Monday, July 14, 2014
Recording interrogations of criminal suspects by law enforcement is good thing, but it's not consequence-free. Professor Jennifer L. Mnookin laid out the issues well yesterday in her op-ed in the NYTimes, writing:
Likewise, criminal prosecutors find that when a defendant confesses or provides incriminating information, the video offers vivid and powerful evidence. At the same time, it aids defendants because the very presence of the camera is likely to reduce the use of coercive or unfair tactics in interrogation, and documents illegitimate behavior if and when it does occur. And a recording provides judges and juries with information about what took place in a more objective form.
Given this chorus of support, what’s not to like?
The short answer is that, according to recent research, interrogation recording may in fact be too vivid and persuasive. Even seemingly neutral recordings still require interpretation. As advertisers and Hollywood directors know well, camera angles, close-ups, lenses and dozens of other techniques shape our perception of what we see without our being aware of it.
She later adds:
We know that false confessions really do occur, even in very serious crimes, and probably more frequently than most people expect. But why? We know something about certain interrogation techniques, as well as defendant vulnerabilities like youth or mental disability, that may create heightened risks for false confessions. But we don’t yet know enough about the psychology of false confessions to be able to accurately “diagnose” the reliability of a given confession just by watching it.
The problem is that many of the red flags that frequently occur in false confessions — like unusually long interrogations, the inclusion of inaccurate details, or the police “feeding” some crime-related information to the suspect — can also occur in the confessions of the guilty. This means there’s no surefire way to tell false confessions and true confessions apart by viewing a recording, except in extreme cases.