressure?”

“Don’t threaten to arrest people’s wives whom you know are innocent,” Jerome K. Frost, Thomas’ attorney, answered.

“That’s a narrow rule,” Judge Pigott said.

“My rule is you don’t threaten a person’s vital interests — custody of children, freedom of their spouses,” Mr. Frost said.

Judge Smith argued, “Telling someone his child will die if he does not clearly confess makes a suspect’s words less than voluntary.”

The Times continues,“’How can it not overborne your will if you think there is even a small chance of saving your child’s life?’ he asked Ms. Egan, the lawyer for Rensselaer County. He added that Mr. Thomas had only admitted to scenarios suggested to him by the police. ‘In all these hours of testimony, the defendant didn’t come up with anything that the police didn’t feed him first,’ he said. ‘Isn’t that troubling?’”

Judge Lippman seemed to agree. “What about the officers saying 67 times we know what happened is an accident?” he asked Ms. Egan. “And 140 some odd times that he wouldn’t be arrested. How do you square that with a voluntary statement on his part?”

Clearly, it is a fine line.  In these cases, there is no accusation that the police induced a false confession, but the real question is a more general question: in how many others might that not be the case?

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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