Thursday, July 3, 2008

APD Must 'fess Up, Revise Interrogation Procedures

from the Albuquerque Journal

By Jeff Buckels, New Mexico Public Defender Department

Journal readers can't have missed Saturday's front-page story about how DNA evidence cleared my client Robert Gonzales of murder after two and a half years in jail. And you can't have missed that Robert confessed to the murder at the time.
It was a false confession, and it's not that rare. Nearly a fourth of 218 DNA exonerations documented by the national Innocence Project have involved false confessions.
Police use sophisticated techniques to get confessions. They start by putting the suspect off-guard with friendly chitchat, visiting about the suspect's school, family, favorite TV shows.
Having established that they are the suspect's pal, interrogators put the confession machinery in gear. They accuse the suspect of the crime and refuse to credit his denials. To make resistance seem pointless, they exaggerate or simply lie about the evidence they already have (“You were seen with the victim!”). In virtually every case of false confession involving compliant suspects, the interrogators minimize the suspect's blameworthiness (“I'd have done the same thing!”) and offer face-saving excuses which seem to promise leniency (“We know you were provoked!”). If the suspect still resists, they tell him that confessing is the only way to make the interrogation ordeal come to an end (“You've got to help us if you want to get this over with!”). If he still resists, the interrogators say he's wrong, and insist again and again that the only way to make the ordeal end is to get it right.
These techniques and others are mixed and repeated over and over, for hours if necessary. Every one was used on Robert Gonzales, who stopped resisting and confessed to a murder he didn't commit.
I expect this reaction from many readers: “If I were accused of a crime I didn't commit, nothing, except maybe torture, would make me confess.” I don't doubt it. But while you are enjoying your morning coffee and newspaper, consider whether you are not different from Robert Gonzales in at least two important ways.
First, you are not unusually vulnerable to manipulation and suggestion. Even persons of normal and high intelligence have succumbed to the interrogator's bag of tricks. Retarded and youthful suspects are like putty in a trained interrogator's hands.
Second, you have not been arrested, shackled and stuffed in the back seat of a police car. You are not surrounded by armed police in an interrogation room. Your mug shot will not be on the six o'clock news. You are not scared out of your wits. You are not easy pickings.
Robert Gonzales was. And it took a double-whammy of DNA evidence to stop what interrogation procedure and a false confession started.
More than two years ago, the police learned that scores of scientific tests — DNA evidence, fingerprints, hair samples, fiber evidence — had failed to place Robert at the scene of the crime or connect him to the victim in any way. The DNA pointed consistently to a single unknown person — not Robert. But in the teeth of the scientific evidence, the prosecution pushed on, relying on Robert's “confession” alone.
Two weeks ago, the other shoe fell. The DNA taken from the victim matched a prisoner at the federal lockdown outside Estancia. Then and only then did the prosecution throw in the towel.
I am not writing to vent or to celebrate (“All's well that ends well!”). I am writing to call attention to police policy and training — or rather the lack of it.
The two senior APD officers who interrogated Robert Gonzales knew they were dealing with a suspect who was young and probably retarded in some degree. He told them he was in special education classes in school. Yet they admitted in pretrial interviews and under oath at a hearing that they didn't even consider handling Robert's interrogation differently than any other. The fact is, APD had provided them with no training in interrogating developmentally disabled suspects.
Such training and policies exist and are in effect in other police departments. This specialized training helps officers recognize suspects who are retarded and requires them to make sure the suspects really do understand Miranda warnings. They are to curtail the usual tricks to elicit confessions, treat confessions skeptically, and do double duty corroborating such confessions before committing to prosecution.
Maybe if procedures like this had been in place at APD when Robert Gonzales was arrested, Robert wouldn't have given a false confession or maybe the police wouldn't have believed it. Failing that, maybe they would have gotten the message when the DNA evidence came in over two years ago and pointed to somebody else. This would have saved the prosecuting authorities, the court system and the taxpayers a lot of time, trouble and money.
And it would have saved a vulnerable young man from serving thirty-two months in jail for a horrific crime he did not commit.
Jeff Buckels is the supervising attorney of the Capital Crimes Unit of the Public Defender Department.

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