Prof Richard Leo Makes Case to Record Police Interrogations, Las Vegas Sun (Al Jazeera) | USF in the News |

By Joseph Stepansky, Al Jazeera, Doha, Qatar (TNS)

Monday, July 31, 2017 | 2 a.m.


NEW YORK — In a black T-shirt, hair cropped short, with a wedding ring visible on his finger, Ted Bradford hunched over a microphone in a legislative hearing room in Carson City.


In a public video of the meeting, Bradford can be seen speaking to the assembled senators representing the nearly 2.9 million Nevada residents. “I lived through the nightmare of wrongful conviction,” he says. “It was a horrible crime, a crime of rape and burglary.”

On the day of the meeting in June 2017, Bradford had come to Carson City to support a law that would require police agencies in the state to electronically record interrogations of suspects taken into custody. The proposed legislation would have mandated that police interrogations be recorded in their entirety, from the reading of Miranda rights to the end of the interview, depending on the severity of the crime.


“Here I was in this small room with two detectives being accused of this, and I knew I was innocent,” Bradford recounted for the assembled audience. “And I tried telling them, you’ve got the wrong guy.”


Bradford believes the fact that his interrogation was not fully recorded may have cost him 14 years of his life — 10 years in prison and four more awaiting a retrial, which finally cleared his name. Only the last half-hour of Bradford’s interrogation was recorded and shown in court.



“They kept telling me ‘we know you’re a liar, you’ve got to tell us the truth’ ... This went on for over nine hours that I was there,” Bradford said. “Nothing to eat or drink, exhausted, they kept telling me over and over — you’re not getting out of this room until you tell us what happened ... So in my mind, I thought, the only way I’m getting out of here is if I make up this story, and tell them that I did it.”


The phenomenon of false confessions

Evidence of false confessions in the U.S. has been around since the Salem witch trials, says Richard Leo, a professor of law and social psychology at the University of San Francisco.


In an interview, Leo explains that the phenomenon has only been really accepted in both law enforcement and the public eye in the last 30 years, around the time when the technology of DNA testing became good enough to allow groups like the Innocence Project to prove wrongful convictions.


Since 1989, 350 wrongfully convicted people have been exonerated through DNA evidence. The Innocence Project says false confessions played a role in around a third of those cases. When including people who were cleared through other means, the National Registry of Exonerations has tracked 2,066 people who had been exonerated of convictions since 1989.


“There are hundreds of false of confessions out there from DNA exonerations, and they have to be the tip of the iceberg, because it’s almost impossible to prove confessions false,” said Leo.

Leo explains that to understand false confessions in the U.S., one must understand the basis of interrogation training that has pervaded law enforcement for the last 70 years.


Recent passage in California, New York and Texas — three of the United States’ four most populous states — of laws requiring the taping of police interrogations give supporters hope that it is just a matter of time before similar laws are passed in every state.


A similar effort in Nevada was defeated in the 2017 Legislature

A confrontational style of interrogating, known originally as the Reid technique, is generally considered by experts in cases of coerced confessions to be responsible for “some, if not most, if not all” false confessions, Leo said.


While the method may go by different names with slight variances, the underlying style, what Leo calls a “guilt-presumptive accusatory method,” has remained prominent in modern American law enforcement.

“(In this technique) you determine someone is guilty of the crime and the goal is not to get the truth, it’s to get them to confess to what you, the officer, believe is the truth, your theory of the truth. So you pressure, persuade, and sometimes psychologically coerce them,” Leo said.