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The truth about false confessions

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The truth about false confessions

‘We boxed her in and gave her the impression it was hopeless for her not to cooperate’

Senior Editor

Homicide detective James Trainum once made a big mistake getting a confession from a pregnant homeless woman.

Now, he wants others to learn from that mistake.

He and his partner inadvertently contaminated the interrogation with subtle suggestions, trapping the woman for 12 hours of questioning, at times handcuffed, until she told them what they wanted to hear.

But the sad truth was that her confession was false.

Trainum — retired from the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department after 27 years, creator and director of the Violent Crime Case Review Project that oversaw the review of all homicide cases, and requested by the U.S. Department of Justice to consult on the investigative practices of the New Orleans Police Department — brought lessons learned the hard way to the Florida Innocence Commission.

“I had a good foundation for believing my suspect’s confession. She was of average intelligence with no apparent mental health issues,” Trainum said. “The suspect gave details, details only the killer would have known. You are going to see how she got those details, despite the fact she wasn’t even there.”

Roll the video clip of the final version of the 1994 interrogation, and it was revealed how he and his partner showed her crime scene photos, made subtle suggestions about the details of the killing, ignored exculpatory details, and asked leading questions — until the woman eventually claimed she had two friends kidnap and beat to death a Voice of America worker.

“We boxed her in and gave her the impression it was hopeless for her not to cooperate,” Trainum said. “Now, if you want to get into the psychological aspects of it: I showed this video to a graduate class in psychology, and the professor said, ‘She was sexually abused as a child.’ I go, ‘We heard that, but we were never able to prove it.’ She said, ‘She was sexually abused. I can pick up little things in her mannerisms.’

“If that’s the case, if the oppressor is a male, they give in, because the quickest way to get it over with is to give in. And once you give in, that person goes away. For 12 hours, she gave it up in dribs and drabs. Now, I’ve also seen false confessions that have taken place in 30 minutes.”

Trainum’s main message to the Innocence Commission was boosting his opinion that all interrogations should be videotaped from start to finish, including any pre-interviews with suspects. Such videotaping needs to be mandatory, he said, and there needs to be sanctions if that videotaping does not occur.

“We all know the power of a confession is overwhelming. It’s the gold standard of evidence. It has the ability to trump overwhelming evidence to the contrary, even DNA,” Trainum said.

“The truth is out there. One has to not only look at the number of wrongful convictions involving false confessions, but also the larger number of cases that do have overwhelming evidence of innocence, but because a confession was involved, a full exoneration has not been possible to date.”

Videotaping will not prevent false confessions from occurring, he acknowledged, but it “will help greatly in the identification of false confessions, which is one of the reasons the practice is now supported by the Reid Technique, a leading instructor of law enforcement agencies in this country in interrogations.”

The driving force for taping interrogations, Trainum said, is that it allows for the presentation of the best evidence in court, as well as increasing public trust with its transparency. It is not a second-hand account, but the equivalent of a crime-scene photo or a videotape of a sting operation. And, the need for the detective to testify in long motion hearings is eliminated, because the video speaks for itself.

“We, in law enforcement, have no problems placing video cameras everywhere else, often over the public’s objections,” Trainum said.

“When my fellow detectives would object to videotaping, I would always say, ‘What’s different about a videotape and you testifying honestly as to what happened in the interrogation room?’

“The difference is that with the videotape, of course, there is no question. And even the best Boy Scout detective can have a bad day on the stand, so why take the chance?”

The D.C. police department came into videotaping interrogations kicking and screaming, Trainum described, after The Washington Post did a 2000 report on many false confessions. A concerned D.C. city council wanted interrogations videotaped, but the police department dragged its feet creating protocol, until, out of frustration, the city council took control and passed legislation in 2005.

“Actually, mandatory videotaping will increase the number of confessions, incriminating statements, and shakable alibis that you can get from suspects,” Trainum said. “The benefit has surprised many.”

When he was in the middle of an interrogation, Trainum said he was so focused he often missed “very subtle, incriminating comments that can be picked up later during a follow-up review of the tape.”

So detectives become better at their jobs, much like athletes become better after later viewing a video of the big game.

Guilty pleas are increased, he said, because a “videotape provides an unquestionable record of the interview.”

“I promise you, make it mandatory, and defense attorneys will hate this law, because there’s nothing they hate more than a videotape of a good interrogation and a confession.”

He’s heard the many objections from his law enforcement colleagues and why they hate it, too.

“One of the big ones you always hear from detectives is: ‘We’ll never get another confession.’ We heard that back when Miranda came around. And it wasn’t true then, and it’s not true now. We’re the best salesmen in the world. If I can talk you past Miranda — here I am telling you to shut up — and yet I can still talk you past that. And then I can sell you a jail sentence, or in some cases the death penalty, I can sure get you past being videotaped. I always sell it: ‘This is for your protection more than mine.’ And it never, ever failed to work.”

Florida FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey, a member of the Innocence Commission, said: “One of the objections you did not list that I hear most from law enforcement officers, when you have a major case and there are a series of interviews, like when we worked the British tourist killings. There were multiple interviews over several weeks with multiple suspects. In the earlier interviews, they were denying the charges, and later those denials were used against the prosecution in court. Rather than using the last and best, they say the water was muddied by the getting-started interviews.. . . The initial interrogations created a defense tool.”

Trainum responded: “How would the interrogators have dealt with that if they were asked in court? It’s going to come out. It needs to be turned over to the attorneys anyway, as part of the Brady issue, that they did deny it at first. I think showing that denial and showing the process, so the public can understand how they got from this point to this point — I don’t know how you can hide it. It has to come out. So I don’t think, personally, that that’s an objection right there.”

The bottom line, Trainum said, is that videotaping interrogations must be mandatory and include sanctions for failure to do so.

“I agree with my law enforcement colleagues that it should not have to be legislated. But if it didn’t have to be legislated, then the agencies would be doing it by now on their own,” he said.

He likened it to seatbelt laws.

“We all know that wearing them is a good thing. But without legislation, many of us, including myself, would not wear them like we should. And how many of us would comply with legislation if it had no teeth?”

The teeth in D.C. was if you did not videotape the interrogation, there was a “rebuttable assumption that the confession was involuntary.”

Mandatory videotaping of interrogations with sanctions may have to be forced on law enforcement agencies, Trainum said, but “I know that they are going to thank you for it later.”

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