The New York legal system has been the subject of quite a bit of recent media attention related to false confessions and even false imprisonment.
Just recently, the highest court in New York heard about 2 murder cases that brought to light some potential questions about how far officers are allowed to go when interrogating suspects. The Court of Appeals are specifically focusing on whether it is ok for an officer to lie to a suspect in the interview room, and whether or not that could become coercion in certain circumstances.
This is an especially loaded question right now, with the recent news coming out about the coerced confession in the extremely high-profile case about the Central Park Five.
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman asked “what is acceptable pressure? What’s O.K. and what’s not O.K. in terms of deception?” He was specifically asking in response to a case involving Adrian Thomas, who was coerced into confessing to the murder of his infant son in 2009. His son had been taken to the hospital suffering from pneumonia and an infection, and while there, doctors also found X-ray evidence of head trauma.
The detectives, when questioning Mr. Thomas, told him they believed that it was all an accident. Later on, however, they threatened him with the arrest of his wife if he didn’t “take the rap” for her. When the son was declared brain dead, detectives told Mr. Thomas (who was unaware his son had passed) that the son might die if he didn’t confess to doctors exactly how he hurt the child.
Mr. Thomas ended up confessing to the crime, and is serving a sentence of 25 years to life. After appealing the decision, the decision was upheld, and he was told that the tactics were not out of line.
Judge Rupert F. Smith, who expressed sympathy to Thomas for the unfair conviction, disagrees. He says that when you threaten, even indirectly, the things that a person holds dear, such as the life of their children, they are much more likely to confess falsely. “How can it not overborne your will if you think there is even a small chance of saving your child’s life?”
While Mr. Thomas’s case ruling, which came under severe scrutiny, was not overturned, police departments will have to be much more careful about how they try to coerce suspects in the future. They are facing nothing but increased attention.