innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Monday, July 24, 2006

Recording Interrogations a Success in Minnesota

This article by Shannon Prather originally ran in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on July 17, 2006:

Eyes closed and head swaying, George Griller tells detectives he didn't kill the man police dug up in his back yard. I couldn't have, he claims, I'm blind. But when investigators leave the room, Griller opens his eyes, pulls a paper from his pocket and begins reading.

A video camera captures Griller's interrogation-room blunder. Jurors later convict him of second-degree murder.

In most states, prosecutors would never get their hands on such a tape. That's because it wouldn't have existed.

But police throughout Minnesota record in-custody interviews, a practice stemming from a 1994 state Supreme Court decision. At first, police and prosecutors lamented the ruling, predicting it would keep bad guys from confessing.

Now, more than a decade into mandated recording, those same critics are lauding the practice. Taped interrogations have not only proved valuable at trial, they have helped Minnesota authorities avoid accusations of forced confessions and investigative misconduct.

"It's the best tool shoved down our throats," said St. Paul police Cmdr. Neil Nelson. "We went kicking and screaming."

In the past year, videotaped interrogations have helped convict a 14-year-old school shooter from Cold Spring, a St. Paul cop killer and a 21-year-old thrill killer from Anoka.
Seven states and the District of Columbia, either by their supreme courts or by legislation, require some form of recording of in-custody interviews.

They are Alaska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Maine, New Mexico and Illinois. Other states, including California, are weighing similar requirements.

"I use Minnesota all the time as a shining example of how this reform is a win-win situation for both law enforcement and for the defense and the courts system," said Steven Drizin, legal director for Northwestern University School of Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions.

"A 12-year track of recording is one of our strongest arguments to other jurisdictions to get on board."

Jurors and judges no longer have to rely on written police reports of interrogations to decide tricky legal questions, disputes over what was said or allegations of coercion. They get to hear firsthand what defendants said often hours after the crime.

It's often not straight-out confessions that do defendants in. Even when suspects deny committing a crime, prosecutors can show jurors conflicting statements, stories that don't add up, and words and actions that are just plain incredible.

"It's more dramatic than anybody trying to explain to you how someone looks or acts," Nelson said. "I think it's been powerful for the juries."

One Minneapolis murder suspect notices blood on his shoes as he waits to be interviewed by police. The camera captures him trying to wipe the blood off and helps prosecutors win a conviction.

"It really does insure the jury has an accurate picture of what the suspect said and how he or she said it," said Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner. "Jurors want unfiltered reality and getting an audio tape or a video tape of what the defendant said right after the crime happens is really important to them."

In January, Gaertner played for jurors the interview of Harry Evans, on trial for the May 2005 killing of St. Paul police Sgt. Gerald Vick.

Evans, calmly smoking a cigarette, denied being involved in the shooting and told the officers they wouldn't find his DNA on the murder weapon. But crime lab scientists did find DNA matching Evans on the gun, sealing his first-degree murder conviction.

"The bottom line is everyone wants justice," said Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar. "We want to convict the guilty and protect the innocent. Any tool that helps us in that way is a good tool."

Klobuchar has spoken to prosecutors and police across the country about the benefits of recording interrogations. She's even put together a highlight tape of sorts showing how suspects sunk themselves during police interviews.

Nelson said taping interrogations has improved perceptions about how police handle suspects and has helped officers figure out what works and what doesn't in the interrogation room.

"It's raised the veil of mystery of what happens in that interview room," Nelson said. Last spring, jurors watched the video of Joshua Krueth confessing to the September 2004 thrill killing of a Coon Rapids man.

Krueth led Anoka County sheriff's investigators to the murder weapon, a rifle buried in a guitar case in a park. Krueth's defense attorney unsuccessfully tried to have the confession thrown out, arguing that Krueth was high on methamphetamines and later recanted.

"It was a key piece of evidence," Anoka County Sheriff Capt. Rob Bredsten said of the video. "It not only showed what he was saying and pointed us to the murder weapon, it showed he was lucid at the time of the statement and not under the influence of drugs."

In 2003, freshman John Jason McLaughlin confessed hours after he gunned down a classmate and fatally wounded another student at Rocori High School. During the interview, the investigator repeatedly asks the teen if he wants to speak with his parents. He reads the suspect his Miranda rights twice. Prosecutors relied on the video at trial to show that McLaughlin wasn't mentally ill at the time of the shootings.

State Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson said the interrogation tapes are valuable during the appeals process.

"It has significantly reduced the number of challenges on appeal based on deficiencies or failures to give Miranda warnings. In the past you have interrogations and there was always a question of Miranda warnings," Anderson said. "When it's right on the tape, it's pretty hard to deny it's been given. It's hard to refute the evidence on the tape."

When the Supreme Court ruled that police must honor juvenile suspects' requests for their parents, justices relied on a tape and transcript of an interrogation where a teen suspect asked police to speak to his mother 13 times.

"It's the best tool that we've got to prevent false confessions," said Julie Jonas, managing attorney for the Innocence Project of Minnesota. "It absolutely levels the playing field in preventing coerced confessions and outright lies by police."

Thomas Sullivan, a former U.S. attorney in Illinois, lobbies police, prosecutors and legislatures across the country about the benefits of recording interrogations. He said while nearly 500 police departments across the country voluntarily record some interviews, only a handful of states require it by court order or statute.

Sullivan said Minnesota's success story bolsters his cause. He is now lobbying federal agencies to record interrogations.

"It was very helpful to me to talk to people up in Minnesota where I knew I had an audience that would say, 'Yes, I record, and here's our experience.' "

In cases of false confessions, police often provide details of the crime and the suspect, worn down by hours of questioning, then parrots the information provided by officers, said Drizin, of Northwestern. A recording allows judges and jurors to see what information a suspect has volunteered and what police might have let slip.

Drizin argues that as the public becomes more technology savvy, it demands recording.

"It's commonly understood that law enforcement is using cameras to capture our moves," Drizin said. "Jurors have a hard time accepting their refusal to use it in the privacy of an interrogation room."


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