Video interviews in Roethlisberger investigation to be released
June 9, 2010 8:00 AM
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
By Dan Majors and Jonathan D. Silver Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Did authorities investigating a rape allegation against Ben Roethlisberger ask the right questions? Were they too pushy or not pushy enough? Were witnesses forthcoming or coy?
Now you can judge for yourself.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation today is releasing more than 50 DVDs containing videotaped interviews conducted in the days after a college student accused the Steelers quarterback of raping her in a bathroom at the Capital City nightclub in Milledgeville, Ga.
Voices and images of students, bar patrons and employees, police officers, members of Mr. Roethlisberger's entourage and the accuser's circle of friends who spoke with authorities in March will be uploaded to www.post-gazette.com as soon as they are available.
Through his attorneys, Mr. Roethlisberger, 28, has denied any criminal wrongdoing. His 20-year-old accuser asked for the case to be dropped, and the local prosecutor declined to press charges. That end to prosecution paved the way under Georgia law for the videotaped interviews to be released.
There should be few, if any, surprises in the recordings. The essence of the information was previously available in reports compiled by the GBI and the Milledgeville Police Department that are also on the Post-Gazette's website.
Now, though, the public can for the first time see how witnesses acted while being questioned and assess the tone and demeanor of interviewer and interviewee, a chance rarely if ever afforded to Pennsylvanians.
People also will be able to see and hear the woman at the center of the accusations. Interviews with the alleged victim were captured in separate audio and video recordings.
The Post-Gazette does not identify accusers in sexual assault cases. The GBI has blurred the woman's face and deleted any identifying information about her from the video.
Also taped were interviews with two of her friends, Nicole Biancofiore and Ann Marie Lubatti, who were with the woman at Capital City. They spoke to officers immediately after the incident and accompanied her to the police station and hospital.
Other key interviews include those of former Milledgeville police Sgt. Jerry Blash, one of the first officers to respond, who resigned after an uproar caused by his derogatory description of the accuser; Steelers lineman Willie Colon, who was with Mr. Roethlisberger at Capital City; and Pennsylvania state Trooper Edward J. Joyner, another member of the quarterback's group, whose permission to moonlight for Mr. Roethlisberger was rescinded following the trip.
One interview conspicuously absent is that of Coraopolis police Officer Anthony J. Barravecchio, another friend of Mr. Roethlisberger who is alleged to have escorted the accuser to a back room at the nightclub to meet with the quarterback.
Officer Barravecchio refused to allow his interview to be recorded in any way. Coraopolis borough council is scrutinizing his conduct at Capital City.
Also absent is any interview with Mr. Roethlisberger. He spoke briefly with police as soon as the allegations came to light, but authorities were unable to secure a second meeting with him.
Release of the videotaped interviews is likely to strike many people as peculiar because Georgia's Sunshine Laws, put into place more than two decades ago, are so much broader than those of Pennsylvania and many other states.
"Here in Georgia, if the criminal investigation has concluded ... either verdict or decision by the [district attorney] not to prosecute, once that happens, the documents, and that includes recordings in the file, become public records," said David E. Hudson, an attorney in Augusta, and general counsel to the Georgia Press Association.
"The theory behind it is that it's so people can see for themselves if law enforcement did a proper job or was there a cover-up. Has the alleged defendant been treated too favorably or too harshly? If you're going to have public oversight of law enforcement, you really have to have access to the records."
Georgia's Sunshine Law states that, "All documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, computer-based or -generated information, or similar material prepared and maintained or received in the course of the operation of a public office or agency" are public records.
Mr. Hudson said there had been no public backlash to the release of such statements.
"... This way, people will be able to see whether the interview was perfunctory, whether it was coercive. I think it would give people comfort to know there's public oversight," Mr. Hudson said
"That is not the way it works in Pennsylvania," said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. "Pennsylvania has some of the more restrictive laws governing access to criminal investigatory material. Historically, that's the way it's been."
Ms. Melewsky said Pennsylvania police investigation records are not released to the public even after the investigation is closed. The only records that are made public are those introduced in court as part of a prosecution.
"This is the broadest access I've heard of regarding an investigation into criminal wrongdoing that didn't result in a prosecution. It's going to be really compelling," Ms. Melewsky said.
Viewers of the videotaped interviews will be able to see how various witnesses, under oath, remember remarks and details from the evening differently.
Former Pittsburgh police Cmdr. Ron Freeman, who spent more than 37 years on the force, said police and prosecutors are used to discrepancies.
"It's very common, and sociologists and psychologists tell us there's a variety of reasons for it," Mr. Freeman said. "It depends on a person's background, their perspective, their interests. For instance, if someone's a car salesman, he'll pay more attention to a car than someone who's into clothes, and vice versa. You have to take the person's background into account and try to understand why there is that difference."
Mr. Freeman, who now teaches Crime Scene Investigation at Duquesne University, said it will be interesting to see how law enforcement officers couched their questions.
"If an officer asks a witness, 'Did you see the red car bump the white car?' he'll probably get a different answer than if he asks, 'Did you see the red car crash into the white car?' How the question is phrased can influence the answer."
Mr. Freeman said Pittsburgh police did not routinely tape interviews. The practice is common at GBI, however, according to Tom Davis, the agent in charge of the bureau's Milledgeville office. The policy governing whether to record directs agents to take into account six factors, including the impact on cooperation and the potential for someone to recant.
Mr. Freeman said as interesting as the viewing might be, he would be strongly opposed to Pennsylvania law permitting the release of videotaped statements from witnesses.
"Now [Georgia's] system might work," Mr. Freeman said, "but I feel witnesses being videotaped will think, 'Hey, if I talk to these guys, it's going to be released to the public, and I don't want my video out there on YouTube.' So I feel fewer people would be willing to talk and cooperate. I don't think I like it at all."
Richard A. Malone, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia, could not cite an instance in which the prospect of having videotaped interviews released to the public dissuaded statements to the point where a case was derailed.
Mr. Malone conceded that he could understand the potential pitfalls for investigators if witnesses grew concerned about their statements being disseminated on the Internet.
"I can see possibilities where that could occur, but I cannot recall any -- and I've been around quite a while -- where letting the public take a look at what precipitated the decision on the part of the prosecutor not to proceed has caused a real problem."