Sunday, October 08, 2017

False confessions, coercive interrogations, hardly a new problem

Not a Texas topic, but until this NY Times obituary, I'd never heard the story of how the late, great Connie Hawkins - an ABA, Globetrotter, and NBA star in the '60s and '70s - was banned from pro ball in his prime based on false and unproven allegations of game fixing. Hall-of-fame coach Larry Brown has said of Hawkins, “He was Julius before Julius, he was Elgin before Elgin, he was Michael before Michael.” But to the criminal justice system, he was none of those things. He was a suspect in a game fixing scandal, so he got the same treatment as every other young black suspected criminal might have received in the 1960s. (Shudder)

As has been the case with so many modern exoneration stories, his problems arose from the use of coercive interrogation tactics, and his name was cleared thanks to an exceptional act of journalism:
Hawkins’s path to the N.B.A. was buoyed in part by a 1969 article in Life magazine by David Wolf. “Evidence recently uncovered,” Mr. Wolf wrote, “indicates that Connie Hawkins never knowingly associated with gamblers, that he never introduced a player to a fixer, and that the only damaging statements about his involvement were made by Hawkins himself — as a terrified, semiliterate teenager who thought he’d go to jail unless he said what the D.A.’s detectives pressed him to say.”
This sort of coercive questioning of vulnerable suspects matches the story of dozens of documented false convictions from the DNA era. It's a brand of interrogation nearly unique to American law enforcement known as the Reid technique (see here, here, here, here, and here), which earlier this year was finally abandoned by the company that had originated and popularized it.

Because interrogations happen in secret - meaning abusive tactics taught by the Reid method were almost never documented (particularly in the 1960s before recording equipment was cheap and common), much less made public and rectified - they also represent thousands of additional false convictions we'll never know about. Thanks his basketball skills, however, Hawkins' case received greater attention:
On Hawkins’s behalf, Roslyn Litman, a civil liberties activist, along with her husband and law partner, S. David Litman, and another lawyer, Howard Specter, sued the N.B.A. on antitrust grounds, arguing that the league had in effect illegally banned Hawkins and deprived him of the “opportunity to earn a livelihood.” 
They won. The league paid Hawkins a settlement of nearly $1.3 million and dropped the ban. Hawkins joined the N.B.A. in 1969 and became an instant star with the Suns.
To recap: 50+ years ago a black kid was questioned intensely by authorities without an attorney, and like so many others before and after him, he told them what they wanted to hear. He didn't do so because he was guilty, just to get out of the room and make the pressure relent. But it was a false confession which matched no other evidence the investigators had uncovered, so in this case he was never prosecuted. Still, the professional damage lingered for a decade. And others similarly situated likely suffered their fates in silent ignominy, with no obituary featured in the Grey Lady to set the record straight on history's behalf.

These are not new problems, for the most part; the broader public has only become newly aware of them.

4 comments:

Steven Seys said...

Were it not for the extensive training I received in the Marines on withstanding POW interrogation, I too would likely have given a false confession. Ironically, the fact of my resistance to Reid technique interrogation, the investigators were more convinced that I am a criminal genius and went about manufacturing evidence to give to a prosecutor.

Anonymous said...

Too bad every falsely accused or falsely convicted person can’t have journalist expose their case. Reforms are needed to get criminal case files into the public’s hands after conviction. TPIA doesn’t always work in this context.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion: the fault falls in the lap of the prosecutor. If he followed his Oath of Office and attempted to do his/her job properly for the people to be safe from the criminal - real Law would prevail. Today it is all about revenue, climbing the ladder and many other benefits that the people pay for (in more then one way).

Anonymous said...

"...These are not new problems, for the most part; the broader public has only become newly aware of them..."

This begs the question(s)...for those people who HAVE known about the problem for the past decade(s), why has nothing been done about it? Does it become a problem to solve if and only if the Public becomes aware of it? There are investigators who have known that the technique was highly questionable, yet there has been little movement to get it debunked as a technique. There are investigators that KNOW it is coercive, but use it anyway.

Then, why use it? Because there is no repercussions for the investigator using it. No penalties. Oops. Oh well. Can I get my paycheck now?

We need to bring in negative incentives for this type of shoddy work -- a hefty fine for each investigator involved in coercing a false confession. Say, $10,000 per case, per interrogator. That should light a fire under their dimmed brains.