innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

False Confessions

Part 2 of series
Western Pa. Case Issues Mirror National Trends

Did they confess? No One Will Ever Know For Sure Because of Failures to Record All Custodial Interrogations

By Bill Moushey and Elizabeth Perry
Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Attorney Francis Sichko agreed to let state police polygraph 18-year-old Tiffany Pritchett in the middle of her 1994 murder trial because if she passed the test, Washington County’s prosecutor led him to believe charges would be dropped.

Instead of accompanying his client, Mr. Sichko went to a Pitt/Temple football game. Days later, state police – who did not record it or immediately write down notes about it – said Miss Pritchett confessed to the execution-style slaying of an acquaintance.

Homewood teen Da’Ron Cox, also 18, had a reputation as a “Mama’s Boy” and was called “Chicken” by the neighborhood gang bangers he tried to keep up with, making him an unlikely suspect in the execution-style slaying of a drug dealing snitch in 1996.

After three hours of un-recorded threats and promises, Mr. Cox says detectives wheedled a confession out of him, and then put only eight minutes of it on tape, even though his confession doesn’t match evidence in the slaying and another youth was repeatedly implicated in it.

Troy Joseph, 18, told police he was going outside to fight with his sister’s boyfriend, but fled the East Liberty scene when a masked robber accosted them, then gunned down Richard Pearson during a botched robbery attempt.

After several hours of interrogation, he says police – despite having information from an eyewitness that exculpated him -- twisted his words into a confession to the killing.

Three black youths. Three confessions. Three convictions. Three sentences of life. Three lives wasted if appeals don’t prevail. They all claim innocence and their cases are bereft of evidence outside the confessions.

They are tragic metaphors for a problem that has tainted cases throughout Western Pennsylvania and the nation—the failure of police to build an unquestioned record of investigative actions by recording all custodial interrogations.

While it is no surprise that juries – and most people – believe confessions, there is a growing body of evidence in cases in this region and around the nation where savvy detectives can get vulnerable suspects to admit almost anything through threats, promises of leniency and other coercive interrogation techniques that courts allow but juries might question.

The failure to routinely record these custodial interrogations incurs expenses much higher than the $29,000 a year it costs to house an inmate in Pennsylvania or the expense of fighting appeals over claims of false confessions that languish in the court system for years.

It allows police to make up confessions out of whole cloth, as Pritchett claims, threaten and scare suspects as Cox says, or twist innocent words into culpability in crime, as Joseph contends.

While police in these cases have denied impropriety in court, they refused comment when contacted repeatedly by the Innocence Institute of Point Park University, an investigative organization in partnership with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette which investigates and writes about allegations of wrongful convictions.

‘Play the tape’

The definitive report about the benefits of recording all interrogations was written in 2004 by former United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois Thomas P. Sullivan for the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University.

Mr. Sullivan says it’s obvious how recording suspects prevents a situation like Pritchett alleges: “You just play the tape.”

Richard Ofshe, a leading authority on false confessions at the University of California-Berkley, says recording interrogations gives juries clear views of the process.

“The biggest single cause of false confession is police making offers of leniency or threats of harm that they are not permitted to make,” he said.

While knowing nothing about Mr. Cox’s claims, Dr. Ofshe says recording interrogations would reduce them “dramatically,” because he believes it is unlikely police would do unethical and illegal things on tape.

Over the past few years, experts have been so persuasive in their argument about recording custodial interrogations, that rules were passed in New Jersey and Massachusetts forcing judges to order juries to give less credibility to un-recorded confessions than those that are taped. There is no such law in Pennsylvania.

There is also the argument that recording custodial interrogations is good police work. The International Association of Chiefs of Police Association calls recording of custodial interrogations cost effective because taping statements, “dramatically reduce the number of defense motions to suppress statements and confessions,” according to its policy statement.

Chiefs in Western Pennsylvania Are Divided

Chief George Polnar of the Monroeville Police Dept. in the eastern Pittsburgh, Pa. suburbs, and president of the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Assn. said he sees possible merit in recording custodial interrogations. He said he will research the issue and possibly present it to his group, which often approves non-binding best practice policies for area police agencies.

In Allegheny County, the most populated region in Western Pennsylvania, officials from 30 police departments who investigate their own major crimes were split on how often it should be used.

“I don’t like recordings,” said Chief Robert Payne of the suburban Plum Borough Police Department, rejecting what experts suggest. Chief Payne did many interrogations during his 26 years with the Allegheny County Police Department before moving to his present job. He believes recording suspects “creates more of a problem” because it “turns people off” and “takes flexibility away from police.”

Another suburban police chief disagrees. Baldwin Borough Police Chief Christopher Kelly said officers only record interrogations when a suspect agrees to it, but said they are valuable.

“It’s worth its weight in gold,” he said about potential court challenges to confessions.

Police Chief Charles Korman of Murrysville, another Pittsburgh suburb, does not think it’s necessary to record all custodial interrogations.

“Each interrogation is fluid; you have to respond to the personality of a suspect being interrogated,”said Chief Korman.

Allegheny County Police Chief Charles Moffatt declined to identify the policies of his department, other than to say his detectives follow the law.

In the City of Pittsburgh, detectives ask all suspects in major crimes if they can record interrogations. If the suspect refuses, then detectives conduct un-recorded interviews.

Sometimes, as in the investigation of Mr. Cox, they will interrogate a suspect for several hours, and then tape a short statement. Assistant Chief Nate Harper did not respond to written questions.

While Steven Drizin, Legal Director of the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University and an expert in false confessions understands the situations police find themselves in, he believes recording interrogations every time will protect both parties, and ensure justice.

“The interrogation often becomes an exercise in trying to confirm the suspicion that the suspect is guilty, rather than trying to figure out the truth,” he said.

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