This Week in Innocence


From a New York Times editorial today:

Douglas Warney, a person of limited mental capabilities who has been diagnosed with AIDS and AIDS dementia, served nine years in New York State prisons for a murder he did not commit. Now the state is seeking to compound the injustice by denying Mr. Warney compensation, even though there is a state law to provide redress for people who are wrongly convicted…

New York State has primarily argued, and lower state courts have rashly agreed, that Mr. Warney's false confession makes him ineligible for compensation because the Unjust Conviction and Imprisonment Act bars recovery for those whose own misconduct caused their conviction.

That limit was meant to weed out deliberate misconduct to gain some tactical advantage, say a confession intended to conceal a loved one's guilt. Mr. Warney's false confession was not the product of misconduct. It was the reaction of a particularly susceptible individual to common police interrogation techniques that sometimes cause innocent people to confess. That phenomenon was illuminated in a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the American Psychological Association…

If there was misconduct in Mr. Warney's case, it was on the part of police officers, who fed him "held back" facts about the murder and then claimed those facts in his typed confession originated with him, providing reliable proof of his guilt.

This is a common stipulation in state laws that allow compensation for the wrongly convicted. If you confessed to a crime you didn't commit you're unlikely to be compensated, even if the confession was beaten or manipulated out of you. To understand how something like this can happen, even among well-intentioned police officers, I recommend this 2008 L.A. Times op-ed by D.C. Detective Jim Trainium, in which Trainium describes how he was was floored to discover that not only had a woman he interrogated falsely confessed to a murder, but that Trainium himself had unknowingly fed the woman details about the killing.

Commenting on the Warney case, New York defense attorney Scott Greenfield notes that the courts have long endorsed the practice of lying to suspects to obtain confessions:

If the police are not merely entitled to lie, cheat and steal to get their guy, but encouraged to do so, then there's a perverse logic in the state's argument against Warney's claim.  Why blame the cops for manipulating a mentally challenged person into confessing when truth and honesty play no role in their job?  They got a man to confess.  That's what we pay them to do.  That's what the courts tell them to do.  Nobody made Warney confess, as the state now argues, provided there's nothing wrong with manipulating the innocent into falsely confessing.

The courts can't have it both ways.  It's time to jump off that slippery slope of encouraging law enforcement deceit if they can't embrace the natural outcome.

At the very least, all police interrogations need to be videotaped.