"Interrogating Justice: A Critical Analysis of the Police Interrogation and Its Role in the Criminal Justice Process"

By Williams, James W. | Canadian Journal of Criminology, April 2000 | Go to article overview

"Interrogating Justice: A Critical Analysis of the Police Interrogation and Its Role in the Criminal Justice Process"


Williams, James W., Canadian Journal of Criminology


Introduction

The wrongful convictions of Donald Marshall, David Milgaard, and Guy Paul Morin have precipitated a growing crisis of legitimacy within the Canadian criminal justice system. Specifically, public concern has centered on the ability of the justice system to prosecute guilty parties while ensuring the protection of the innocent through the application of the standards of due process. While all stages of the justice process have been subjected to various degrees of public scrutiny, the institution that has received the greatest critical attention is the police. This may be attributed to their highly publicized role in the collection of evidence, the identification of suspects, and the subsequent disposition of criminal cases. One of the most recent episodes of public criticism came with the release of the Kaufman report in which the police were identified as playing a key role in events leading to the wrongful conviction of Guy Paul Morin (Kaufman 1998). As a whole, the report and its recommendations - which feature necessary enhancements to the visibility and accountability of police operations - reflect a growing concern with the susceptibility of the police to both organizational and public pressures to produce successful case outcomes in spite of the potential threats that this expeditiousness may pose to the principles of justice and due process. Similar tendencies have been noted in a number of wrongful conviction cases in Canada (Anderson and Anderson 1998).

In lieu of this undercurrent of public anxiety, the objective of this paper is to engage in a critical analysis of a crucial, yet frequently misunderstood, aspect of police operations - the police interrogation. The importance of such an undertaking stems from the existence of the interrogation as a defining stage in the overall process of case construction and disposition (McConville and Baldwin 1982; McConville, Sanders, and Leng 1991; Baldwin 1993; Marin 1999; Belloni and Hodgson 2000). It represents one of the first points of contact between the police and potential suspects and, thus, serves as a critical forum in which initial information and impressions are exchanged. To the extent that this interaction transpires under conditions of low visibility and is premised upon both a presumption of guilt and the intention of an expeditious outcome, the interrogation emerges as a potential threat to the standards of due process and, subsequently, the attainability of justice within the Canadian criminal justice system.

Based on this critical perspective, the primary objective of this paper is to provide a detailed account of the nature and functions of the police interrogation as a determinative stage in the overall criminal justice process. The uniqueness and sophistication of this analysis will depend upon its conceptualization of the interrogation as part of an extended investigative process organized according to a series of frequently contradictory social, legal, organizational, and occupational norms. This attempt to situate interrogative practices in terms of the overall structure and dynamics of police work stands in direct contrast to the predominant trend within the existing literature to conceive of the interrogation in relatively narrow, technical terms as a methodology designed primarily to elicit confessions and other inculpatory information (Leo 1994). The result of this conceptual delimitation is that it has been evaluated almost exclusively in terms of its relative propensity to produce either true or false positives (Ofshe 1989; Gudjonsson 1992; Gudjonsson and MacKeith 1994; Ofshe and Leo 1997). It is my belief that such a narrow focus belies the varied functions of the interrogation as a crucial dimension of daily police operations, as well as neglects the subtleties of its influence on the entire criminal justice process.

In order to appreciate the nature of this influence, and thus overcome more delimited conceptualizations, it is critical that the definition of the police interrogation be expanded to include not only the legally circumscribed act of active police questioning under conditions of arrest or detention as defined by case law (Watt 1998: 467), but also more informal exchanges between police and suspects prior to the laying of a formal charge. …

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