February 22, 2014

How Much Lying Is Too Much Lying? The Court of Appeals Speaks

In mid-January I wrote here about a pair of cases that were being argued before New York's Court of Appeal (the state's high court) that tackled the question: when does lying to suspects during police questioning cross the line from clever interrogation to coercing involuntary confessions.  I wrote at that time:
New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals, heard arguments yesterday in appeals from two different murder cases that concern the same fundamental question: how much deception can the police engage in when questioning a suspect. It is a question of particular interest in view of high profile cases like the Central Park Five, which concern false confessions. The general rule is that the police can lie to suspects, but not to such an extent that the officers' deception will cause the suspect to falsely admit guilt or give a confession that is not voluntary. The difficulties in determining where the line lies are obvious. The lack of guidance creates obvious difficulties for the police in knowing how far they can push to coerce an admission, and for the courts in evaluating the reliability of the confessions after the fact.
In the first of the two cases, Adrian Thomas was interrogated at length by police in Troy, New York, after his infant son was taken to a hospital, where doctors found he was suffering from severe head trauma and called the police.  Thomas was questioned for two days, during which the officers used various approaches to obtain a confession. For instance, they repeatedly said they considered the boy's condition to be an accident and assured Thomas he would not be arrested if he just acknowledged what had happened. They also threatened to arrest his wife if he did not come clean, and told him that his son (whom doctors had already declared to be brain dead) could die if Thomas did not describe how he caused the injuries. Eventually, Thomas admitted he had thrown the infant onto a bed several times and struck the baby’s head accidentally against his crib. The confession was used against Thomas to convict him of murder by depraved indifference. Thomas was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. The conviction and sentence were upheld on appeal, with the court ruling that the tactics used by the police “were not of the character as to induce a false confession.”
The New York Court of Appeals has just ruled on Thomas, reversing the conviction and remanding the case to the trial court for retrial or dismissal.

The unanimous decision was not entirely unexpected. The Court seemed bothered by the line of interrogation in which the police told Thomas, in essence, "your child will die if you don't talk to us." Putting aside that Thomas's son had already died, that sort of pressure led the Court to conclude that police “completely undermined” Thomas’ right to remain silent using “highly coercive deceptions.”

To be clear, the Court did not outlaw deception in interrogations, and it chose not to set any bright-line rules going forward. In essence, the Court reiterated that lying is okay but unfettered pressure was unacceptable. A more coherent rule may have been more helpful for police departments and their investigating officers, prosecutors and defense attorneys, as well as trial and appellate judges. But, if nothing else, officers will be more careful in their approach to interrogations, and this is ultimately a good thing.

2 comments:

  1. The documentary “SCENES OF A CRIME” features long video excerpts from the Adrian Thomas interrogation, and tells the story of this disturbing investigation, the medical revelations that called the “confession” into doubt, and the flawed criminal trial (now overturned by the new ruling). The American Bar Association honored the film. You can watch it online.

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