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Fess Up

Annapolis Takes Another Look At Video-Interrogations Bill

Frank Klein
STRAIGHT TO VIDEO: A bill sponsored by Del. Curt Anderson (D-43rd) that would require police to videotape confessions of violent-crime suspects is getting a third shot in the house of delegates this session.

By Van Smith | Posted 1/23/2008

Keith Longtin didn't rape and kill his wife near their Laurel home in 1999, but Prince George's County police said he confessed to it--an assertion Longtin denied. After more than 38 hours of interrogation, during which Longtin had less than an hour of sleep and brief bathroom breaks, he spent eight months in custody before the killer, serial rapist Antonio Oesby, was linked to the crime by DNA. During those eight months, Oesby committed six more rapes for which he was later convicted. In 2006, Longtin won a $6.4 million civil judgment against the county for his ordeal.

"I wish that interrogation had been on videotape," Longtin's attorney, Cary Hansel, told the Maryland House of Delegates Judiciary Committee on Jan. 16. Hansel explained that had his client's time under police questioning been on camera, much injustice, heartache, and additional violence could have been averted. The committee is weighing a bill that would require the videotaping of custodial interrogations of many criminal suspects, and Hansel contended "it would have made all the difference" in the Longtin case, adding that "it is a very good bill for good officers, and that is the vast majority of officers in this state. It protects everyone involved in the process."

The video-interrogations measure is getting a third try this year in Annapolis, having failed in two previous sessions. This year's model is called House Bill 6 (HB 6), and the continuing opposition it faces from most of Maryland's law-enforcement community echoes the sentiments of police and prosecutors nationwide, which were measured in a 2007 study published in The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. "Our results," the authors write, "suggest that for whatever reason--cost, storage issues, inertia, or a desire to avoid exposure in occasional cases of false confessions--support for videotaping exists but is not overwhelming" among police brass of the country's largest municipal departments, 40 percent of whom opposed videotaping interrogations.

As law-enforcement leaders from around Maryland milled about waiting for the House Judiciary Committee hearing to begin, the tenor of this year's resistance was best uttered by James Green, a Baltimore City police lawyer. "It's a bad thing," he said of HB 6. "But we need a lot of money if it's going to become a good thing." According to the bill's fiscal note, city police would require close to 10 interview rooms costing $10,000 per room, and the state's cumulative cost over the first five years of the law's implementation would be about $500,000.

Baltimore City Del. Curtis Anderson (D-43rd) is the lead sponsor of the measure, and at the hearing he told his committee colleagues that Barack Obama, whom Anderson supports in this year's presidential race, championed a similar measure's passage in Illinois in 2003, when Obama was a state senator there. Illinois was the first state to pass such a law, though local governments had already been adopting similar measures, as pointed out in a Chicago Tribune editorial that praised Obama's bill "as a way to reduce defendants' false claims of police coercion, bolster prosecutors' cases in court and restore public trust in the justice system."

Eight states and Washington, D.C., now require videotaped interrogations, and Anderson told the committee that local jurisdictions in every state require it. Top cops who made the transition against their better judgment at the outset have since become proponents. Massachusetts district attorney William M. Bennett, for example, told Lawyers Weekly last year that he'd opposed the change because he thought it would result "in a number of defendants refusing to give statements. They might be willing to speak to the police, but they'd be hesitant and reluctant to be recorded. I was wrong."

In Maryland, Prince George's County mandated the measure after police misconduct in interrogations (including in the Longtin case) was exposed by The Washington Post in 2001. Montgomery County does it voluntarily.

This session's bill in Annapolis has been whittled down since it was first proposed two years ago, Anderson explained to the committee. Instead of calling for cameras to be used when suspects in custody are being questioned in 18 crime categories, as initially proposed, he told the committee the bill now requires it in four: murders, rapes, and first- and second-degree sex offenses. Even as proposed, Anderson continued, there remain "disagreements that I still think can be worked out" to make the bill passable. The main sticking point, Anderson explained, is the penalty: interrogation evidence would be thrown out in cases where police didn't comply with the videotaping requirement. If it does pass, it won't go into effect until 2010.

