Friday, October 14, 2011

The Cautionary Instruction: A final look at wrongful convictions--False confessions

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
October 14, 2011

Last month, the Advisory Committee on Wrongful Convictions issued its report (Committee Report) totaling 308 pages. Attached to the Committee Report is Appendix J, “Comments of Law Enforcement and Victim Group Representatives.” The comments consisted of six pages.

The Law Enforcement and Victim Group Representatives actually prepared their own Independent Report -- Appendix J was merely a summary.

Over the last several weeks, The Cautionary Instruction has taken a look at the methodology of the Committee Report and the competing positions with regard to eyewitness identification. Today’s post will take a final look at the Committee Report -- focusing on false confessions and electronic recording of interrogations ...

About 15 percent of the Committee Report is dedicated to electronic recording of interrogations. The Committee Report suggested that four of 11 Pennsylvania ‘exonerees’ (the Independent Report acknowledges only one of those 11 as actual ‘exonerees’) listed a false confession, or another incriminating admission, as a contributing factor in their conviction. It is worth noting that recording requirements are currently on the books in roughly a dozen states and are in practice in many individual jurisdictions, but this practice remains the exception, not the rule.

The Committee Report proposed a statutory mandate requiring all custodial interrogations be electronically recorded. The Committee Report found that the vast majority of false confessions come “under stress of the interrogation.”
The Independent Report is not opposed to examining the benefit of using electronic recording during police interrogations. The Independent Report is opposed to mandating the use of electronic recording without first implementing a pilot project under the monitoring of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

The Independent Report suggested that a state-wide mandate, with the sanction of an adverse jury instruction available to the defense in cases where an interrogation and confession were not recorded, is not prudent.

The Independent Report also raised questions about the cost and uniform implementation of an electronic recording mandate, “The costs and other practical difficulties of such an arrangement cannot be known unless they are studied in a pilot program.”

The Committee Report recommendation statutorily mandating the electronic recording of custodial interrogations without first testing the feasibility of such a mandate seems to interject a sense of urgency into a process that has dragged on for five years.

The object of this process was to insure that the guilty were held accountable and the innocent were not put in jeopardy of wrongful conviction. A carefully crafted and well monitored pilot program for electronic recording would do well to achieve both goals and enhance the safety and well-being of all Pennsylvanians.

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