New York City

Police can lie to suspects during interrogations, says Court of Appeals

February 20, 2014 By Charisma L. Miller, Esq. Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Kings County Criminal Bar Association president reacts to ruling

Police can lie when interrogating suspects, but when the lies become “patently coercive,” any confession cannot be used as evidence, New York’s highest court ruled Thursday.

Ruling unanimously, the Court of Appeals threw out the murder conviction of 31-year-old Adrian Thomas, whose infant son died with a head injury and infection in 2008, and ordered a new trial without the Troy man’s purported confession.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman wrote that Troy investigators’ lies became “a set of highly coercive deceptions” as they tried for hours to coax a confession from Thomas.

Investigators told Thomas they would next pick up his wife if he didn’t confess to injuring his son. They told him that his child — though already brain dead, which Thomas didn’t know — would die if he didn’t explain how the boy hit his head, Lippman wrote. They also told Thomas 67 times it was an accident, 14 times that he wouldn’t be arrested, and eight times that he would be going home.

“It is well established that not all deception of a suspect is coercive, but in extreme forms it may be,” Lippman wrote. In Thomas’ case, the interrogation “completely undermined” his right to remain silent and not incriminate himself, the judge wrote.

Doctors at the trial disagreed over whether 4-month-old Matthew died from blunt force trauma or sepsis, a whole-body response to infection. Thomas and his wife have six other children. Lippman noted there was no evidence any of them had been abused or neglected.

“It is clear that defendant’s agreement to ‘take the fall’ — an immediate response to the threat against his wife — was pivotal,” the court concluded. “Another patently coercive representation,” repeated 21 times, “was that disclosure of the circumstances under which he injured his child was essential to assist the doctors attempting to save the child’s life.”

That may have been a valid waiver of his constitutional right against self-incrimination if it were true, but it wasn’t, Lippman wrote.

After four hours into his second interrogation, Thomas said that about 10 or 15 days earlier he accidentally dropped the boy 5 or 6 inches into his crib and he’d hit his head pretty hard. After Sgt. Adam Mason insisted it must have been harder, based on what the doctor said, Mason directed him to re-enact the incident, which was captured on the interrogation video.

Thomas has been in Auburn prison since 2009, sentenced to 25 years to life. Messages left for his attorneys and for Mason were not immediately returned.

Rensselaer County Acting District Attorney Art Glass said his office disagrees with the court’s reasoning and will explore options while preparing for a retrial. Thomas will be returned soon to county jail to await trial, he said.

The top court overturned rulings by both the trial judge and the mid-level Appellate Division in Albany.

During the oral argument phase of the case, Kings County Criminal Bar Association President Jay Schwitzman believed “the Court of Appeals will and should expand on that ruling and will curtail the use of deception by police interrogators.”  

Questioning the prevalence of false confessions that are at times deemed admissible at trial, Schwitzman suggested “[a]t the very least the courts should require full comprehensive videotaping of police interrogations.

“Full comprehensive videotaping means that taping begins from the start of a suspect’s interaction with interrogators and not when the detective determines that the suspect has rehearsed his confession and is ready to be taped.”

There have been a number of high-profile cases involving false confessions, most notably the Central Park Five case and the 1979 abduction and disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz.

“The Central Park Five case and the Etan Patz case are  the clearest examples that deception by police during interrogations leads to false confessions and that full comprehensive videotaping of interrogations is warranted,” Schwitzman told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

“In the Central Park Five case,  youths falsely confessed to raping the Central Park Jogger and were convicted and sentenced to jail.  The police used deception and that contributed to the false confessions.  In the Etan Patz case, Pedro Hernandez was arrested and interrogated in Camden County, N.J., a jurisdiction that requires full comprehensive videotaping of any interrogation.  Despite having the videotape equipment the tape was not turned on until hours after the interrogation began,” Schwitzman explained.

In a related case, the Court of Appeals upheld a mid-level court in Brooklyn in overturning Paul Aveni’s conviction for criminally negligent homicide after concluding police in New Rochelle implicitly threatened him with a homicide charge if his silence about his girlfriend’s drug use led to her death.

Aveni admitted injecting her with heroin. She had already died from an overdose that night on Jan. 12, 2009. Judge Eugene Pigott Jr. dissented, concluding the lower court should have reviewed police conduct and the entire case, “as opposed to cherry-picking a phrase or two from a comprehensive interrogation.”

“The goal of our justice system is to prevent wrongful convictions,” Schwitzman noted. “Any investigative technique that contributes to wrongful convictions should be banned.”

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