Baltimore City State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy is bucking the statewide law-enforcement trend that generally opposes the bill, and instead is silent on the matter. "The State's Attorney's Office took no formal position on HB 6," wrote Joe Sviatko, a spokesman for Jessamy, in a Jan. 18 e-mail. "We have remained neutral."

The bill's main aim is to prevent false confessions using videotape, a goal that cuts both ways: Interrogators can't get away with improper conduct, and defendants can't later say their confessions were coerced. Around the country, DNA analysis of evidence in old cases has been turning up false confessions, and Baltimore City has not been immune to this trend. A much-publicized instance involves the 1987 case against two men convicted of raping and murdering Colleen Williar, one of whom confessed--falsely, it turns out, since DNA analysis last year excluded both of them from the crime.

Jessamy's office continues to maintain the confession in the Williar case was valid, but in a recent case against Christopher Ford, who confessed to killing Neil Rather last year, prosecutors dropped the murder charge after ballistics evidence cleared Ford and implicated Andre Haskin instead (though Ford still faced a gun charge in juvenile court). Jessamy's press release in the Rather case, which was sent out on the day of Baltimore City's Sept. 11 primary elections, did more than not mention Ford's apparently false confession. It announced that Haskin had been indicted in Rather's murder and that Ford's trial was scheduled for Oct. 15, 2007. The press and public were led to believe that Ford still faced a murder rap, even though the charge had been dropped in August, and that Haskin's indictment had just happened, though it too had occurred in August. Bad publicity about Ford's false confession to city police thus was avoided as the election approached and passed.

"We had an error in our press release,"wrote Margaret Burns, a spokeswoman for Jessamy, in a Jan. 19 e-mail. "We strive for accuracy and transparency as much as possible within the constraints of the law but we missed the mark on this release," she continued, adding that "I don't believe there is a grand conspiracy here" to mislead the public.

Baltimore City prosecutors also are having to wrestle with a contested confession in a pending case scheduled for trial in February. Ronald Alberto Hinton's mother, Francine Toney, says that her son's audiotaped confession to beating, sexually assaulting, raping, and murdering 4-year-old Ja'niya Ebony Williams in June 2006 will be challenged at trial. Toney says that aspects of Hinton's confession were contradicted by the physical evidence and that his family's heightened fear of the police made him prone to confessing falsely. (The prosecutor's office and Hinton's attorney, Janice Bledsoe, declined to discuss the case.)

Hinton's police-induced anxieties, Toney says, stem from his belief that his father, Baltimore City police trainee Sean Hinton, was murdered in 1992 over what he may have known and tried to report about city police corruption ("Dead in the Water," Feature, May 8, 1996). Sean Hinton's death was ruled a suicide by drowning, even though he was found floating off Battery Park in Manhattan, with his wrists bound tightly by the drawstring of his jacket, three weeks after he disappeared at the end of a stint of field training with a cop later suspected of corruption involving violent drug dealers. A note found after the body was discovered was construed by authorities to be a suicide note, though it did not say he planned to kill himself.

Toney says she was present with police when Ronald Hinton, who had just turned 15 when Williams was murdered, waived his rights of self-incrimination--though she contends she did not understand the rights that were being surrendered. She also recalls being ordered to leave the interrogation room before the discussions that led to Ronald Hinton's confession began. Though the audiotaped confession lasted less than half an hour, Toney says that her son was in police custody for at least several hours of interrogation.

"If I was intimidated," Toney says, "then how intimidated was he when he was in the room with them and I was not with him and he was saying he wanted me there and they were telling him he could go if he just say he did it? Ronald confessed because he was afraid, because he knew what happened to his father."

Toney says she believes that videotaping the whole process leading to Hinton's confession would have prevented his indictment, and that the investigation into William's rape and killing would have gone on to find those responsible. Toney also expresses the view that videotaping would prevent confessors from later recanting, and generally would protect the integrity of evidence gathered in the interrogation process.

"Why wouldn't you cover your ass?" Toney asks, referring to police investigators. "Excuse my language, but why?"

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