Videotaping police interrogations isn’t enough: Part I

Squawkers and others have been agitating for years to make the cops videotape police interrogations. Not just the final confession, but the whole thing, including all that “small talk” the cops always say they spent six hours engaging in before the defendant “willingly agreed to speak to us.”

In 2008, the Troy Police Department videotaped the whole interrogation of Adrian Thomas.  The tape shows Adrian with cops in his face for 9 hours, not including a 15-hour intermission in a secure mental health facility where they took him because he was so depressed.

And no wonder.  Adrian and his wife had awakened that morning to find their 4-month old son barely breathing.  They immediately called 911 and the baby was rushed to the hospital. Although he showed no signs of abuse or neglect,  Child Protective Services swooped down on the Thomas household a few hours later and hauled away their six other children. Adrian was invited to the police station for questioning. He ended up charged with murder.

At trial the court and jury saw the cops on videotape telling Adrian (falsely) that the baby’s skull had been fractured by some tremendous force and that it was either murder or an accident. Maybe Adrian dropped the baby without noticing, they say.  If he tells them about it, he won’t be arrested. He’ll go home tonight.

Adrian was 25 years old,  with no criminal record. He and his wife had worked in a chicken processing plant in rural Georgia before coming north to Troy. He’s ready to believe whatever the cops tell him, but he doesn’t see how anyone could drop a baby on its head without noticing. “Blood would be everywhere,” he points out.  “Babies’ heads are very soft, very pliable, so the skin doesn’t break,” the cops explain. “People drop babies all the time.” “I didn’t know that,” says Adrian.

The cops threaten to arrest Adrian’s wife if he won’t tell them about the “accident.” They’ll go “scoop her up” right now. No, no, no, says Adrian. “I’ll take the fall.”  The cops suggest that while half asleep he bumped the baby’s head when putting him into the crib. Yes, that’s probably what happened,  Adrian agrees.  He says he feels like jumping off a bridge.

The cops take him to the hospital where he’s placed in a secure unit for observation. When he’s discharged 15 hours later, the cops are waiting.

The interrogation continues for 7 more hours. Adrian is by now convinced that he must have bumped the baby’s head against the crib, or maybe against his own head. He knows he didn’t do anything intentional. Of course not, says the cop. I’m going to tell the court it was an accident. Just sign this statement.

As soon as Adrian signs, Officer Badcop who’s been monitoring the videotaping from the next room bursts in and yells at Adrian that he’s lying. “I was a Marine corpsman in Operation Desert Storm!” he shouts.  “I saw the X-rays at the hospital and you’re lying! The cause of death was rapid acceleration and rapid deceleration!”

After the war hero leaves, Officer Goodcop says he’s deeply hurt that Adrian lied to him and violated their “trust relationship.” “I’m your only hope,” the cop says over and over.  He completely believes  it was an accident.  Adrian must have blacked out, he explains. He must have repressed the memory.  He’s suffering from post-partum depression — men get that too, you know — that made him unable to control his body. He knows Adrian would never have intentionally injured his son. But other people might not be so understanding. They might charge him with murder. That’s why Adrian needs to admit to Officer Goodcop that he slammed the baby down hard.  He’ll go to the District Attorney and see that Adrian isn’t charged with a crime.  After all, it wasn’t a crime, so long as it wasn’t intentional.

The cop demonstrates how Adrian must have thrown the baby down.  He has Adrian stand up and throw a binder to the floor as hard as he can. The videotape ends with the cop still assuring him that he’s not under arrest.

There’s one little problem:  there was no head trauma.  No fractures, no abrasions, no nothing. Two leading medical specialists testified at trial that the baby died of natural causes. The medical records, beginning with the mother’s pregnancy complications and the baby’s premature birth, showed that he died of a systemic and chronic infection.

The judge saw the whole videotape and thought the interrogation was A-ok. He wouln’t let the defense call Dr. Richard Ofshe to testify about police interrogation techniques and false confessions. False confession research is all anecdotal,  he sneered.  Besides, the jury could see the videotape for itself.

The jury thought it was rather bad of the police to lie, but the sight of Adrian throwing a binder to the floor was enough to make them ignore the medical evidence.

All of this is in a recent documentary called “Scenes of a Crime” which we saw a few months ago, shortly after the appeal was argued in the Appellate Division, Third Department, a judicial district that appears to encompass all of New York that isn’t NYC or Canada.  The decision written by Justice Spain agrees that the interrogation was tickety-boo, commenting on how “friendly and supportive” the police were.  People v. Thomas (AD3 2012).

