When Can Police Lie to Get a Confession?

For centuries, confessions have been considered a reliable form of proof against the accused — who would confess to a crime they did not commit? But DNA evidence has begun to demonstrate that false confessions in the United States are more common than previously believed. One reason is that the courts have repeatedly blessed confessions extracted after the police lie to the suspect.

But deception has limits. On Tuesday, New York State’s highest court undertook a detailed examination of when lying to defendants goes too far.  They had a lot to work with: in the case of People v. Thomas, there were about nine hours of video recording. Troy detectives, who did not know the video was running, repeatedly lied to the suspect, whose baby son had been rushed to the hospital. They told him, for example, they believed the child’s injuries were “an accident,” that they needed to know what happened to save the child — who was already dead — in the hospital, and that they would arrest his wife if he did not confess. Ultimately, he never stopped talking and asked for a lawyer. Instead, he complied with their demands, even falsely acting out on the video a scenario in which he used a phonebook to show how he threw the child on the bed. Ultimately, he was charged and convicted for murdering his baby, and the conviction was upheld in the appellate division. In fact, testimony at trial appeared to show, the child died of sepsis secondary to an infection, not from being shaken.

The New York Court of Appeals heard argument held yesterday in Thomas and a similar case, People v. Aveni. But in the Aveni case the admitted lies were more modest: police got the defendant to tell them that he injected his girlfriend with heroin and gave her a Xanax by telling him that doctors needed to know exactly what drugs were in her system. She was already dead at the time.

At the argument, the judges appeared sympathetic to the idea that there must be some limits on these sorts of police tactics. “They focused primarily on the ploy of lying to Thomas that they would arrest his wife if he did not confess, dismissing the prosecutor’s argument that the police statements could not be seen as a threat,” says Dorothy Heyl, Esq. an attorney at Milbank Tweed who co-authored an amicus brief on behalf of the Innocence Network. “The deception that a confession could save the baby’s life (also raised in the Aveni argument that followed) was a focus of the questioning as well.”

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