By Christopher Dunn and Donna Lieberman— Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau must decide by October 21 how to respond to the extraordinary disclosures of earlier this month about the Central Park Jogger case. Though five black and Latino teenagers were convicted and spent many years in jail for the 1989 rape and near murder of a white woman jogging in Central Park, it was publicly revealed this month that another man has confessed to the attack and claims to have acted alone. And recent DNA analysis of evidence from the crime scene fails to tie the teenagers to the attack.
One of the most troubling issues confronting Mr. Morgenthau and the public in this case arises from the videotaped confessions obtained by the New York City Police Department from the teenagers. Those confessions, which were detailed and given in the presence of parents, were introduced at trial and undoubtedly contributed significantly to the resulting convictions.
The teenagers and their families, however, claim that the confessions were coerced, the result of illegal and improper police interrogations that took place before the videotaping of the confessions. The recent disclosures lend considerable credibility to these charges.
This controversy points to the need for a fundamental reform of police practices: the NYPD must start videotaping interrogations of suspects in serious crimes. This simple reform will help eliminate coercive interrogation practices and will help police and prosecutors respond to false allegations of coercion.
There is every reason to believe that unreliable confessions are a substantial problem in law enforcement. In the most thorough investigation so far, the Chicago Tribune last December reported hundreds of cases in Chicago that involved coerced or otherwise improper confessions since 1991. Earlier this year The Washington Post chronicled abusive interrogations practices in Prince Georges County, Maryland that produced false confessions. And state supreme courts in Minnesota and Alaska have ordered that interrogations in those states be recorded to assure that defendants are not being coerced into false confessions. Far too often, cops pressure suspects by lying about evidence or about the statements of supposed accomplices; by making false promises of leniency; by denying suspects access to lawyers and parents; and by taking advantage of their age, fatigue or simple fear.
Though there has not yet been a systematic review of confessions in New York, even prior to the Central Park Jogger case, several highly-publicized cases involved allegedly coerced confessions that proved false. For instance, earlier this year the government told a federal judge in Manhattan that an Egyptian man named Abdallah Higazy had confessed to owning a ground-to-air radio that allegedly was found in his room in the ruins of a hotel abutting upon the World Trade Center. Targeted as a terrorist who facilitated the attacks of September 11th, the Higazy insisted that his “confession” was coerced, but he was released only after a pilot came forward to claim the radio and after a hotel security guard admitted that he had lied about the radio being in Higazy’s room. The government has yet to explain how it obtained the “confession,” though Higazy says he made statements only after he and his family were repeatedly threatened during an hours-long interrogation outside the presence of his lawyer.
Before that was the case of Bently Grant, a homeless man arrested by the NYPD in July 2000 and charged with smashing a chuck of concrete into the back of the head of social-work student Tiffany Goldberg in midtown Manhattan. After approximately 20 hours of interrogation with no lawyer present, Grant allegedly “confessed” and was held without bail on charges of attempted murder. Prompted by the doubts about the confession by an assistant district attorney, a further investigation led to a videotape of a Virgin Records store that showed Mr. Grant and exonerated him.
In New York, a precedent already exists for the recording of interrogations by the NYPD. When a police officer or other member of the Department is suspected of wrongdoing, the NYPD is entitled to interrogate the officer. Before starting such an interrogation, however, the Department is required to turn on a tape recorder, the entire interrogation is taped, and the tape is preserved. If this is good enough for cops, it is good enough for New Yorkers who face felony charges that might lead to lengthy imprisonment and perhaps even the death penalty.
Thirty five years ago the United States Supreme Court observed, “We have learned the lesson of history, ancient and modern, that a system of criminal law enforcement which comes to depend upon the ‘confession’ will, in the long run, be less reliable and more subject to abuses than a system which depends on extrinsic evidence independently secured through skillful investigation.” As a society, we have an interest in bringing criminals to justice; however, we have no legitimate interest in concealing abusive interrogations that lead to false confessions.
Dunn is the Associate Legal Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union; Lieberman is the NYCLU’s Executive Director.