The initial reaction to a huge win is always the same: Elation. It doesn’t happen often, and it means one more innocent life is snatched from the belly of the beast. And so the Court of Appeals decision in People v. Adrian Thomas, suppressing his confession made after hours of coercive interrogation, was cause for celebration.
Inasmuch as we conclude that defendant’s inculpating statements were not demonstrably voluntary, we reverse the order of the Appellate Division affirming defendant’s conviction (93 AD3d 1019 [3d Dept 2012]), grant defendant’s previously denied motion to suppress those statements, and direct a new trial.
Sure, it would have been sweeter had the Court phrased it differently, that the “inculpating statements” were the product of manipulation, coercion, compulsion, but “not demonstrably voluntary” will do. After all, without the confession, there is no evidence of guilt. The “new trial” is a formality. They’ve got nothing.
The opinion by Chief Judge Lippman goes on at length, and in detail, about the interrogation. Somebody was made to watch the video over and over, counting the number of times the chief interrogator, Troy Police Sergeant Adam Mason, lied, twisted, fed, cajoled, threatened and lied again to Thomas, a distraught and unsophisticated father whose baby was, as far as he knew, dying in a hospital room.
The premise of the interrogation was that an adult within the Thomas-Hicks household must have inflicted traumatic head injuries on the infant. Indeed one of the interrogating officers told defendant that he had been informed by Matthew’s doctor that Matthew had been “slammed into something very hard. It’s like a high speed impact in a vehicle. This baby was murdered . . . This baby is going to die and he was murdered.”
The interrogators, however, repeatedly reassured defendant that they understood Matthew’s injuries to have been accidental. They said they were not investigating what they thought to be a crime and that once defendant had told them what had happened he could go home. He would not, they reassured over and again, be arrested. When, however, defendant continued to deny having hurt Matthew, even accidentally, the officers falsely represented that his wife had blamed him for Matthew’s injuries and then threatened that, if he did not take responsibility, they would “scoop” Ms. Hicks out from the hospital and bring her in, since one of them must have injured the child.
By the end of the initial two-hour interrogation, defendant agreed to “take the fall” for his wife. He said that he had not harmed the child and did not believe that his wife had either because “she is a good wife,” but that he would take responsibility to keep her out of trouble. (Broken into paragraphs for readability.)
And that was just the first two hours of questioning. The second period of interrogation lasted another seven and a half hours. The opinion goes on to list how many times lies were repeated, how many inducements to falsely agree were offered, how the love of his wife and child would overcome his will, the truth, and reality to give Mason the only thing he wanted: a confession.
And with this opinion, the Court of Appeals has unanimously confirmed that false confessions happen. And in doing so, falls far short of what could have been accomplished in this decision.
The Court did not hold that lying during interrogation was wrong, and indeed, held just the opposite:
The choice to speak where speech may incriminate is constitutionally that of the individual, not the government, and the government may not effectively eliminate it by any coercive device. It is well established that not all deception of a suspect is coercive, but in extreme forms it may be. Whether deception or other psychologically directed stratagems actually eclipse individual will, will of course depend upon the facts of each case, both as they bear upon the means employed and the vulnerability of the declarant.
While the Court held that the coercion in Thomas exceeded the permissible, and that the prosecution failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the statements “were not products of coercion, either physical or psychological,” the opinion offers no guidance as to where the line is drawn.
So what we’re left with is that cops can continue to employ the Reid Technique, continue to lie, manipulate, deceive and coerce, but there is some unknown point beyond which it all becomes more than the law allows, rendering the statements the product of psychological coercion.
The hopes for this case were big, starting with reversal for Adrian Thomas himself, but going much farther, to a point where some limits might be applied to the use of sophisticated techniques crafted for the sole purpose of obtaining a confession from an unwitting suspect. False confessions are one of the most disturbing problems of the system, as jurors’ “common sense” ignorance prevents them from believing it happens.
It happens. Just because someone who has never been the target of the psychological manipulation of the Reid Technique doesn’t comprehend how or why doesn’t change it. Jurors don’t get it, as it doesn’t conform to their projections of what they would do.
But jurors can be taught, you say? An expert can enlighten the jury and make them understand how and why people falsely confess? Yes, that’s true, but then the trial judge, after permitting the prosecution to put on its “expert,” Paul Cassell, to testify that false confessions are malarkey, refused the defense’s efforts to do the same. The trial judge decided that the prosecution’s expert was all the jury needed, and refused to allow an honest-to-god false confessions expert, Richard Ofshe, to testify.
Had Ofshe been allowed to testify, perhaps the case would never have made it to the Court of Appeals because the jury would have acquitted, recognizing that the only evidence against Adrian Thomas was the product of lies, manipulation and coercion, and that the confession was worthless. But Ofshe wasn’t allowed to testify, and the jury convicted.
On this aspect of the appeal, Judge Lippman wrote:
Inasmuch as we conclude that defendant’s confession should not have been placed before the jury, there is no need to address whether defendant’s expert should have been permitted to testify about the phenomenon of false confession and the interrogation techniques employed to elicit defendant’s admissions.
And so we celebrate a big win, a good win, for Adrian Thomas, while the law of the State of New York remains as mired in fuzziness as it did before. And when the next coerced confession is permitted to come before the jury, and the next defense expert is precluded from testifying, the next defendant will suffer the same wrongful conviction as Adrian Thomas, and hope that he too eventually gets a good win as well. Or he will just rot in prison for lack of guidance on how to end the plague of false confessions.
[I've written numerous posts about this case, which can be found here.]