Two North Carolina half brothers were released from prison last month after serving three decades for a rape and murder they did not commit but for which they had been convicted based on coerced confessions. The exoneration finally came after new testing of DNA evidence matched neither Henry McCollum, 50, nor Leon Brown, 46, but instead implicated a third man convicted of a similar crime committed around the same time in the same neighborhood.
It’s impossible to say for certain, but had the state of North Carolina required its investigators back then, as it does now, to record interrogations of serious felony suspects in custody, it’s likely that this atrocious miscarriage of justice would not have happened. The men, who have diminished intellectual capabilities, signed confessions after hours of intense questioning and a promise that they could go home. Perhaps the police would not have behaved that way if a camera had been running, or if they did, it would have been brought to light during the trial.
Unfortunately, that case is not unique. The Innocence Project says that over 15 years, 64 of 102 erroneous murder convictions nationwide were based on false confessions. About 22% of all wrongful convictions involved coerced or otherwise improperly obtained confessions.
There’s a simple step that can help address this: Require police to videotape interrogations of suspects in serious felony cases. More than 40 California cities or agencies already do this, including San Diego and San Francisco. (Los Angeles does not.) Federal agents in the Department of Justice began doing so in July. The benefits are clear and laudable: a chance to reduce wrongful convictions, protect police from contrived allegations of abuse or malfeasance and save the expense of defending bad cases.
California has considered this before. The Legislature passed such laws in 2005 and 2007, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed them because of his fear of constraining police. But the concerns of law enforcement groups were unpersuasive. In 2008, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice recommended taping interrogations, and last year, the state adopted a law requiring recorded interrogations — but just for minors suspected of homicide.
Outfitting all those interrogation rooms wouldn’t be cheap, and storing the interviews would take some logistical configuring. But those are minor hurdles. Since 2010, Congress has considered several bills that would have provided matching federal funds to install recording systems, but it has failed to pass them. It should do so.
But even if it doesn’t, the Legislature should work with Gov. Jerry Brown to recraft legislation requiring the recordings. It would protect both the integrity of the criminal justice system and the innocent.
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