(Stony Brook, N.Y.) On Friday, April 11, State Senators Eric Schneiderman (D-Manhattan/Bronx), Velmanette Montgomery (D-Brooklyn), John Sabini (D-Queens), John Sampson (D-Brooklyn), Eric Adams (D-Brooklyn) and Bill Perkins (D-Manhattan), Assemblymember Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove), and leading criminal justice advocates took part in a public forum to address wrongful convictions and Mandatory Electronic Recording of Interrogations.
At the forum, expert testimony was presented by Barry Scheck of The Innocence Project, which is affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Nicholas A. Gravante, the attorney who represented Frank Esposito in People v. Esposito, the representatives for Long Island native Martin Tankleff, who was present at the forum, Thomas P. Sullivan, a former United States attorney and national expert on recording custodial interrogations, Jeffrey Szabo, Deputy County Executive and Chief of Staff to Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, and Jeffrey Deskovic, who was exonerated in 2006 after serving 15 years in prison for a murder and sexual assault that he did not commit.
Schneiderman, who chairs the New York State Senate Democratic Task Force on Criminal Justice Reform and also serves as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Codes Committee as well as a Commissioner on the New York State Commission on Sentencing Reform, has worked tirelessly to ensure that the guilty are punished and innocent persons are safeguarded. Testimony from today’s forum will be used to develop legislation that ensures the public’s trust in New York’s criminal justice system.
“A grave injustice is committed when we create victims out of innocent people because inefficient, unreliable and out of date models of interrogation continue to be used,” Schneiderman said. “Too often, criminal cases have been decided on little more than he-said/she-said. We need mandatory electronic recording so that justice is carried out with precision, so that detectives can do their work knowing their efforts are well-documented, and with no lingering question about whether the right person is off the streets.”
Senator Schneiderman proposed amendments to protect the innocent that included mandatory electronic recording of custodial interrogations to a number of bills last year. He has worked with many of the country’s leading experts on criminal justice reform, including the Innocence Project, whose Co-Founder, Barry Scheck, presented testimony today.
The Innocence Project has helped to exonerate 215 individuals in the United States since 1989. According to Scheck, “Twenty-three people in New York were wrongfully convicted and served years or decades in prison before DNA proved their innocence.” He also pointed out that “New York has seen more DNA exonerations than almost any other state in the nation – but has not yet taken action to prevent future injustice by implementing simple, straightforward reforms. Nobody – not the police, prosecutors, judges, victims, or the public at large – benefits from these wrongful convictions. The only person who benefits from a wrongful conviction is the real perpetrator of a crime, who evades justice. Leadership in New York State’s executive, legislative and judicial branches must enact reforms that can restore public confidence in the state’s criminal justice system and improve public safety.”
Addressing the information provided by the Innocence Project, Nassau County Assemblyman Charles Lavine commented, “As Americans, we have always valued the integrity of our system of criminal justice. The inquiry of the Senate’s Democratic Task Force on Criminal Justice Reform provides the citizens of New York the opportunity to examine how we are best able to protect the public in an era of dramatic technological advances while at the same time protecting the rights of our individual citizens.”
State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, a long time advocate for reforming criminal justice polices in New York, continued “The hundreds of exonerations across the nation over the past several years should inspire us to fix the cracks in our criminal justice system. The videotaping of police interrogations will provide us with the added assurance that our criminal justice system is working properly, and that we are only convicting the real perpetrator of a crime.”
“False confessions under coercion are a major source of wrongful convictions,” added State Senator John Sabini. “Recording interrogations for violent crimes is a major step toward preventing these injustices.”
State Senator John Sampson noted, “By videotaping confessions, we eliminate the questions of whether or not the defendant has been coerced or other unorthodox means have been used to solicit confessions.”
State Senator Eric Adams, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Crime Victims, Crime, and Corrections Committee, spoke about his experience as a law enforcement official. “Recording interrogations doesn’t just protect the innocent, but also serves our police and prosecutors as well. Speaking as a former New York City police officer, I am committed to joining the other states across our nation that have already taken steps to enact this common sense policy.”