As for sleep deprivation over a 40-hour period, Justice Spain figures out the number of hours Adrian could have slept. We’re not making this up.  He applies the following arithmetic: After the ambulance took away Adrian’s barely-breathing baby,  he most likely went back to bed and had a good snooze until Child Protective Services came for the rest of the kids (9 hours).  With the house nice and quiet, he probably felt like catching 40 winks until the cops came to take him to the precinct (5 hours). When, after the first round of interrogation, the cops took him to the hospital because he felt like jumping off a bridge, what better place to slumber than the Crisis Center while waiting to be admitted (4 hours). Okay, so the mental health unit records show that for the 12 hours he was under observation he slept only intermittently for a total of an hour and 45 minutes.  But nobody denied  “requests for sleep” did they?

Not content with this presumption of narcolepsy, Justice Spain opines that Adrian wasn’t “particularly distraught” because the tape shows “only a few brief episodes of crying.” This in a country where no man over the age of 6 is allowed to cry.  Otherwise we might have had Senator Muskie for president instead of Nixon.

We called up the defense lawyer. “The Pain in Spain sends justice Mainly down the Drain,” he said disgustedly.

(To be continued)

About Appellate Squawk

A satirical blog for criminal defense lawyers and their friends who won't give up without a squawk.
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6 Responses to Videotaping police interrogations isn’t enough: Part I

  1. Pingback: Videotaping police interrogations isn’t enough: Part 2 | appellatesquawk

  2. Pingback: It’s a Long Road to Better | The Agitator

  3. Lawyer P. Anonomouskowitz says:

    At the risk of providing a serious response to what may be hyperbole for the sake of humor, the Third Department is roughly the northeast third of NY state, territory wise. The Fourth Department is the western third of the state, the First Department is Bronx and Manhattan, the Second department is Brooklyn, Queens, LI and the southern counties. To translate that into terms more NYC-resident friendly, the First is where people work in NYC, the Second is where they commute from and/or go to the beach and the Third and Fourth are are what they mock when they want to feel sophisticated. So by territory the Third and Fourth are huge, but by population the First and Second are larger (I think).

    Also, having read the decision, it strikes me that if Thomas is wrongfully imprisoned, the problem isn’t with a failure of the court to properly implement the appellate process, but that the process itself is inadequate for weeding out false confessions and juries will give undue credit to those confessions. The appellate division will generally only step in if there was a technical failure by the lower court, or the verdict was obviously wrong. (Although I am biased, as I have practiced in the Troy/Albany area, and have found Judge Spain to be a particularly conscientious and compassionate Judge). Regarding the failure of the trial court to allow expert testimony regarding false confession, the appellate court cannot overturn this type of decision by the trial court unless it was an abuse of discretion (which is a high hurdle to meet).

    Regarding the question of what the cause of death was (and the verdict in general), the Appellate division can overturn a verdict that is against the “weight of the evidence”, but since it must give deference to the jury’s evaluation of credibility, when there is evidence which is facially credible on both sides of a particular question, the court would be obligated to defer to the jury’s evaluation. Since the prosecution presented the testimony of the treating physicians in support of its contention that the cause of death was head trauma, that seems to be the case here.


  4. Jay Seals says:

    So a confession by coercion, intimidation, antagonism, confusion, lying, misrepresentation, entrapment, misdirection and general falsehood… it’s perfectly admissible, even when any right-thinking average person can tell the difference between a false confession and a real one. Is that what we’re to take away from this? That the process is so utterly flawed that a jury will be exposed to erroneous material with the express intention of swaying their opinion? This isn’t justice; it’s padding numbers for conviction rates by any means necessary, even if those means are entirely unethical. If a person jumps up in a courtroom and begins shouting disruptively, the judge kicks them out. If evidence is proven to be corrupted, it gets expunged. If jury tampering is proven, the jury is dismissed. Isn’t a false/coerced confession a form of corrupted evidence, distraction AND jury tampering all rolled into one? If not, WHY not? How could anyone, most especially the judge, not recognize an atrocity like this for what it is and have it removed from the case? Or is the judge just as eager to see a conviction by any means possible as the prosecution?

    Nothing about this whole case seems right or just. From the very beginning it seems like the case took on a life of its own, diverging from justice at the onset, with a predisposition towards guilt set in stone at the word “go.” It’s situations like this that make people question the integrity of our law enforcement officers, lawyers and the entire judicial branch. And y’know what? They ought to.


  5. Pingback: Prosecutors’ junta gets coal in its stocking for Christmas | appellatesquawk

  6. Pingback: Albany Faces The Second Battle of the Lies | Simple Justice

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