July 15, 2014

More Money for More False Confessions

Juries love confessions. Sure, DNA evidence is compelling stuff, and it's hard to argue with quality video footage. But there's no getting around the power of an "I did it, I killed her" sort of confession, testified to by a veteran detective, trained in the art of giving testimony. If you believe the witness, it means that the defendant has said out loud that he committed the crime, and, as any person would agree, nobody would own up to a crime they hadn't committed. Yet, as has been written about in this blog before, it is becoming increasingly obvious that people can and do give false confessions.

For instance, the stories of Adrian Thomas, and others (see here and here) are examples of how coercive police tactics can obtain confessions of guilt from innocent people. This is not to say that confessions are meaningless; far from it. But we know too much about the persuasive power of skilled interrogators and general human frailty to not insist on a healthy does of skepticism.

Last week, New York's Appellate Division upheld an award of $5.5 million for a man whose coerced confession caused him to be imprisoned for more than 9 years. He lost his wife, his career, and children. The money, which is a substantial award by New York's Court of Claim standards (as partially reflected by Jabbar Collins's settlement for $3 million for 16 years), does not come close to making up for his losses.

On August 20, 1996, Daniel Gristwood was convicted of the attempted murder of his wife. The conviction was based almost entirely on his confession. Gristwood, who was 29 years old when he was arrested, was sentenced to a term of 12 1/2 to 25 years imprisonment. His wife -- who did not remember the hammer attack that left her brain damaged, assumed the confession was true and accurate -- divorced him, and his relationship with his five children, who went to live with her family, was shattered.

The only problem was that the crime was committed by another person altogether. Gristwood's conviction was vacated in 2005 and he was released in 2006. His wrongful imprisonment claims against the State were bifurcated, with the Court of Claims finding liability in 2011 and then awarding him $5.5 million for his lost liberty, emotional injuries, and pecuniary damages.

The State of New York, ever sensitive to the harms inflicted on the clearly innocent Gristwood appealed both findings. On July 11, 2014, the appellate court affirmed across the board.

One argument advanced by New York was that Gristwood brought about his own conviction (a finding that would render New York's wrongful imprisonment statute unavailable). The Court sensibly rejected that argument, finding that "the record fully supports the court’s determination that claimant’s inculpatory statement was the product of police misconduct." To reach that conclusion, the Court pointed out that:
Claimant was awake for 34 hours before making his only inculpatory statement, which was the second statement he made. He had been interrogated for 15 hours in a six- by eight-foot windowless room. He ate nothing and drank only one can of soda and, although he was a heavy smoker, he had no cigarettes in the prior four or five hours. He remained under the severe emotional trauma of having seen his wife in a horrible bloodied and battered condition. Claimant was advised that, if he took a polygraph exam and passed, he would be permitted to go home.
Notably, the polygraph operator expressed significant concern to fellow officers about the reliability of the polygraph exam because claimant was “somewhat physiologically unresponsive to the polygraph.”  The operator acknowledged that claimant was trying not to fall asleep during the exam. Claimant experienced severe chest pains during the exam. Nevertheless, after the polygraph exam, the interrogation took on an increasingly aggressive and hostile tone, and claimant was told by the police that he was “lying.” Claimant’s inculpatory statement was made after he was threatened that he would never see his family again if he did not cooperate.
Thus, the Court concluded, Gristwood's statement was involuntarily, The Court then reviewed the Court of Claims' ruling on damages and found no reason to set it aside.

The point here is that a man confessed to the horrific crime of beating his wife bloody with a hammer when he had done no such thing. This is further evidence that admissions of guilt are not -- contrary to assumption -- inherently reliable. Under Federal Rule of Evidence 804(b)(3), hearsay "statements against interest," meaning admissions of wrongdoing, are admissible in court as an exception to the bar on hearsay, precisely because the rule assumes that the declarant would not have made the inculpatory statement if it were not true. In other words, nobody says "I did it" when they didn't do it. Yet, the irrefutable evidence is mounting that they do.

It is a further reason why interrogations should be video recorded at all times with start and stop times carefully logged. It is also a good argument for allowing expert testimony on the hows and whys of false confessions.

Juries love confessions. They are damning evidence of guilt that can, as in Gristwood's case, secure a conviction even when there is no other evidence. Since we now know that these confessions may be less than reliable, basic fairness and concern for the truth-seeking function of the criminal trial process militate in favor of educating juries appropriately. It is increasingly obvious that we need our juries to be both better educated on the subject and more skeptical of the theater.

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