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Police Induce False Confession Leading to Wrongful Conviction

by TChris

Update: Be sure to follow the links provided in the comments by readers Nicole Black and Peter G to learn more about this case and about false confessions.

original post:

It was easier for the Rochester, NY police to elicit Douglas Warney's confession than it would have been to track down the actual killer of William Beason.

Warney, who has a recorded IQ of 68 and a history of mental health issues, was convicted based almost entirely on a confession he gave police after hours of interrogation-even though the confession was riddled with inconsistencies, he had a history of making false reports to police and the physical evidence at the time failed to link him to the crime. Warney was initially charged with capital murder, though he was ultimately sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

In papers filed to vacate Warney's conviction and release him from prison, the Innocence Project said Rochester police officers provided key details of the murder to Warney during interrogations. Once Warney repeated those details-which were not publicly available-in a confession, police and prosecutors focused on no other suspects and secured his conviction by saying nobody but the perpetrator of the crime would know such details.

DNA tests subsequently pointed the finger of guilt at a man who, imprisoned for another crime, has since confessed. Warney was released, but only after he spent ten years in prison.

The truth didn't matter much to the Monroe County District Attorney's office, which parrotted the inevitable argument that "all cases must come to an end" even if they've ended in injustice. To prosecutors (and many judges) who worship at the altar of finality, getting the case done is more important than getting it done right.

In court papers filed May 23, the Innocence Project said Warney's case "shines a light on the Monroe County prosecutor's inexplicable custom of opposing post-conviction DNA testing and the reluctance of trial judges to follow the intent of the law, the whole purpose of which is to give defendants an opportunity to prove, scientifically, their actual innocence". For two years, the Monroe County district attorney, Michael Green, fought DNA testing in the case, saving the finality of the conviction was critical.

Warney's conviction wasn't an innocent mistake.

"These DNA results don't just show that Doug Warney is innocent-they reveal criminal conduct on the part of at least two Rochester police officers, and they demonstrate tunnel vision on the part of police and prosecutors who ignored compelling evidence that the confession was bogus", said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project. "This case should be a clarion call for every law enforcement agency in the state to begin recording police interrogatories for serious crimes."

Police should be required to record every word they say to induce a confession, and every word uttered by the suspect in response. Honest officers understand that recording protects them from claims that they're distorting or inventing the suspect's statement. Officers like those who "interrogated" Warney fear they might become less effective if their tactics are exposed. In other words, they might have to start doing the hard work of solving the crime rather than taking the easy route of picking a suspect and twisting the evidence to support an arrest.

Warney wasn't the only victim of the Rochester police officers' laziness. The true killer attempted two more murders while Warney was behind bars. If the police hadn't "solved" the crime the easy way, they might have captured the actual killer before he cut the throats of two more victims.

Congratulations to the Innocence Project in New York for its outstanding work in helping Warney regain his freedom.

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  • Hmmmm. "Aggressive interrogation techniques" yielding false confessions. Where else have we heard about that recently? When I read of cases like this, the other thing I always want to know is where was the accused's attorney? The appointment of unqualified defense attorneys, the overwhelming case loads of public defenders, and the refusal to adequately fund the defense of indigents in capital cases are all continuing scandals. The only reason they don't shock us is because they're so common.

    if you follow a bush rat you get mass murder of a nation and its ideals of laws. bush is bin laden and bush wants you dead,dead,dead, all that rat wants is you totally enslaved and the bush rat will be happy as hell.

    Re: Police Induce False Confession Leading to Wron (none / 0) (#3)
    by jen on Tue Jun 06, 2006 at 09:33:30 AM EST
    Video or even audiotaping interrogations would protect both parties, wouldn't it? Why isn't it done more often? Every time the police and prosecuters do something like this, someone gets away with murder. (or whatever crime they pin on the nearest convenient person as opposed to the actual perpetrator)

    "Video or even audiotaping interrogations would protect both parties, wouldn't it? Why isn't it done more often?" Same reason it isn't done at Gitmo, Abu G, etc.

    Don Thompson, a Rochester attorney who worked with the Innocence Project, did a pehnomenal job in this case, and has consistently made an effort to handle cases of this nature throughout his career. Should you be interested to learn more about this case, I posted about this case here at my blog, Sui Generis, a New York Law Blog here. and the NY Criminal Trial Law Blog has a great post on this case that includes a letter from Don re: this case that he sent to his colleagues at the NYS Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. That post can be found here.

