As The Screw Turns: Criminal Interrogations

 

During his state senate years, one of the legislative accomplishments of Barack Obama was pushing a bill through the Illinois congress that requires video taping all interrogations in a homicide investigation.

This is nothing new. Other states, such as Minnesota and Alaska have been doing that for some time, and Texas has a similar law. Many individual departments, pursuant to arm-twisting from various civil rights and lobbying groups, have also initiated video cameras for interrogations in major cases. The premise: Criminals are the good guys, cops are the bad guys.

To the average citizen, it all sounds reasonable.

– A valid, well executed interrogation on video is valuable as evidence in court.

– The omnipresent camera protects the accused from undue coercion and abuse.

– Detectives are held to strict standards with no wiggle room for variance

– False confessions are lessened

– Provides good reality television shows.

That all sounds nice on the surface. But there is more to it than keeping cops in line. We must also consider protecting potential victims of crime.

Besides eye-witnesses, snitches and forensic evidence, a good confession is the most valuable element in sealing a conviction against someone who had committed a dastardly crime. During my hey-day homicide years, I extracted scores of confessions from killers, robbers and rapists, many of which might not have happened had a camera lens been focused on me. It simply changes all the dynamics.

One case comes to mind which may never have made it to trial had such a law existed. If so, many more bodies may have surfaced in the wake.

Milton Niport was a Jewish taxi driver from Baltimore who had spent several years in prison for violent crimes and had been out on parole for three years. He was also a sociopath with no compunction for sending innocent people to the graveyard. He had even boasted to a friend, that if he ever went back to robbing, he’d never leave a witness alive.

Milton had some bad luck. He robbed a Coral Gables Western Union, then brought two women and a man to the boondocks where he told them all to lay down amid the sawgrass. He shot each one in the head with a .22 revolver. But the man lived, because the bullet circled under the skin and over his eye, never penetrating the skull.

At the line-up, Milton was identified by the lone witness as the killer and charges of murder were filed. We were concerned that the case would be weak, because the primary evidence was a one-eyed witness. That’s right. The man was blind in one eye, and his identification might easily be challenged by a good attorney. A confession would be vital to the case.

To be sure, interrogation is an art. It is pure psychology in action, gaining the confidence and respect of the accused, making him/her believe that talking about it is the right thing to do.

I brought Milton into a small interrogation room where I explained his Miranda rights as though it was a menial task to get out of the way. He waived his rights to a lawyer which opened the door to questioning. Within the next two hours, I made him feel I was his friend, to help him, and at the same time, convince him that the evidence was indefensible, that he had no chance but to plead guilty and pour his heart out. He should ask for mercy by the court. In essence, I fooled him into confessing. But he had confessed truthfully to crime scene particulars that only the killer would have known.

Milton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. I visited him ten years later to ask if he wanted to clear his conscience about any other killings. He did. Sure enough, he had killed four other human beings that had been unsolved murder cases for many years.

Had a camera restricted my ability to manipulate Milton Niport into confessing, there is a good chance this incorrigible criminal would have been freed and more lives would have been lost.

Never in my career did I physically abuse a suspect. But I did use whatever means I could — within the law — to solidify a strong case for prosecution. And that meant doing everything I could to gain a confession. Doing so often resulted in guilty pleas that would otherwise have required long and costly trials.

Those days are coming to a halt as cops and detectives are under the microscope of cameras and watchdogs, expected to act as robots, in fear of one wrong word, one wrong move, stirring the wrath of media, politicians and rights groups. In the long run, society is the loser because they are not getting what their taxes are paying for: Good, effective investigations.

For the most part, abuses by over zealous cops are a thing of the past. Yes, there may be a bad apple here and there, but the overwhelming majority of police detectives are not in the business of beating and torturing criminals into confessing. Those days are long over.

Cameras serve no advantage to good law enforcement nor to competent investigations. Nevertheless, the Obama-style law of Illinois is sure to expand to other states in the future, which will hamper murder investigations and keep those dangerous criminals on the street.

It’s a matter of priority. Protecting innocent citizens from criminals, or protecting criminals from innocent cops. Where would you stand?