Videotaped interviews prove vital for Pa. police
Pa. county recently installed an interview room in the services center that is equipped to videotape witnesses and suspects during questioning
By Holly Herman
READING, Pa. — It seemed like murder charges were going to be dismissed against a Reading man accused of fatally stabbing another man in November.
The prosecution's primary witness, a 20-year-old Reading woman, denied in testimony during a recent hearing that she saw the stabbing.
But then city police played a videotape of the same witness weeping as she identified the stabber shortly after the killing.
"I could not stop him (the alleged stabber)," the woman said during the taped interview with police.
The defendant was ordered held for court by the district judge.
This was the first time Reading police used a taped interview during a court proceeding.
Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams said the case demonstrates why it is so important to record interviews with video and audio equipment.
"This witness recanted her testimony," Adams said. "We then presented her videotaped interview as evidence, which substantiated the murder charge."
The county recently installed an interview room in the services center that is equipped to videotape witnesses and suspects during questioning.
The room is available for any police department in Berks County. It contains hidden cameras and recorders. People are told before their interviews that their statements will be recorded.
"I strongly encourage all of the police departments in Berks County to either use our interview rooms or to get their own," Adams said. "This will allow prosecutors to present the video and audiotapes during trials."
The Pennsylvania District Attorney's Association also advocates the use of taped interviews.
"It's a trend, and it will be very helpful in trials," Adams said.
The district attorney said he looks forward to playing a video interview for a jury.
"It's more genuine," he said. "The defense cannot raise questions that the police were unfair. As district attorney, I am most concerned about preserving the integrity of the justice system."
Lt. Todd Trupp, head of the Berks County Detectives criminal investigations unit, said viewers will be able to see a suspect's body language to get a better idea of the individual's demeanor.
"In most instances, a suspect does not testify during the trial," Trupp explained, adding that defense attorneys often try to poke holes in suspects' statements read by police.
A highlight of the system, Trupp said, is the ability for other detectives to watch and send messages to the officer doing the interview.
Like county detectives, Reading police are seeing the benefits of recorded interviews. Reading has been using five audio-video rooms in City Hall since September.
"We use them for all our interviews, whether a witness or suspect," said Capt. Jeffrey Parr, head of criminal investigations. "It's so much easier than asking questions and typing the answers. It more a natural way. We have done hundreds."
The city purchased its system for $8,500 from eLock Security Specialists in Reading, and Parr said 10 to 20 interviews are done with the new equipment each week.
Capt. Damon Kloc, who started the project and has since relocated to patrol, said the video system helps police make arrests because suspects will realize the evidence is on tape.
Several local defense attorneys, including Jay M. Nigrini, said they don't have a problem with the videotaping, as it will ensure that juries receive truthful and accurate information.
"I was recently arguing in a murder trial that there were discrepancies in statements of the alibi witness and police," he said. "A videotape would have cleared this up. This is good for both sides."
Attorney Robert J. Kirwan II of Exeter Township also is in favor of videotaping statements.
"I have criticized the Reading police in previous trials where they did not videotape statements for victims and defendants," Kirwan said. "The plain black-and-white questions don't show how the questions were being asked. An interview can be taken out of context. If shown on video, the jurors can see the expressions of the witnesses."
Kirwan said that videos show more of the truth.
"I am all for videotape of the defendants and the witnesses," he said. "When you read transcripts, it doesn't show emotion or anger. If you roll your eyes, it's not on the record. I love the fact that they will be using videotaping."
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