    Re: Police Induce False Confession Leading to Wron (none / 0) (#6)
    by squeaky on Tue Jun 06, 2006 at 10:18:41 AM EST
    How can this be? The police can lie in order to cement a conviction without any liability while a suspect, who turns out to be innocent, can be jailed for lying at best and falsely convicted at worst. Crazy.

    Re: Police Induce False Confession Leading to Wron (none / 0) (#7)
    by roxtar on Tue Jun 06, 2006 at 10:50:49 AM EST
    "When I read of cases like this, the other thing I always want to know is where was the accused's attorney?" He (or she) probably hadn't been appointed yet. Assuming this guy to be indigent, they probably shoved a miranda form and waiver of rights under his nose while he was still pissing in his pants, thus permitting the interrogation to proceed lawyer-free. Had there been a recording of the questioning, and if it had been provided in discovery (IF), any lawyer worth his wing-tips would have moved to suppress the confession. We don't know whether that happened in this case or not, but it's S.O.P., especially with a mentally challenged defendant.

    Re: Police Induce False Confession Leading to Wron (none / 0) (#8)
    by HK on Tue Jun 06, 2006 at 10:51:27 AM EST
    I am staggered to learn that taping police interviews is not common practice in the US. In the UK, all interviews conducted at police stations must be tape recorded. Trials are underway to assess the feasibility of videoing rather than just using audio tapes. If it is alledged that the suspect made a confession outside of the interview room, for example in the squad car on the way to the station, their comments must be put to them by officers at the beginning of the tape, giving the suspect the chance to refute or confirm any such comments. As TL points out, this practice protects not just the suspect but the officers involved. Why is it that the US is such a prosperous country but is lagging in such important areas as criminal justice?

    Those interested in the Warney case may also want to read Bob Herbert's op-ed in the 5/22/06 NYTimes. Why is it that we see these law enforcement interrogation abuses as oddities? The rewards to investigators for extracting a confession are substantial -- recognition, promotion. The penalty for having an open, unsolved case -- bad publicity -- is hard to ignore. As a policy matter how should these carrots and sticks be realigned to deter false, forced coonfessions in the future? How should Warney be compensated?

    Re: Police Induce False Confession Leading to Wron (none / 0) (#10)
    by Dadler on Tue Jun 06, 2006 at 11:06:57 AM EST
    Sort of OT, but caught "Facing Life: The Re-Trial of Evan Zimmerman" on A&E last night. About a man wrongfully convicted of murder trying to clear his name. Excellent.

    I agree completely with HK. I'm in Chicago, and it's one of these baffling things -- we're on track for a metropolitan surveillance system that will be probably more extensive than London's, yet we don't necessarily videotape citizen interactions with the police, either in the car or during confession. It is insanely irrational. It is, I think, a form of not-knowing, which allows for both any judgement or no judgement at all to be passed. Let's say I got nabbed by the police once and was treated pretty badly. You culd say that's my allegation. The officers would allege something different. But without any mechanisms, easily obtained and implemented in this era of ubiquitous digital media, you could read my story or the police story in any number of ways. Whereas if you had a film of the stop that morning, you'd see whether or not the officers in question planted drugs, hit me, etc. It would seem like a win-win situation. The lack of such empiricism forces people to rely on their instincts about these matters and who knows who well-tuned those instincts are. Combined with other oversight systems that are equally flawed, the possibilities for disastrous outcomes (like Cory Maye) are inflated beyond what they need to be.

    Re: Police Induce False Confession Leading to Wron (none / 0) (#12)
    by Joe Bob on Tue Jun 06, 2006 at 11:21:11 AM EST
    How's this for an idea, in the spirit of restorative justice: Any officer or prosecutor who willfully distorts or manufactures evidence and sends an innocent person to jail gets to serve the sentence themselves.

    Re: Police Induce False Confession Leading to Wron (none / 0) (#13)
    by Peter G on Tue Jun 06, 2006 at 03:24:59 PM EST
    There's an excellent, relatively new website dealing with the issue of false confessions, run by a prof of Legal Studies at Williams College in Massachusetts.