State Senator Bill Perkins agreed with his colleagues and added, “False confessions undermine the credibility of our criminal justice system, and ultimately the viability of our democracy.”
In over 25% of the Innocence Project’s DNA exoneration cases, the innocent defendants made confessions or incriminating statements, or simply pled guilty to the crimes. Studies show that the incorporation of harsh tactics, exhaustion, and intimidation or coercion during lengthy interrogation sessions can cause innocent suspects to confess to crimes they did not commit. These tactics are especially successful when used with minors such as in the cases of People v. Esposito and People v. Tankleff.
As a young man, Frank Esposito was brought up on charges that set a stable on fire. The prosecution’s case hinged on a videotaped confession of the then 17-year-old suspect that was coerced by the detectives after 18 hours of interrogation, during which time Esposito did not sleep or eat. In that interrogation, the detectives lied to the suspect about failing a polygraph test and whether or not his friends supported his alibi.
Nicholas A. Gravante, an attorney for Esposito, said “Nothing is more disturbing than innocent people sitting in prison for crimes they did not commit. Recording custodial interrogations in their entirety would minimize that possibility by inhibiting law enforcement from overreaching and preventing suspects from falsely alleging that they did. It would be a win-win situation for the justice system.”
Also testifying today about the benefits of mandatory electronic recording were advocates for Martin Tankleff, who was convicted and sentenced to 50-years-to-life after allegedly confessing to his parents’ double-homicide. Last year, after serving over 17 years in prison, the New York State Appellate Court 2nd Department unanimously overturned his conviction. Tankleff is still in the process of trying to vacate his indictments.
Lonnie Soury and Eric Friedman, who testified on behalf of Tankleff who sat in the audience due to his ongoing litigation, pointed out that “the larger meaning of Marty Tankleff’s case is to point out the gap in our system, which is that when there is a horrible, obvious mistake made, there is no mechanism for correcting it. To leave it to the judicial and prosecutorial entities to correct their own mistakes is what leads the wrongfully convicted to remain imprisoned for many, many years.”
Martin Tankleff was joined by Jeffrey Deskovic, a Westchester County resident who served 15 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Mr. Deskovic was exonerated, with the assistance of the Innocence Project, in 2006. “It is essential that we mandate videotaping interrogations and enact other reforms to prevent wrongful convictions, so that other people don’t suffer the same fate I did by serving time in prison for crimes they did not commit,” said Deskovic.
Over 500 jurisdictions nationwide, including the states of Alaska, Minnesota and Illinois, regularly record police interrogations. Despite the undeniable benefits of mandatory electronic recording, previous efforts to implement a system of checks-and-balances in New York State with mandatory electronic recording have been largely unsuccessful.
Thomas P. Sullivan, who co-chairs the Illinois Governor’s Commission on the Death Penalty, testified that “recording custodial interrogations saves time and money, creates compelling evidence and is effective in resolving disputes involving allegations of police misconduct and whether confessions are voluntary.” In a 2004 report titled Police Experiences with Recording Custodial Interrogations, Mr. Sullivan documented the overwhelming approval of mandatory electronic recording of interrogations by law enforcement officials who have experienced the first-hand benefits.
Jeffrey Szabo, Deputy County Executive and Chief of Staff to Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, also testified about Suffolk County’s effort to mandate recording of interrogations in homicide cases once a suspect arrives at the police station.
“There are clear examples of people who have been wrongfully convicted, and there are compelling examples of how the bad guy may have been let free,” Szabo continued. “Given that, it seems appropriate for us to implement mandatory electronic recordings of interrogations as the normal protocol when investigating criminal matters. It is imperative that our system of justice operate with the most up-to-date tools and resources. I will continue to work with my colleagues and experts in this field to develop smart legislation and responsible policies that hold our legal system to the highest standard.”
Photo: New York State Senator Eric Schneiderman