Today, the New York Court of Appeals overturned the murder conviction of 31-year-old Adrian Thomas, who was wrongly convicted of murdering his infant son in 2008.
Thomas’ nightmare began when he and his wife awoke in their Troy, New York home to find their 4-month old son barely breathing. The baby was immediately rushed to the hospital, and though he bore no signs of abuse or neglect, CPS descended on the Thomas’ home a mere three hours later to preemptively remove their other six children.
When the Troy police went to the hospital to look into the baby’s death, Dr. Walter Edge incorrectly – and baselessly—informed them that the infant had died of a fractured skull. Roused to action by the doctor’s incorrect information, detectives honed in on Thomas with typical tunnel vision. Equipped with the implacable fervor of the righteous, they told Thomas that they would arrest his wife if he didn’t confess to the murder. Held in a tiny interrogation room for the final hours of his son’s life, detectives lied to Thomas repeatedly, telling him that the baby (who, unbeknownst to Thomas, was already brain-dead) would die if he didn’t explain how the head injuries occurred. Throughout the course of the interrogation, they told Thomas 67 times that they were sure it was an accident, 14 times that he would not be arrested, and eight times that he would be going home if he simply confessed. At one point in the interrogation, a detective told him, “You want to save your son’s life, man? Why are you holding out on me?”
The detectives eventually told Thomas, falsely, that his wife was blaming him for their son’s death. If he didn’t confess, they threatened, they would go after her. “My wife is a good wife,” Thomas said at one point. “…I don’t believe my wife did that, but if it comes down to it, I’ll take the blame for it.” They proceeded to tell him that he can’t just shoulder the blame; he had to tell them exactly how it happened, they must be convinced that he did it or she will be arrested. Eventually, he confessed.
The infant’s body showed absolutely no bruises, grip marks, or any other external indicator consistent with impact. Tests later revealed a serious blood infection, missed by not only the baby’s doctors but also the pathologist who performed the autopsy.
The high court’s ruling still gives police the green-light to lie while interrogating a suspect, but when the lies become “patently coercive,” (a slightly murky definition, unfortunately) the confession cannot be entered into evidence. To boil it down: the potential absolutely remains for police to coerce an involuntary or false confession by intentionally deceiving a suspect, but Judge Lippman’s acknowledgement that the trickery used during the interrogation nullified the confession is hugely important.
The good news in Thomas’ case comes on the heels of another step forward in acknowledging the pervasive nature of false confessions. Yesterday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman proposed legislation that would allow people who have confessed or pleaded guilty to a crime they did not commit to sue the state for damages (under existing law, the wrongly convicted are only permitted to sue if they have contested the accusation). Schneiderman’s proposal is well timed: in Brooklyn, there is a massive review of convictions obtained through coerced confessions and other police and prosecutorial misconduct underway.
Assuming compensation will become an option for those who have falsely confessed, determining a reasonable award under the circumstances will be fraught. Convicted felons unquestionably suffer losses whether they’re justly or wrongly convicted: obvious financial detriment, probable psychological damage, etc. What’s the price tag on the suffering wrought by wrongful convictions? New York City should take heed of Chicago, where last year the taxpayer’s tab for cases of wrongful convictions obtained through police abuse and misconduct topped $77 million.
Until fairly recently, it seemed virtually impossible to fathom why a person would falsely confess to a crime he or she did not commit, let alone why it would happen with the frequency that it does. What we are learning — and what these recent rulings are corroborating — is that it may be impossible to be confident in the reliability of a police-induced confession statement unless the details of the statement can be independently corroborated.