Home > News > 

Ill. police must begin recording homicide interrogations

July 17, 2005
Print Comment RSS

Ill. police must begin recording homicide interrogations

Associated Press Writer

KANKAKEE, Ill.- Ken McCabe remembers the horror he felt when a suspect confessed that he killed someone simply because he was having a bad day. The detective knew there was no way he could communicate that feeling to jurors.

But he didn't have to - he had the interrogation on videotape.

"You can put that on paper, but does it have the truth and the depth that it can when you watch it? It doesn't," said McCabe, chief investigator for the Kankakee County sheriff.

Now more Illinois juries will get a chance to see such tapes under a law requiring police departments to record interrogations in homicide cases. It takes effect Monday, making Illinois only the third state in the nation with such a broad requirement.

The law was approved two years ago to help clean up a justice system haunted by innocent men being sent to death row. Courts found that 13 people had been wrongly convicted, and former Gov. George Ryan used his pardon and commutation powers to empty death row before he left office in 2003.

The taping requirement is meant to ensure that police don't obtain false confessions through torture or improper promises of leniency. At least 10 of the men sentenced to die said they confessed only to end hours of beatings and torture by Chicago police 20 years ago.

"This is one of the most important safeguards in the criminal justice system in the last 40 years," said Steven Drizin, legal director at Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions. "For the first time, courts will be able to see what happened behind the closed door of the interrogation room."

Some police are just as enthusiastic.

Taping means suspects can't claim they never confessed and that police are lying, and gives police insurance against claims of brutality. Jurors will be able to see for themselves whether a suspect appeared remorseful, cold or hysterical.

"This is marvelous," said Deputy Chief Michael Chasen of the Chicago Police Department, which has built a $4 million state-of-the-art digital recording system. "Every detective can go into a room and not worry someone is going to make false accusations."

It should reassure the public about police conduct in a department scarred by revelations of systematic abuse. A special prosecutor is investigating dozens of claims of torture.

The system includes infrared cameras to prove police aren't turning the lights out in interrogation rooms and beating suspects in the dark.

"Unequivocally, we can prove to the public the integrity we maintain," Chasen said. "It's proof positive for us."

The law requires that the recording, which can be either audio or video, be of the full interrogation, not simply of a confession obtained after questioning.

Alaska and Minnesota already have similar requirements because of court orders. Taping laws take effect in New Mexico and Maine next year, and some 350 police departments elsewhere around the country have adopted the practice, said Thomas Sullivan, a Chicago attorney who studies the issue.

Neil Nelson, a police commander in St. Paul, Minn., has trained officers around the country in interrogating suspects on tape. He and other experts say once police get past initial doubts, they overwhelmingly embrace the process.

Nelson encourages police to use their normal interrogation techniques, but also to take advantage of the opportunity to make points to the judge and jury. That can mean having suspects stand up and demonstrate what happened or draw maps and illustrations on a chalkboard.

He and others point out the tapes also can help police with their investigations. Details of a suspect's statements are inevitably overlooked when police write up their notes, but reviewing a recorded interrogation can unearth inconsistencies that lead to a stronger case _ or prove a suspect innocent.

McCabe, the Kankakee detective, said he once investigated a case where he was convinced that a mother had killed her baby. But reviewing the interrogation turned up a brief mention of the mother's activities before the death, which led him to check a supermarket's security camera. It showed the baby tumbling out of a grocery cart and hitting his head.

Even the mother had not connected that fall to the baby's death, McCabe said, but authorities concluded it was the fatal injury.

"If we just had a one-page statement, I might not have captured that," he said.

Legal experts warn that, even with taped interrogations, innocent people can still be convicted.

Circumstantial evidence could overwhelm their denials. Corrupt police could still beat suspects, perhaps while taking someone to the bathroom or before they reach the police station. People have been known to confess to crimes they didn't commit.

"It's certainly not a panacea. It's one more step in trying to ensure defendants' rights are respected," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

PoliceOne Offers

Breaking Police News

P1 on Facebook

Get the #1 Police eNewsletter

Police Newsletter Sign up for our FREE email roundup of the top news, tips, columns, videos and more, sent 3 times weekly
See Sample

Connect with PoliceOne

Mobile Apps Facebook Twitter Google

PoliceOne Exclusives

Featured Videos