Pennsylvania law enforcement increasing focus on 'false confessions'

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The integrity of confessions affects the integrity of convictions, law enforcement leaders say.

That's one reason Pennsylvania law enforcement is getting more engaged on the issue of so-called "false confessions," which is more typically a hot topic in academic and criminal defense circles.

"Police and prosecutors need to be on the front lines of making sure we are doing things the right way ... It's up to us to do our jobs with integrity and maintain integrity in our investigations," Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said.

Earlier this year, Ms. Ferman's office started a pilot project in which interrogations by county detectives of murder suspects are now being recorded.

She said none of those recordings have been used in court yet, so it is too soon to say what the identifiable effects of the recordings are. The ultimate success will be when the recordings are used in court and on appeal the appellate courts say, " 'You guys did things the right way,' " Ms. Ferman said.

But the point of the pilot program, she said, is to improve interrogation practices.

Another example of law enforcement's increased engagement on the issue, Ms. Ferman said, is what may be the first-ever training on "conviction integrity" for an upcoming meeting of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

"My colleagues across Pennsylvania share my view this is important," she said.

Historically, such discussions tend to be held in the realm of academics and more on the defense side. But law enforcement and criminal defense attorneys share the common ground that false confessions are reflective of bad police work, said Steven A. Drizin, director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.

He offered his comments at the recent Temple Law Review and Pennsylvania Innocence Project symposium, "False Confessions: Intersecting Science, Ethics and the Law."

Of the 300 people who have been exonerated across the United States because of DNA evidence, 25 percent involved false confessions and/or false incriminating statements, according to the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.

While Ms. Ferman does not like the term "false confession" and prefers to talk about the issue in terms of the integrity of convictions, she said she was drawn to the issue after serving as a member of the Joint State Government Commission's advisory committee on wrongful convictions. The committee issued a report in the fall of 2011.

One of the top issues in preventing confessions by suspects who did not actually commit those crimes is whether such confessions should be recorded.

Marissa Boyers Bluestine of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project said many law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania are looking into recording interrogations, but she said police chiefs have told her the main impediment is not having the resources to wire their interview rooms.

That's "not a willingness issue," Ms. Bluestine said. "I think the will is there when you realize there are almost 700 law enforcement agencies across the nation taping."

While there was a legislative proposal for a mandatory taping law, Ms. Bluestine said she is more in favor of a grassroots approach in which law enforcement adopts a policy of recordings on its own.

Ms. Ferman also said legislation channeling law enforcement to conduct investigations into only one particular manner is a bad idea.

"When you're working in law enforcement and you're working on the street ... you learn there are any number of ways to do" things, Ms. Ferman said. "Why would you try to hamstring police? The goal should be: do it right, do it properly, do it with integrity and do it fairly."

She is skeptical that recordings will prevent false confessions, considering that Bruce Godschalk -- the now exonerated rape convict freed by DNA evidence -- was convicted in her county of two counts of forcible rape and two counts of burglary in part because of a taped confession that he gave, which including information not available to the public.

But Ms. Bluestine said recording confessions is not just about preventing false confessions, but also about having recordings available to be able to argue that the confessions were unreliable.

Having such recordings also is a tool for training, Ms. Bluestine said.

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Amaris Elliott-Engel: 215-557-2354 or aelliott-engel@alm.com. To read more articles like this, visit www.thelegalintelligencer.com.


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