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Panel Urges Videotaping of Suspects' Confessions

June 22, 2006|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

A blue-ribbon commission that is examining California's criminal justice system was urged Wednesday to recommend that police videotape all interrogations of crime suspects in custody.

Among those who spoke at the three-hour hearing in support of the recommendation were two men who spent years in prison for crimes they did not commit, as well as a former federal prosecutor and an American Civil Liberties Union representative.

No one spoke against the idea, but two law enforcement officials told the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice that recording interrogations could be impossible in some circumstances, such as when someone was caught in a remote area.

The commission, whose chairman is former California Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, is considering a proposal that police agencies in California videotape custodial interrogations, or when video is impractical, audiotape them. He said he expected the commission to make final recommendations in about a month.

The Legislature also is considering a bill introduced by state Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara) that would require electronic recording of all custodial interrogations relating to violent crimes. The bill calls for video recording of questioning related to homicides. The bill passed the Senate but remains in an Assembly committee because of concerns about its implementation cost.

In addition, the commission is considering proposals to change California law mandating that juries be given cautionary instructions about accepting the validity of confessions that have not been electronically recorded.

Christopher Ochoa and Harold Hall explained why.

Ochoa, who spent 12 years in prison for a murder he did not commit in Texas, and Hall, who spent 19 years in prison for a double murder he did not commit in Los Angeles, told the commission that they had been browbeaten into confessing.

They said that if authorities had been required to videotape the confessions, enabling a defense attorney or a judge to see the tape later, the chances of abusive conduct by police investigators would have been reduced.

University of San Francisco law professor Richard A. Leo, a coauthor of two studies on false confessions, said that in the last 40 years, at least 200 false confession cases have been documented, and that "this is almost certainly the tip of a much larger iceberg."

"Interrogation-induced false confession is a leading cause of wrongful conviction in America," Leo told the hearing, held at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. In addition, Leo said, studies "tell us -- quite counter-intuitively -- that false confessions appear to occur primarily in the more serious cases, especially homicide and other high-profile felony cases."

More than 80% of the 125 false confessions documented in a study Leo co-wrote in 2004 occurred in homicide cases. And in cases documented by the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, false confessions led to more than two-thirds of the convictions overturned by DNA testing.

Leo said the primary reason innocent people falsely confess is "because of the use of psychologically coercive interrogation techniques and how they interact with a suspect's personality. Usually it is a combination of the two, though the primary cause is the interrogation methods that elicited the false confession."

False confessions have particularly devastating consequences because "confessions are the most incriminating and persuasive evidence of guilt that the state can bring against a defendant."

Research shows that "confessions exert a strong biasing effect on the perceptions and decision-making of criminal justice officials and lay jurors alike because most people assume that a confession -- especially a detailed confession -- is, by its very nature, true," Leo said.

Leo said studies also indicated that false confessions frequently came during particularly long interrogations when the suspect's resistance had been broken. Hall said he was questioned by four detectives in a small room for more than 17 hours before falsely confessing.

"My only goal was to survive and get out of that room. The only way was to tell them what they wanted to hear," said Hall, who works at the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. and has a federal civil rights suit pending against the Los Angeles Police Department.

Thomas P. Sullivan, a former U.S. attorney in Chicago who is a strong advocate of recording custodial interrogations, said that he had interviewed police officials across the country who had adopted the practice and that they had uniformly found it to be beneficial.

Among other things, Sullivan, now in private practice in Chicago, said police have told him that recording interrogations can help them withstand false allegations of misconduct. And the recordings can be used to improve police interrogation techniques, he said.

Eric Green, an ACLU attorney, said the commission's recommendations did not go far enough. Officers "should be trained that the purpose of an interrogation is to advance the investigation of the facts, not to secure a confessional statement from the suspect regardless of the truth."

Sgt. Frank Bell, of the homicide division of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, said that in some instances it would be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to videotape a suspect. He emphasized that San Bernardino is the largest county in square miles in the continental United States and that some areas are remote.

Sandra Lefler, the LAPD's legislative liaison, said after the hearing that the department has no written policy on recording custodial interrogations. She said it is "recommended, but not required."

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