June 26, 2007

Call for Greater Regulation of Police Interrogations

Thanks in part to DNA technology, public awareness is growing about the problem of coerced and unreliable confessions. Now, the New York Times has published an excellent op-ed calling for greater regulation of police interrogations. Here’s the entire June 24 piece:

Watching the Detectives


THIS month, a jury convicted Khemwatie Bedessie, a 38-year-old day
care worker, of raping and sexually abusing a 4-year-old boy she had
been babysitting - crimes she confessed to committing. She faces 25
years in prison.

But the basis for her conviction, a videotaped confession, is highly
dubious. Indeed the Bedessie case, like so many others before it,
points out the need for legislation that would prevent confessions
from being the sole reason for a conviction and that would require
the police to videotape all parts of an interrogation, including the
lead-up to a confession that could have been obtained by coercion.

The chilling charges against Ms. Bedessie have a suspect origin. In
the Queens courtroom, the boy's mother testified that after she
enrolled her son at Veda's Learning Center - where Ms. Bedessie
worked - when he was 2, she frequently asked him, "at random," if
anyone was sexually abusing him.

Last year, he developed a rash on his buttocks. Again the mother
asked if he'd been abused at Veda's. This time he said yes and named
Ms. Bedessie as the perpetrator, even though when he was later
examined at a hospital, no connection was found between the rash and
sexual abuse. The child said nothing about Ms. Bedessie when
questioned by the police. Still, Ms. Bedessie was arrested.

Aside from the fact that she does not fit the profile of someone who
would sexually abuse children - most offenders are men; and female
offenders are almost all teenagers, women who were egged on by men,
drug and alcohol abusers, or young teachers dallying with adolescent
students - there was no physical evidence of abuse and no direct
accusation by the boy.

It makes far more sense to attribute the boy's accusations to
suggestive questioning and false memory than to an actual crime. The
case against Ms. Bedessie was weak since the police had no physical
evidence of abuse. Indeed, it would probably have gone nowhere if
she'd insisted on her innocence.

Instead, she confessed, after three hours in custody. On videotape
she's calm and gives details like how the child touched her on her
breast; how she took him to a bathroom; and that the sex she had with
him lasted seven minutes.

But shortly after videotaping the confession, Ms. Bedessie said she'd
been coerced into making it. Is this claim believable, given the
graphic and convincing nature of her statement admitting to the
crime? Yes, just look at the false confession videos recorded in the
Central Park jogger case almost two decades ago.

The jogger tapes, too, are jaw-droppingly credible. The teenage boys,
who were convicted and imprisoned before a single assailant came
forward 13 years later and his DNA corroborated the claim, don't just
say they committed rape in their taped confessions. They describe the
color and texture of the victim's clothing. They quote insults they
uttered while attacking her. They list who raped her first, and who
went second and third. Meanwhile they calmly sip soda.

Who could imagine they weren't telling the truth? But, as experts
point out, false confessions can appear very real. And the techniques
used to produce them don't have to take much time. "I've seen
interrogations that led to false confessions which lasted less than
one hour," says a Northwestern University law professor, Steven
Drizin. In such a situation, he says, the defendant tends to be
"highly vulnerable or suggestible."

Ms. Bedessie fits the bill. An immigrant from Guyana, she's been in
the United States for only six years, and she has only a fifth-grade
education. Her language is Guyanese creole, and she struggles with
American English. The police detective, she said, told her he had a
tape of her assaulting the child. He told her she could go free if
she confessed, but if she didn't, she would be brutalized at Rikers.

"I will do anything he want so he will send me home," Ms. Bedessie
testified, recalling the interrogation.

The detective, in fact, did not have a tape of her assaulting the
child. Unfortunately, jurors take confessions at face value. They
simply cannot fathom that someone would say they committed a heinous
crime if they didn't.

Ms. Bedessie's conviction will probably be appealed. But however her
case is ultimately resolved in the courts, we'll likely never know
whether or not she was coerced.

There's a clear way to avoid confusion in the future: start
videotaping as soon as police questioning begins. The New York County
Lawyers' Association and the American Bar Association Section of
Criminal Justice recommends it. This is policy in many European
countries and the law in Illinois, Maine, New Mexico, Wisconsin and
the District of Columbia, and has been voluntarily adopted in 500
jurisdictions. But not in New York.

Albany is considering a bill to mandate videotaping of
interrogations. The Assembly has passed it; the Senate should as
well. Why? Because false confessions are real and innocent people are
jailed as a result. The evidence is overwhelming.

Debbie Nathan and Emily Horowitz are members of the board of the
National Center for Reason and Justice.

Reprinted with the written permission of Debbie Nathan and Emily Horowitz.