Too many loopholes in Gov’s interrogation reform bill, say public defenders

Al O’Connor of the New York State Defenders Association, at podium, is among those pushing for a new law that would require the videotaping of police interrogations for all felonies. The bill is seen as more comprehensive than a proposal by the governor that would only require videotaping under certain circumstances. Adrian Thomas, center, was released from prison after a “confession” he made was found to be coerced. Photo by Daniel Wells.

Public defenders point to Rensselaer County case as evidence of “serious shortfalls” in governor’s proposed interrogation reforms

As legislators debate whether to require recording of interrogations, and for which crimes, a coalition of public defenders is pushing for the Adrian Thomas Innocence Protection Act, which they say would reduce the risk of wrongful convictions — unlike a proposal that’s part of the governor’s budget plan.

After fighting in court for nearly six years, Adrian Thomas of Troy, Rensselaer County, was acquitted of second degree murder involving the death of his four-month-old son. His prior confession was thrown out due to controversial tactics used by Troy detectives.

After a nine-and-a-half-hour interrogation, with successive rounds of intense psychological manipulation, including lies about evidence against him, and promises of leniency, the Troy detectives eventually extracted a false confession from Thomas for a crime he did not commit.

For example, the detectives allegedly told Thomas that his wife and daughter accused him of killing his son. They also deprived him of sleep, and made various threats.

“They told him if it wasn’t him it must have been his wife and they were going to ‘scoop her up,’” said Art Frost, Thomas’s public defender in the case.

The signed and recorded confession of guilt by Thomas was the key piece of evidence that led to his initial conviction in 2009. However, when filmmakers Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh got a hold of Thomas’s interrogation footage to use in their documentary Scenes of a Crime, the public took notice of the extent to which the detectives engaged in psychological tactics to encourage Thomas to confess.

Due to the videotape of the interrogation, he won an appeal and was found not guilty of murder in a second trial.

“Adrian isn’t the first person to be convicted despite his innocence and he won’t be the last,” Frost said. “But Adrian wouldn’t even be here today if the Troy police hadn’t recorded his entire interrogation”

Although now living in Georgia, Thomas returned to the Capital Region this week to ensure that others do not undergo the injustices he faced. Thomas, the New York State Defenders Association, the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and The Legal Aid Society were in Albany Monday to advocate for a bill (A.4239) sponsored by Assemblyman Joe Lentol, D-Brooklyn, the chair of the Codes Committee.

The groups argue that the Lentol bill is more comprehensive than the governor’s proposal, which they say limits videotaping to “custodial” interrogations, applies to too few crimes and has a “defective and unworkable” procedure for when videotape equipment should be turned on.

“As Adrian’s case shows, it is critically important that the entire interrogation be videotaped and it not be limited to a few types of crimes,” said John Turi, a Rensselaer County public defender. “That is what the Assembly bill does. Unfortunately, the governor’s bill has too many gaps.”

Thomas says he might still be in jail if police had been operating under the guidelines of the governor’s bill, which the public defenders say gives police “recording-free zones” when they can try to break suspects down without having the cameras turned on.

Under the Lentol bill, the full interrogation would have to be recorded, like in Thomas’s case.

The governor’s bill (A.3005/S.2005) would only require recordings for A-1 offenses, class A-II sex offenses and Class B violent homicide and sex offenses. His proposal also includes an added safety net for law enforcement officials who forget to turn a camera on by allowing them to use ambiguous excuses for why the tape was not rolling.

Bill A.4239, Lentol’s bill, would be stricter on exceptions, require that all interrogation room interactions be recorded, and require that A-1 felonies, and all violent felony offenses be recorded.

“The question now is: Do we enact a real recording bill that would apply to all station house interrogation whether a suspect is considered in custody or not, or are we going to allow the police to determine when to turn on the recording equipment, which often happens later on in the interrogation,” said Attorney Al O’Connor of the New York State Defenders Association.

“I was very lucky that the Troy Police Department videotaped my interrogation,” Thomas said. “But it shouldn’t come down to luck. Under the Assembly proposal, everyone in my situation would be protected because it requires interrogations to be videotaped from start to finish.

“Under the governor’s proposal, interrogations like mine most likely would never be recorded,” Thomas added. “I would still be in prison today had the Troy Police Department followed the procedure under the governor’s proposal.”

“Twenty-four other states already require videotaping interrogations,” said Lentol. “It is time for New York to reduce the risks of wrongful conviction and pass this legislation. Unfortunately, the governor’s bill has too many loopholes.”