    Joe Bob: The problem is the willfully part -- knowing the hearts and minds of people who distort evidence for whateve reasons is pretty hard to figure out. Frankly, having job security closely tied to performance criteria that includes serious reprecussions for botching evidence might be the best we can muster.

    Re: Police Induce False Confession Leading to Wron (none / 0) (#15)
    by Sailor on Tue Jun 06, 2006 at 07:27:06 PM EST
    knowing the hearts and minds of people who distort evidence for whateve reasons is pretty hard to figure out.
    Can you say a pattern!? I thought you could.
    Frankly, having job security closely tied to performance criteria that includes serious reprecussions for botching evidence might be the best we can muster.
    Did I miss something? Isn't that the system already in place? How about an automatic death penalty for people in the gov't who knowingly suborn perjury? Cops, DAs, judges ... send an innocent man to fry, you die. I mean, these people are supposed to know the law, surely the chance of a death penalty would be more effective deterrent for them than for some goober who kills a 7/11 clerk.

    Re: Police Induce False Confession Leading to Wron (none / 0) (#16)
    by HK on Wed Jun 07, 2006 at 01:55:47 AM EST
    A major flaw in that plan, Sailor, is that the death penalty has been shown to have little or no deterrent value. Using easily available and relatively cheap technology (a damn sight cheaper than putting the wrong guy on trial) you would take out the complex issues of human motivation, conscience, deviance and propensity for deception when convenient. Both suspects and officers would get the protection they deserve and trials would be made easier for just about everybody. It really is a simple solution.

    Re: Police Induce False Confession Leading to Wron (none / 0) (#17)
    by jen on Wed Jun 07, 2006 at 04:13:45 AM EST
    Wouldn't it be simpler to require any confession during interrogation obtained without benefit of council to be accompanied by video before it is admissible in court?

    When I read of cases like this, the other thing I always want to know is where was the accused's attorney?
    As someone with some familiarity with the Rochester PD, it is not unheard of for officers and detectives to try to convince suspects, or worse, people held in the jail, to speak with them without defense counsel present, in order to elicit a confession. When and if such facts come to light, local judges are apt to give the police the benefit of the doubt. I suspect that it is not much different anywhere else in the country (unfortunately). One aspect of the Warney case that hasn't been mentioned in the press accounts is the last-minute change in defense counsel. Warney was initially represented by the office of the Monroe County Public Defender. Apparently, the ADA on the case was a bit slow in getting the witness list to the defense, though the ADA assured the defense that no one previously represented by the Public Defender would be called as a witness (resulting in a conflict for the defense). A day or so before trial, the ADA produced the witness list, which, in fact, did include people once represented by the MCPD. The defense counsel had to "conflict out", and the case was farmed out to an attorney from the private bar at the last minute. If I recall correctly, there was no change in the trial date, and the rest is history. I only know of this second-hand (via the original defense attorney), so I can't justifiably attribute motive to the ADA's, er, "oversight," but I am willing to speculate that it was no accident. One last note, despite the fact that local DA, Mike Green, resisted re-examining this case for two years, once Warney was exonerated, the local media portrayed Green as one of the heroes of the story, and Green was only too happy to oblige. Many props to Don Thompson and the Innocence Project, the real heroes of this story.

    One of the best sites I've found that deals with this topic is truthaboutfalseconfessions.com. There is a lot of information and also helpful links on many of the issues discussed in this thread.

    Re: Police Induce False Confession Leading to Wron (none / 0) (#20)
    by Che's Lounge on Wed Jun 07, 2006 at 03:39:46 PM EST
    Is it just me or is the Innocence Project the most incredible group of people in the country right now? The only name I have ever had knowlegde of was Barry Scheck. I know there are so many more who are dedicated to freeing innocent people. They should get the Nobel Peace Prize.

    Re: Police Induce False Confession Leading to Wron (none / 0) (#21)
    by Sailor on Wed Jun 07, 2006 at 05:02:41 PM EST
    A major flaw in that plan, Sailor, is that the death penalty has been shown to have little or no deterrent value.
    HK, that's because of the sample. We assume lawyers, DAs and Judges know the law. Therefore they should be deterred. Oddly enough I hold them to higher standards than a crackhead.