As his defense lawyers were working to free Michael Morton from prison because of a wrongful conviction that raised questions of prosecutor misconduct, Austin police doctored a crime lab report to use during the interrogation of a suspect in a related case, the American-Statesman has learned.So if cops can lie, what's the problem here? Well, altering documentary evidence goes a bit beyond lying, and is clearly prohibited under not just one but two separate felony statutes. Thus, Chief Acevedo's artful attempt to re-frame the document as "an investigative prop," rather than an actual crime-lab report doctored to suit investigators' needs.
Austin police officials and Travis County prosecutors confirmed last week that they are looking into the techniques investigators used as they questioned Mark Alan Norwood during lengthy interviews in September.
The detectives used what Police Chief Art Acevedo called "an investigative prop" when seeking information from Norwood in the 1988 bludgeoning death of Debra Masters Baker in her home.
Officials at the state crime lab told Austin police cold case investigators that DNA tests had linked Norwood to the crime scene, officials said. But investigators did not yet have the written report, so they took a DNA report from a separate case, altered it to indicate it was from the Baker case and showed it to Norwood during the interrogation, officials said. Acevedo said the scientist who conducted the test also had authorized them to share the result.
Norwood didn't confess and has not been charged in Baker's death but remains a suspect, according to Austin police.
Norwood's lawyer and legal experts said they do not think the officers' actions will impede the case because Norwood did not confess, but several raised concerns about whether the detectives' actions may have violated laws on evidence tampering.
Lying to suspects, while clearly legal, isn't always a great idea and can have its own harsh, unintended consequences. Nobody should know that better than Austin PD, which has a long, inglorious history with false confessions, most famously with Christopher Ochoa's and Richard Danziger's false convictions, not to mention with the botched Yogurt Shop murders investigation, in which details of the crime scene were leaked and police obtained more than 50 false confessions, likely including the men they prosecuted for the crime. APD has a track record of reacting in a frenzy in high-profile cases to put maximum pressure on a suspect. (Witness Chief Acevedo's congratulatory comments to the community after public pressure apparently prompted a suspect's suicide: "I personally want to thank the people of Austin," he said. "We put pressure on this person with that community outpouring.")
Against that backdrop, doctoring lab reports to manipulate suspects strikes Grits as par for the course at APD, and indeed Chief Art Acevedo essentially defends the practice as well as the integrity of the investigators. Plohetski notes that:
Police are generally allowed to deceive suspects during interrogations in an effort to get a confession, but the creation of a false government document to use in such interviews raises legal questions. A March 2010 decision by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals threw out the confession of a man in San Antonio after a detective obtained the statement by using a falsely created report showing the suspect's fingerprints were on a gun used in a homicide.Tony might have cited not only the 2010 Court of Criminal Appeals case throwing out a confession when it was obtained with a fabricated document, but also Texas' Penal Code Sec. 37.09, which defines felony evidence tampering, in relevant part, as when someone "makes, presents, or uses any record, document, or thing with knowledge of its falsity and with intent to affect the course or outcome of the investigation or official proceeding." Under that provision, evidence tampering is a third degree felony garnering as much as 2-10 years in prison, plus assorted fines, fees, etc..Or prosecutors could potentially apply Sec. 37.10 of the Penal Code, Tampering with a Government Record, which applies a similar penalty to anyone who "makes, presents, or uses any record, document, or thing with knowledge of its falsity and with intent that it be taken as a genuine governmental record." Allegedly making up a phony lab report for use in an interrogation (one assumes they did it "to affect the course or outcome of the investigation") tracks almost exactly the language of activity made illegal under the Penal Code.
It should be said, these were not rogue detectives but instead the activity in question is apparently routine departmental pattern and practice. Indeed, the detectives in question, reports Plohetski, were ordered by their supervisor to manufacture the document.
The story quotes County Attorney David Escamilla saying he will take any appropriate action, but if these two penal code provisions are indeed the applicable law, one would expect it prosecuted in district court as a felony by DA Rosemary Lehmberg, whose office commendably uncovered the alleged misconduct. However, reports Plohetski, Lehmberg asked Escamilla "to oversee the inquiry because of the assistant district attorney's involvement in the case." (Grits hopes that doesn't mean he'll limit the investigation to misdemeanors; I don't understand why the prosecutor's role explaining the law to APD would require the DA Office's recusal.)
Surely the relevant felony statutes were taught to investigators during their training (if not, you can be sure ignorance of the law, in this case, will be treated by the civil service system as an excuse). Both existed long before the 2010 court ruling, though Chief Acevedo acts in the story like this is something new under the sun that would have changed departmental practices had he known about it. Either way, it's the actual fabrication of the document that may get detectives in trouble (or, IMO more likely, not). If detectives had told Norwood a lie about the report's contents and he believed it, they'd fall well within the realm of legality, whatever one may personally think about the tactics of deception in interrogations. But they allegedly went several steps further.
Whatever excuses Chief Acevedo wants to make for his detectives, the law limits them just like everybody else. And if it turns out detectives were never trained on these longstanding penal code provisions, much less recent court rulings governing Texas interrogations, he and his command staff may need to find a mirror to accurately place blame for Austin PD instructing its detectives to commit felonies in the course of a cold-case homicide investigation.
MORE: See a Statesman editorial on the topic.