March 14, 2010

Police interrogations: AP-LS issues landmark white paper

Boy's "psychological torture" points to need for reform

In 1998, the Crowe family in Escondido, California awakened to their worst nightmare. Twelve-year-old Stephanie was lying in a pool of blood on her bedroom floor, dead from multiple stab wounds. Police quickly zeroed in on a suspect -- Stephanie's 14-year-old brother Michael. After a series of grueling interrogations, Michael ultimately admitted he may have killed his sister. He and two friends were arrested for murder.

Only through serendipity were the boys' charges dismissed more than a year later, when DNA evidence proved that a mentally ill transient had committed the murder. That man, Richard Tuite, was ultimately convicted of manslaughter.

Now, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has reinstituted the families' civil rights case against the police, dismissed by a federal judge several years ago. Writing for the three-judge panel, Justice Sidney R. Thomas described the shocking nature of the interrogations:
One need only read the transcripts of the boys' interrogations, or watch the videotapes, to understand how thoroughly the defendants' conduct in this case "shocks the conscience." Michael and Aaron [Houser] -- 14 and 15 years old, respectively -- were isolated and subjected to hours and hours of interrogation during which they were cajoled, threatened, lied to, and relentlessly pressured by teams of police officers. "Psychological torture" is not an inapt description.
"Psychological torture" and "brutal and inhumane" were descriptions given by a juror in the real killer's criminal trial after he viewed the videotaped interrogations. (I show the heartwrenching video, which is no longer available commercially, in my forensic courses.) Dr. Richard Leo, an expert in coerced confessions and author of Police Interrogation and American Justice (read my review HERE), echoed the juror's sentiments, describing Michael's interrogation as "the most psychologically brutal interrogation and tortured confession that I have ever observed." So did Dr. Calvin Colarusso, Director of Child Psychiatry Residence Training Program at the University of California, San Diego, who evaluated Michael and described the interrogation as "the most extreme form of emotional child abuse that I have ever observed in my nearly 40 years of observing and working with children and adolescents."

The appellate victory will allow the families' federal civil rights case to move forward to a jury trial or a settlement. In an interesting angle, the justices also reinstated the claim against a psychologist whom police consulted during the interrogation. The plaintiffs allege that Dr. Lawrence "Deadlift" Blum, a police psychologist, conspired with Escondido police, helping them formulate a "tactical plan" that they followed in their interrogation. Blum admitted in a deposition that he told a police detective that 15-year-old Aaron Houser, Michael's friend, was a "Charlie Manson wannabe."

The ruling coincides with publication of a landmark article sponsored by the American Psychology-Law Society (AP-LS) on the scientific status of coerced interrogations and false confessions. The article, written by leading scholars Saul M. Kassin, Steven A. Drizin, Thomas Grisso, Gisli H. Gudjonsson, Richard A. Leo, and Allison D. Redlich and published in this month's Law & Human Behavior after an extensive process of vetting and review, is only the second such paper authorized by AP-LS in its 42-year history. The first was a 1998 white paper on eyewitness identification. As William C. Thompson, criminology and law professor at the University of California at Irvine, notes in the introduction to the special issue:
That paper (Wells, Small, Penrod, Malpass, Fulero, & Brimacombe, 1998) proved extremely influential in subsequent policy debates about line-ups and other eyewitness identification procedures. By providing an intellectual framework for analysis of systemic factors that affect eyewitness accuracy, and by distilling specific policy recommendations from a broad array of research, it set the agenda for policy discussion and channeled those discussions in productive directions. The paper was the foundation for a subsequent National Institute of Justice policy paper. Many of its recommendations, such as procedures for composing line-ups and instructing witnesses, are beginning to be implemented nationwide.
The AP-LS hopes the current review article will have a similar effect on the field. After methodically reviewing the state of the science, the authors make a number of critical recommendations for reform aimed at reducing the number of false and/or coerced confessions. These include:
  • Mandatory electronic recording of interrogations, with the camera angle focused equally on the suspects and detectives
  • Limits on the duration of interrogations
  • Limits on the presentation of false information and evidence
  • Special protections for vulnerable suspects, including juveniles and those with cognitive and/or psychiatric impairments
  • Scrutiny of "minimization" tactics, in which police pursue "themes" that minimize suspects' perceived moral, psychological, and/or legal culpability
Michael Crowe's exoneration came about as a result of what author Edwin Borchard described in a 1932 tome on wrongful convictions as "sheer good luck." The scholars who collaborated on this white paper hope that their recommendations will reduce the role of such serendipity, by giving police, prosecutors, judges, and juries the scientific information necessary to reduce egregious injustices like the one in Escondido 12 years ago.

Images: (1) Michael Crowe's interrogation, (2) Richard Tuite, the real killer, (3) Michael Crowe with his sisters; Stephanie is on the left.

Hat tip: Adam Alban