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Embracing Technology Can Reduce False Convictions

At least 20 states already require videotaping custodial interrogations. But some states, including New York, still lag behind. This must change.

Cross­pos­ted on Huff­ing­ton Post

On July 11th, the U.S. Depart­ment of Justice will insti­tute a new policy estab­lish­ing “a presump­tion” that U.S. attor­neys and federal agents will elec­tron­ic­ally record state­ments made by indi­vidu­als in their custody. This is a smart step. Requir­ing recor­ded inter­rog­a­tion is now the norm, rather than the excep­tion across much of the U.S.: at least 20 states and the District of Columbia already require video­tap­ing custodial inter­rog­a­tions. But some states, includ­ing New York, still lag behind. This must change.

Scientific and tech­no­lo­gical advances in the last two decades have revo­lu­tion­ized soci­ety, and the law enforce­ment and crim­inal justice arenas are no excep­tions. The police rely more on soph­ist­ic­ated surveil­lance tech­no­logy in an era of increased anti-narcot­ics and coun­terter­ror­ism efforts; GPS tech­no­logy allows the rapid dispatch of police closest to an emer­gency; and advances in forensic science, partic­u­larly DNA evid­ence, have resul­ted in more accur­ate convic­tions and exon­er­a­tions.

New York has been at the fore­front of imple­ment­ing many of these advances. So it may come as a surprise that the state has failed to embrace video­tap­ing of inter­rog­a­tions – now a decades-old tech­no­logy. The New York State legis­lature has consist­ently failed to pass legis­la­tion mandat­ing video­tap­ing of inter­rog­a­tions, even though bills have been intro­duced for over a decade.

New York State should require record­ing of inter­rog­a­tions for two very simple reas­ons. First, it makes poli­cing more accur­ate. It’s a valu­able tool to substan­ti­ate correct convic­tions, and minim­ize wrong­ful convic­tions. This can help enhance communit­ies’ faith in police and the crim­inal justice process. Indeed, twenty years’ worth of social science research on false confes­sions indic­ates that having recor­ded inter­rog­a­tions would dramat­ic­ally increase the abil­ity of prosec­utors, invest­ig­at­ors, jurors and judges to assess the valid­ity of a confes­sion.

Second, it is neces­sary because research indic­ates that false confes­sions are quite common; nation­wide, 28% of the DNA exon­er­a­tions involved a false confes­sion or admis­sion, and in New York State, 44 percent of recent DNA exon­er­a­tions involved a false confes­sion or a false admis­sion.

Video-recor­ded inter­rog­a­tions can help avert cata­strophes of justice like the infam­ous Cent­ral Park Five case, which resul­ted in false confes­sions for the five defend­ants, who were later exon­er­ated. Even though the defend­ants confessed on camera, the inter­rog­a­tions were not video­taped. This was crucial because they had been subject to up to 30 hours of inter­rog­a­tion and received decade-long sentences. Another man’s confes­sion and DNA evid­ence later led to their sentences being vacated, but not until their lives had been perman­ently altered.

Many of New York State’s top offi­cials agree. A 2012 task force headed by Chief Judge Jonathan Lipp­man of the New York Court of Appeals recom­men­ded that custodial inter­rog­a­tions of suspects involved in seri­ous crimes should be recor­ded. And, just last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo, in his annual State of the State address, called on Albany lawmakers to pass legis­la­tion to video­tape inter­rog­a­tions in an effort to prevent wrong­ful convic­tions and strengthen the crim­inal justice system.

Most import­antly, those on the front lines – the police – recog­nize the signi­fic­ant value in record­ing inter­rog­a­tions. That’s why even in the absence of a state require­ment, former New York City Police Depart­ment Commis­sioner Raymond Kelly imple­men­ted a policy requir­ing the coun­try’s largest, most soph­ist­ic­ated and most tech­no­lo­gic­ally-advanced police force to record inter­rog­a­tions in murder, assault and sexual assault cases. Kelly’s reform, along with then-Mayor Michael Bloomber­g’s pledge to support it with public money was a big step forward.

But a year after Kelly pledged the depart­ment would begin video­tap­ing inter­rog­a­tions from start to finish in murder and sex crimes, two-thirds of detect­ive squads in the city had not yet begun record­ing inter­rog­a­tions of any kind. Accord­ing to the police depart­ment’s former chief spokes­man, John J. McCarthy, as of Octo­ber 2013, only 28 detect­ive squads of the more than 76 across Manhat­tan had an inter­view room set up with record­ing equip­ment.

Record­ing of inter­rog­a­tions is effect­ive, neces­sary, and fisc­ally respons­ible – it can save millions the state currently pays out in civil lawsuits. It is required by many other states and endorsed by the most senior offi­cials in New York State. Mandat­ing record­ing for all crimes would go a long way toward improv­ing justice in New York. Current New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and New York City Police Depart­ment Commis­sioner William Brat­ton should build on their prede­cessors’ efforts. But what’s really needed to real­ize these bene­fits is a little cour­age from legis­lat­ors in Albany.

(Photo: Morgue­File/JPPI)