Excluding Coerced Witness Testimony to Protect a Criminal Defendant's Right to Due Process of Law and Adequately Deter Police Misconduct

By Sheridan, Katherine | Fordham Urban Law Journal, May 2011 | Go to article overview

Excluding Coerced Witness Testimony to Protect a Criminal Defendant's Right to Due Process of Law and Adequately Deter Police Misconduct


Sheridan, Katherine, Fordham Urban Law Journal


Introduction

I.   Police Coercion and Due Process
         A. Origins of Confession Jurisprudence
         B. Due Process Protection
         C. Custodial Interrogations and Police Compulsion
         D. The Exclusionary Rule and Standing
            1. The Due Process Exclusionary Rule
            2. The Self-Incrimination Exclusionary Rule
            3. The Reasonable Search and Seizure Exclusionary Rule.

II.  The Due Process Debate on Coerced Witness Testimony

III. Witness Coercion in a Criminal Trial--A Constitutional Wrong.
         A. Exclusion of All Coerced Witness Statements Regardless
            of Reliability
         B. Voluntariness of a Witness's Statement is the Correct
            Standard of Due Process
         C. Due Process Violations Are a Greater Harm Than Other
            Constitutional Violations in the Criminal Procedure
            Context
         D. The Policy Considerations that Support the Exclusion of
            Coerced Confessions Will be More Completely Achieved
            by Excluding Coerced Witness Statements

Conclusion

INTRODUCTION

Colin Warner served twenty years in jail for a murder he did not commit--his conviction based entirely on the testimony of a scared fourteen- year-old boy who was coerced by police to implicate Warner. (1) Mario Hamilton was shot and killed in April of 1980 in broad daylight near the Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush, Brooklyn. (2) Thomas Charlemagne stated that he had seen what happened, though in fact he had not. (3) Charlemagne was the only witness or lead that the police had on the killer, so they immediately brought him and the victim's fifteen-year-old brother Martell (who was with Charlemagne) down to the station for questioning. (4)

Detectives presented Charlemagne with mug shots, including one of Colin Warner, (5) demanded an identification of the shooter, and grilled him for answers. (6) At one point Charlemagne stated he had not seen the gun, but the police hung on his initial words--"I saw what happened"--and yelled back that there must have been a gun. (7) Nearly fourteen hours after the start of the interrogation, Charlemagne ended the questioning the only way he knew how and pointed--at random--to Warner's picture. (8) He went on to elaborate on the lie, claiming the killer had spoken to him, and provided the details that the police fed him--that it was a drive-by and that there was passenger in the car. (9) Meanwhile, Martell, still grieving over the news of his older brother's murder, sat listening to the relentless interrogation and was released only after Charlemagne cooperated. (10)

The next day, police visited Martell at his home, presented him with four photos, and asked if he recognized any of the men. (11) Martell said no over and over again, until the officer pushed one photo above the others, and asked specifically about Warner. (12) Martell stated that "maybe he recognized him," which was enough to satisfy police that they had the right person--despite lacking any other evidence. (13) Based on Charlemagne's testimony (14) and Martell's corroboration, the State successfully convicted Colin Warner of second-degree murder, resulting in a sentence of fifteen years to life. (15)

The wrongful conviction of Colin Warner adeptly illustrates the problems caused by police coercion that will be subsequently explored in this Note. Such coercive practices manufacture inherently unreliable evidence and are revolting to the sense of justice that Americans expect and demand from the United States' legal system.

In many criminal cases there is a lack of physical evidence despite the most sophisticated criminal forensic sciences, and the prosecution must build a case on statements made by the defendant or a witness. (16) Predictably, criminal offenders and their cohorts do not ordinarily admit to wrongdoing or divulge incriminating information. (17) In turn, police interrogations are designed to persuade individuals to share information about the crime.

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