Blame The Victim
So when Douglas Warney was finally freed with the help of the Innocence Project based upon DNA proving that he was innocent of the crime, it didn't seem much of a stretch to expect the state to pay under the wrongful. That was a mistake. His claim was dismissed, and affirmed on appeal. Peter Neufeld took it to the Court of Appeals, where the case was argued in February.
Via the Gotham Gazette, Emily Jane Goodman (who happens to be a Supreme Court Justice in her spare time) explained the state's position:
Arguing for the state, attorney Alison Natnah told New York's highest court that Warney had "no entitlement to compensation" for his years spent in prison since he should have been able to foresee that his own admission and self-incrimination, which she called "voluntary," would lead to his conviction. In other words, it was Warney and not the government who was responsible for his conviction and the years of incarceration. That it is wrongful and unjust — not just a mistake — is insufficient to allow the claim to proceed argued Natnah, who has recently been recommended by Sen. Charles Schumer for a federal judgeship.
A curious argument indeed. It was Warney's fault for confessing, falsely, and the state should be off the hook. Warney should have known better, as a brilliant rocket scientist. Actually, Warney wasn't quite so smart.
Douglas Warney, a man with a history of mental health issues, an eighth-grade education, and advanced AIDS, called the police stating that he had information about a homicide. He knew the victim: he had cleaned the victim’s house and shoveled snow from his driveway just two years before the murder. Warney was interrogated for 12 hours by police, he confessed and provided details that only the killer could know - that the victim was wearing a nightgown, that he had been cooking chicken, and that the killer cut himself with a knife and wiped it with a tissue in the bathroom.
The sophist's circle makes one wonder how we can blame the police if Warney knew so much about the murder. Wasn't it the absolutely, totally, completely innocent defendant's fault that he misled the cops? Logic, however, flows in the opposite direction.
Given that he has been ruled out as the perpetrator, "How could Warney have known that the weapon was a 13-inch serrated knife, and that a victim was stabbed 15 times?" [Court of Appeals Judge Robert] Smith wanted to know. He prodded the prosecutor to tell the court how Warney could have had these facts — unless the police told him. Natnah was unable to provide an explanation that seemed to satisfy Smith. Meantime, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman asked how Warney's "confession" could be considered credible if "90 percent of what he knew was planted in his mind by the police," especially when one week earlier the police had taken Warney to a psychiatric hospital.
While it all seems pretty obvious, bear in mind that Warney has lost up to this point, his claim being dismissed by Judge Renee Forgensi Minarik of the Court of Claims, who held that the fact of Warney confession overrides why he confessed.
The New York Times editorial argues for the Court of Appeals to reverse:
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.
It would seem definitional that a false confession, defined as one obtained via police manipulation, cannot constitute misconduct that would preclude an innocent defendant from obtaining compensation. While a tactical confession would suffice, the courts ought be up to the task of distinguishing between the two. The per se rule that a confession alone is sufficient to defeat the claim of an innocent and wrongly convicted defendant should be reversed, not only on the obvious humanitarian basis but because it's irrational. The innocent victim isn't to blame for the police feeding him, manipulating him, coercing him to confess.
There remains, however, an issue beneath the surface of this claim for compensation, and at the heart of the underlying problem. As long as the courts remain wedded to the notion that intentional, deliberate, methodical deception by police constitutes a perfectly lawful and appropriate law enforcement method, they encourage the police to say anything, do anything, to nail the bad guy.
Except it's not always the bad guy they nail. The same methods, like their beloved Reid Technique, that are so effective in obtaining confessions from the guilty are equally effective in obtaining confessions from the innocent. With the encouragement of decisions like Whren, the police use pretext to seize the innocent as well as the guilty, and we can't even begin to know how much more often since their mistakes are concealed by their letting them go on their way.
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.