Friday, February 21, 2014

New York Court: Some Police Lies Go Too Far

The interrogation room, from Scenes of a Crime
Update: After the New York Court of Appeals overturned Adrian Thomas’s conviction, prosecutors decided to retry him even though they could no longer use evidence of his interrogation against him. On June 12, 2014, a Rensselaer County jury acquitted Thomas, freeing him after five-and-a-half years in custody. (See Jury (Predictably) Acquits Defendant in 'Scenes of a Crime' Retrial.)

Scenes of a Crime is an absorbing documentary by Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh about the 2008 interrogation of a man accused of killing his infant son. As you watch it, you pretty much know it won’t end happily. Nevertheless, you can’t help but hold out until the guilty verdict. (See Criminal Injustice Up Close.)

The last hope for Adrian Thomas—and to a much lesser extent, followers of the film—was New York’s highest appellate court, the Court of Appeals. And on Thursday, over five years after the film’s events, that court came through. It unanimously held that the videotaped interrogation of the unsophisticated man was so duplicitous that it rendered his “confession” involuntary. The court therefore granted his motion to suppress the interview and ordered that he receive a new trial.  

Death of a Child

Thomas and his wife lived in Troy, New York, in a small apartment with seven children. On the morning of September 21, 2008, his wife found the youngest of those children, four-month-old Matthew, unresponsive and limp. Emergency personnel rushed to the home and whisked the baby away. Matthew, brain dead, would eventually die in the hospital.

Because of an emotional doctor’s immediate conclusion that someone “murdered” Matthew, the police believed that someone had fractured the baby’s skull. They approached the interrogation under this faulty premise. Even after they learned that the child’s skull actually wasnt fractured, they clung to their belief in Thomas’s guilt. (The cause of Matthew’s death is still in disputedoctors didn't agree whether it was sepsis or blunt force trauma.)

Deceptive Tactics

Though Thomas consistently denied having anything to do with his son’s death, he eventually caved to the pressures of the interrogating officers. Not even the film can convey the full extent of their lies and Thomas’s emotional state during the two-session, nine-and-a-half-hour interview. But, among the officers’ most egregious transgressions were:
  • telling Thomas that his wife had blamed him for Matthew’s alleged injuries (she hadn't)
  • threatening to arrest and hold Thomas’s wife responsible for the death
  • imploring Thomas to confess in order to save Matthew's life, even though the child was dead
  • repeatedly suggesting to him that they would free him if he confessed, and
  • coaching him through his admission in order to suit it to their theory of the death.
Here’s a taste of their deception, from yesterday’s Court of Appeals opinion:

"SERGEANT MASON: The doctors need to know this. Do you want to save your baby’s life, alright? Do you want to save your baby’s life or do you want your baby to die tonight?

"DEFENDANT: No, I want to save his life.

"SERGEANT MASON: Are you sure about that? Because you don’t seem like you want to save your baby’s life right now. You seem like you’re beating around the bush with me.

"DEFENDANT: I’m not lying.

SERGEANT MASON: You better find that memory right now, Adrian. You’ve got to find that memory. This is important for your son’s life, man. You know what happens when you find that memory? 

Maybe if we get this information, okay, maybe he’s able to save your son’s life. Maybe your wife forgives you for what happened. Maybe your family lives happier ever after.

“But you know what, if you can’t find that memory and those doctors can’t save your son’s life, then what kind of future are you going to have? Where’s it going to go? What’s going to happen if Matthew dies in that hospital tonight, man?"

Adrian Thomas and his lawyers, from Scenes of a Crime

State of the Law

Thursday’s ruling applies only to the State of New York, and it doesn’t prevent officers from carrying on the tradition of lying to suspects. Nor does it establish that the trial judge should have allowed a defense expert to testify about the psychology of false confessions and interrogation techniques. It doesn’t even acquit Adrian Thomas, who remains in jail pending a potential retrial. (Good luck with that, Rensselaer County District Attorney’s Office.)

Yet, the ruling does show that there’s a point at which law enforcement deceit becomes sufficiently oppressive to defeat the suspect’s free will. At that point, when there is “a substantial risk of false incrimination,” some courts will step in.