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Get it on tape

A false confession to murder convinced a cop that a visual record can help ensure an innocent person isn't convicted.

October 24, 2008|Jim Trainum | Jim Trainum is a detective in Washington's Metropolitan Police Department.

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.

I stepped into the interrogation room believing that we had evidence linking the suspect to the murder of a 34-year-old federal employee in Washington. I used standard, approved interrogation techniques -- no screaming or threats, no physical abuse, no 12-hour sessions without food or water. Many hours later, I left with a solid confession.

At first, the suspect couldn't tell us anything about the murder, and she professed her innocence. As the interrogation progressed, she became more cooperative, and her confession included many details of the crime. The suspect said she had beaten the man to death and dumped his body by a river. She said she made purchases with the victim's credit card and tried to withdraw cash using his ATM card. Surveillance video from the ATM showed a woman who resembled the suspect, and an expert said the signature on the credit card receipts was consistent with the suspect's handwriting.

Even the suspect's attorney later told me that she believed her client was guilty, based on the confession. Confident in our evidence and the confession, we charged her with first-degree murder.

Then we discovered that the suspect had an ironclad alibi. We subpoenaed sign-in/sign-out logs from the homeless shelter where she lived, and the records proved that she could not have committed the crime. The case was dismissed, but all of us still believed she was involved in the murder. After all, she had confessed.

Even though it wasn't our standard operating procedure in the mid-1990s, when the crime occurred, we had videotaped the interrogation in its entirety. Reviewing the tapes years later, I saw that we had fallen into a classic trap. 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.

If we hadn't discovered and verified the suspect's alibi -- or if we hadn't recorded the interrogation -- she probably would have been convicted of first-degree murder and would be in prison today. The true perpetrator of the crime was never identified, partly because the investigation was derailed when we focused on an innocent person.

The case was a turning point for me, personally and professionally. I still work as a police officer in Washington, but I also teach a class on interrogations and false confessions, and I work with law enforcement agencies nationwide to help them prevent false confessions.

I've learned that this is a nationwide problem. Of the 220 wrongful convictions in the U.S. that have been overturned based on DNA evidence, nearly 25% involved a false confession or false incriminating statements, according to the Innocence Project. In each of those cases, DNA proved that the confession was false.

Threats and coercion sometimes lead innocent people to confess, but even the calmest, most standardized interrogations can lead to a false confession or admission. Those who are mentally ill or mentally disabled may be particularly vulnerable, but anyone can be dazed when confronted by police officers who claim to hold unshakable evidence of one's guilt. Some confess to crimes because they want to please authority figures or to protect another person. Some actually come to believe they are guilty, or confess to do penance for some unrelated bad behavior. Innocent people come to believe that they will receive a harsher sentence -- even the death penalty -- if they don't confess.

Videotaping interrogations is proved to decrease wrongful convictions based on false confessions. When the entire interrogation is recorded, attorneys, judges and juries can see exactly what led to a confession. Police officers become better interviewers over time, as they review tapes of their interrogations, and confessions are easier to defend in court. The only police officers I've met who don't embrace recording interrogations are those who have never done it. Too many police officers still wrongly believe that recording interrogations will be logistically difficult and expensive, and that guilty suspects won't confess if they know they are being recorded.

More than 500 jurisdictions nationwide record interrogations, but only 10 states, plus the District of Columbia, mandate the practice. California's Legislature passed bills in 2006 and 2007 that would have required interrogations to be recorded. Both were vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. A third bill died in committee this year. California legislators should not give up. They must make this issue a priority and pass legislation to make our criminal justice system stronger and more accurate.

It may be impossible to fully understand why innocent people confess to crimes they didn't commit. What is undeniable is that some do -- and that we need to enact reforms to prevent more wrongful convictions and ensure that the right people pay for these crimes.

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