October 29, 2008

The case for videotaping interrogations

Detective's candid call for reform
I've been a police officer for 25 years, and I never understood why someone would admit to a crime he or she didn't commit. Until I secured a false confession in a murder case.

So begins a Los Angeles Times opinion piece by Jim Trainum, a Washington DC police detective who runs a cold case unit and lectures on interrogations and false confessions and other police investigation topics.

Like most people, Trainum was firmly convinced that only the guilty confess to crimes. And, like most police, he believed his suspect's confession - obtained without threats or abuse - was "solid."

Even after an "ironclad alibi" forced dismissal of charges, the detective and others continued for years to think she was guilty: After all, she had confessed. And even her own attorney thought she was guilty of killing the man, who had been robbed, beaten, and dumped in a river.

Trainum's thinking underwent a dramatic change only years later, when he reviewed the videotape of the mid-1990s confession in light of more contemporary understanding of false confessions:

"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," he realized.

Trainum's op ed, focusing on the need to videotape interrogations, is here.

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