Academic journal article Albany Law Review

The Limits of Deception: An End to the Use of Lies and Trickery in Custodial Interrogations to Elicit the "Truth"?

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

The Limits of Deception: An End to the Use of Lies and Trickery in Custodial Interrogations to Elicit the "Truth"?

Article excerpt

The State of New York has a long and ignominious history of wrongful convictions related to false confessions. From George Whitmore, a nineteen year old eighth grade drop-out who was watching Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in Wildwood, New Jersey at the time two "career girls" were murdered in a Manhattan apartment, (1) to the five young minorities wrongfully convicted for raping a jogger in Central Park, (2) scores of innocent people have confessed during custodial interrogations in New York to committing brutal crimes. (3) In fact, after Illinois, New York has the most wrongful convictions based on false confessions in the nation. (4)

And the shocking number is likely to grow. In Brooklyn, the District Attorney's Office has reopened as many as fifty trial convictions involving a detective named Louis Scarcella, whose overbearing and allegedly illegal tactics may have sent innocent men to prison. (5) A panel has been appointed to review the convictions (6) and the Legal Aid Society is coordinating with a large group of Manhattan law firms that have taken on individual cases involving Scarcella. (7) Case files relating to Scarcella have been subpoenaed and are being reviewed by a state supreme court justice. (8) As chronicled in the New York Times, Scarcella and others in Brooklyn precincts appear to have used especially coercive techniques to induce confessions in the 1980s and 1990s. (9) But the problem of false confessions is not limited to Brooklyn. In fact, none of the six cases involving disputed confessions heard by the New York Court of Appeals over the past three years involved interrogations by Brooklyn detectives. Interrogations in these cases: Warney v. State of New York, (10) People v. Bedessie,n People v. Guilford, (12) People v. Oliveras, (13) People v. Aveni, (14) and People v. Thomas, (15) took place (respectively) in Rochester, Queens, Syracuse, Bronx, Westchester, and Rensselaer Counties. The phenomenon of unreliable, coerced confessions is as broad in New York State as it is deep and longstanding.

That may well change, after a landmark decision by the Court of Appeals this term in People v. Thomas. (16) While the court broke no new ground conceptually--following its own and U.S. Supreme Court precedent--the court announced that some police interrogation tactics, when used in combination, cross the line between "voluntary" admissible confessions and "involuntary" or coerced inadmissible confessions. (17) In particular, three types of deception used in the Adrian Thomas case were found by the appellate division to pass muster under the conventional analysis of voluntariness, and defended by the District Attorney's Office, as perfectly acceptable uses of deception by the police officers. (18) The three lies told to Thomas with which the court took issue were

that his wife would be picked up for questioning; that Thomas could save his child's life by confessing; and that the police viewed what happened to his son as accidental. (19) After this decision, police departments will need to exercise caution in conducting interrogations, and should not assume that any form of deception is permissible. (20)


Adrian Thomas, a twenty nine year old African-American man from Douglas, Georgia, with a tenth-grade education, met his wife Wilhemina Hicks of Troy, New York, at a chicken processing plant in Douglas where they both worked on the production line. (21) They married, moved to Troy, and together had seven children. (22) The last two, twins, were born two months premature, when Mr. Thomas was twenty five years old. (23) The family lived in a two-bedroom apartment, with the five oldest children sleeping in one bed, and the twins sleeping in bed with the parents. (24) The apartment was neatly maintained and the children clean and well behaved. (25) There was no history of hospitalizations or medical records indicating suspected child abuse of any of the children. …

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