The New York Times' City Room blog argued this week for recording interrogations, supplying this anecdote related to a false confession in a high-profile NY arson case:
Esposito got lucky, but the tactics that caused his false confession are common as dirt and used in police departments everywhere in the United States. The key to the interrogation error appears to be that police told him what to say instead of asking him what happened. If it's true that "The police officers told him that the best way to help himself was to confess, say it was an accident and be very remorseful," then it would be possible to go back later and identify such moments to the jury to explain an otherwise inexplicable statement against one's own interests.
As an example of how the police can coax false confessions, the commission made available a videotape of Frank Esposito, who as a 17-year-old was arrested and charged with arson in a fire at Bergen Beach Stables, which killed 21 horses in 2000.
He was later acquitted in a jury trial when the defense showed cellphone records that indicated he was nowhere near the stable at the time of the fire.
The taped confession shown in the video came at the end of a 18-hour interrogation where Mr. Esposito was told he had failed a polygraph test, said Nicholas A. Gravante Jr., a trial lawyer at Boies, Schiller & Flexner who represented Mr. Esposito. The police officers told him that the best way to help himself was to confess, say it was an accident and be very remorseful. “He believed that once he confessed to starting the fire accidentally, he would be released,” Mr. Gravante said. Instead, he was arrested and charged with arson. “No one gets charged with intentional arson for accidentally starting a fire.”
Mr. Gravante said that videotaping the interrogation process would document how such confessions were arrived at. “You don’t have to tell the suspect that the interrogation is being recorded. But there should be a camera in every police precinct recording every minute of an interrogation so that later on, if there’s a dispute about what happened, both the police and the suspect are protected.”
Mr. Gravante said he thought the defense case would be immensely difficult to make once he saw the taped confession. Mr. Esposito, however, turned down a plea bargain of probation because, he said, he was innocent.
His parents mortgaged their house to pay for this defense — about $150,000. In reality the defense cost the firm, with the experts and lawyers’ time, about $500,000.
Mr. Gravante said that once the phone records came back showing Mr. Esposito was not near the stable at the time of the fire, the head of the law firm, David Boies, did not hesitate. Mr. Gravante said that Mr. Boies’s instruction was: “I don’t care what kind of resources you put into the case. Win that case.”
Most people would have taken the plea deal, Mr. Gravante said. “How many people have $150,000 to spend on a defense? How many people are savvy enough to hire a top trial firm, which actually provided a $500,000 defense for $150,000?”
The tactic in this case is a core component of the so-called Reid technique which defines the epitome of modern American police interrogation practices: Convince the suspect they have no other choice but to confess, even if in order to do so police must lie, threaten or bully the suspect when they try to exercise other options (like refusing to answer questions).
Recording interrogations would discourage disreputable interrogation tactics, protect real confessions from challenge in court, and help identify false ones after the fact - there's really very little downside beyond the possible (and de minimus) expense. While there may be some opposition up front, my guess is that - just like with the dashcams and body mics used by most Texas officers performing traffic stops - once recordings become common detectives would appreciate and rely on them. Indeed, there's a good argument that recording interrogations would more frequently harm the defendants' interests than the police - it would certainly make it more difficult to claim confessions were coerced, e.g., if it wasn't true.
Improving accuracy and evidence preservation does not benefit either the prosecution or the defense per se, it just enhances the integrity of the system and the accuracy of its results.
BLOGVERSATION: Scott Greenfield correctly points out that it wasn't just "luck" that got an acquittal for Esposito, it was top flight legal representation.