Monday, October 27, 2008

The Importance Of Videotaping Police Interrogations

Radley Balko points to a Los Angeles Times editorial in which Washington, D.C. police Detective Jim Trainum wrote about the fallibility of suspect interrogations:
Even the suspect’s attorney later told me that she believed her client was guilty, based on the confession. Confident in our evidence and the confession, we charged her with first-degree murder.

Then we discovered that the suspect had an ironclad alibi. We subpoenaed sign-in/sign-out logs from the homeless shelter where she lived, and the records proved that she could not have committed the crime. The case was dismissed, but all of us still believed she was involved in the murder. After all, she had confessed.

Even though it wasn’t our standard operating procedure in the mid-1990s, when the crime occurred, we had videotaped the interrogation in its entirety. Reviewing the tapes years later, I saw that we had fallen into a classic trap. We ignored evidence that our suspect might not have been guilty, and during the interrogation we inadvertently fed her details of the crime that she repeated back to us in her confession.

If we hadn’t discovered and verified the suspect’s alibi — or if we hadn’t recorded the interrogation — she probably would have been convicted of first-degree murder and would be in prison today. The true perpetrator of the crime was never identified, partly because the investigation was derailed when we focused on an innocent person.

To which Balko adds:
If by-the-books interrogations like Trainum’s can elicit a false confession, it isn’t difficult to see how more coercive questioning could as well. California’s legislature has twice passed a bill requiring the police to videotape interrogations. Both bills were vetoed by Gov. Schwarzenegger after lobbying from the state’s police and prosecutors. A third attempt to pass a bill died in committee this year.

Though this sensible policy has yet to be implemented in California, Barack Obama was able to get a similar law enacted during his tenure as an Illinois state senator:
Consider a bill into which Obama clearly put his heart and soul. The problem he wanted to address was that too many confessions, rather than being voluntary, were coerced -- by beating the daylights out of the accused.

Obama proposed requiring that interrogations and confessions be videotaped.

This seemed likely to stop the beatings, but the bill itself aroused immediate opposition. There were Republicans who were automatically tough on crime and Democrats who feared being thought soft on crime. There were death penalty abolitionists, some of whom worried that Obama's bill, by preventing the execution of innocents, would deprive them of their best argument. Vigorous opposition came from the police, too many of whom had become accustomed to using muscle to "solve" crimes. And the incoming governor, Rod Blagojevich, announced that he was against it.

Obama had his work cut out for him.

Continue reading.

Hopefully, Obama will get a chance to bring this kind of transparency to the federal government. After 8 years of extreme secrecy under Bush, we need it.

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