Civil Liberties

When a Cop Claims a Murder Suspect Confessed, Ask for the Tape


The New York Times

New York Times reporters Michael Powell and Sharon Otterman tell the eye-opening story of how an innocent man was convicted of murdering a Brooklyn rabbi in 1990. Chaskel Werzberger, an adviser to the Satmar rebbe, was fatally shot by a would-be robber who stole his car while fleeing the scene of a bungled diamond heist. David Ranta, now 58, has been in prison since 1991 for the crime, based mainly on testimony from self-interested witnesses who later admitted they had lied and a detective's uncorroborated report of a confession that Ranta has always denied making. Powell and Otterman report that "four of the five witnesses in the first lineup did not identify Mr. Ranta." Furthermore, the eyewitness who should have gotten the clearest look at Werzberger's killer, the diamond courier he tried to rob, testified at the trial that Ranta was "100 percent not" the right man. The jury evidently gave more weight to other witnesses, including one who was 13 at the time and now says a detective told him to pick Ranta out of a lineup.

In 1996, five years after Ranta began serving his sentence, a woman testified that her husband, an armed robber who was identified by an anonymous tipster as Werzberger's killer shortly after the crime but died in a car crash a few months later, had confessed to her. But that was not enough to win Ranta a new trial. "I figured I was going to die in prison," he told the Times. Since then, Powell and Otterman write, "nearly every piece of evidence in this case has fallen away," including the testimony of a criminal who avoided a potential life sentence by claiming to have been Ranta's accomplice. This week Kings County District Attorney Charles J. Hynes, who was elected to his first term the year before Werzberger's murder, announced that he was recommending Ranta's release based on an investigation by a unit that Hynes created to uncover wrongful convictions. Powell and Otterman's story shows how the pressure to solve a high-profile murder, a criminal's incentive to lie in exchange for more lenient treatment, and a cop's determination to convict someone he's sure is guilty can combine to create a terrible injustice.

The weight given to undocumented confessions is further illustrated by the case of Debra Milke, who has been on Arizona's death row since 1990, when she was convicted of conspiring to murder her 4-year-old son. Like Ranta, she was convicted based on the testimony of a detective who said she had confessed. As the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit explains in a recent decision overturning her conviction, "The trial was, essentially, a swearing contest between Milke and Phoenix Police Detective Armando Saldate, Jr." Although "the judge and jury believed Saldate," they did not know about his "long history of lying under oath and other misconduct." That history included "a five-day suspension for taking 'liberties' with a female motorist and then lying about it to his supervisors; four court cases where judges tossed out confessions or indictments because Saldate lied under oath; and four cases where judges suppressed confessions or vacated convictions because Saldate had violated the Fifth Amendment or the Fourth Amendment in the course of interrogations." The prosecution "knew about this misconduct but didn't disclose it," in violation of its obligations under Brady v. Maryland, the 1963 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that due process requires prosecutors to share potentially exculpatory evidence with the defense. 

Writing for a three-judge appeals court panel, Alex Kozinski highlights the trial judge's failure to comprehend the significance of this prosecutorial misconduct:

In reviewing the exhibits attached to Milke's postconviction petition, [Maricopa County Superior Court] Judge Cheryl K. Hendrix, who was also the trial judge, was "unable to find a reference to the type of evidence that is allowed under Rule 608 to impeach the credibility of a witness." That is no doubt because she grossly misapprehended the nature and content of the documents that Milke presented. Even though the judge claimed to have reviewed the exhibits, she referred to the collection of court documents as containing mere "motions and testimony from other cases in which Det. Saldate was the interrogating officer. It establishes nothing. The filing of a motion to suppress does not mean the police officer engaged in improprieties."

Had these been merely motions and testimony, that would be true; anyone can make unsubstantiated allegations of misconduct. But seven of the cases included court orders finding that Saldate had lied under oath or violated the Fifth or the Fourth Amendments during interrogations. Multiple judicial determinations that Saldate lied in performing his official functions and violated suspects' constitutional rights would have been highly relevant where the state's case rested on his testimony.

In a separate concurring opinion addressing the issue of whether Milke knowingly waived her right to counsel and her right to remain silent, Kozinski emphasizes that "the only evidence linking Milke to the murder of her son is the word of Detective Armando Saldate, Jr.—a police officer with a long history of misconduct that includes lying under oath as well as accepting sexual favors in exchange for leniency and lying about it." Kozinski blasted "Saldate's unorthodox interrogation methods," which included questioning suspects who were intoxicated or who had asserted their right to remain silent. During Milke's trial, Saldate testified that it would be "ridiculous" to stop interrogating someone just "because they asked for an attorney." Kozinski comments:

What I find ridiculous is that this man—with his track record of trampling basic constitutional rights—is sent to interrogate a suspect without a tape recorder, a video recorder, a witness or any other objective means of documenting the interrogation….

In effect, Saldate turned the interrogation room into a black box, leaving us no objectively verifiable proof as to what happened inside. All we have are the conflicting accounts of a defendant with an obvious reason to lie and a detective whose disdain for lawful process is documented by one instance after another of lying under oath and other misconduct.

No civilized system of justice should have to depend on such flimsy evidence, quite possibly tainted by dishonesty or overzealousness, to decide whether to take someone's life or liberty. The Phoenix Police Department and Saldate's supervisors there should be ashamed of having given free rein to a lawless cop to misbehave again and again, undermining the integrity of the system of justice they were sworn to uphold. As should the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, which continued to prosecute Saldate's cases without bothering to disclose his pattern of misconduct. 

The other two judges on the panel seemed to share Kozinski's dismay, agreeing that their opinion should be sent to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division "for possible investigation into whether Saldate's conduct, and that of his supervisors and other state and local officials, amounts to a pattern of violating the federally protected rights of Arizona residents." You can read the whole decision here.

[Via Above the Law. Thanks to Jonathan Bard for the tip.]