Bearing in mind that coerced confessions are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions, I thought a recent case from Illinois might be of interest. The Illinois Supreme Court recently ruled that a confession obtained by police detectives from a teen-age suspect a few hours after he was punched by an officer in the jail downstairs was voluntary and admissible. The full text of the opinion (People v. Richardson, Ill., No. 105530, 9/24/09) can be accessed HERE.
An article from the BNA Criminal Law Reporter describes the factual background of the case as follows:
The 16-year-old defendant in this case was arrested for child abuse and aggravated battery of his infant daughter. While detained in the jail, a police officer punched the defendant, causing a black eye. The defendant identified the officer as the lockup keeper in the jail and further alleged that the officer put him in a full nelson and choked him until he passed out. When the defendant’s mother showed up, she raised a stink, and police internal affairs investigators were called.Meanwhile, detectives investigating the child abuse brought the defendant and his mother upstairs to an interrogation room for questioning. The defendant waived the rights provided by Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), and provided a videotaped statement that was used to convict him of the first-degree murder of his daughter.
Despite these facts, the Illinois Supreme Court found that the confession was voluntary and thus admissible. The BNA article provides a thorough description of the court’s decision and its reasoning which was largely based on other Illinois cases and cases from other States holding that a physical assault of defendant tat was “prior to, disconnected with, and apparently unrelated to the subsequent confession” did not necessarily render a confession involuntary for 14th amendment purposes.
The court could very well be correct that the defendant’s confession was not directly influenced by the prior abuse. There could be other reasons, such as those the court hung its hat on, that influenced the defendant to confess. Indeed it seems like much of the record supports the decision the trial court rendered and the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed.
I still find this case troubling, however. As I understand it the protections exteded by the 14th amendment are based on a recognition of the inherently coercive nature of interrogations which is based in large part on the extreme power imbalance between a criminal defendant in a custodial situation and the officers controlling and manipulating that situation. While I can understand the decision’s reasoning that the totality of the circumstances made the defendant’s confession voluntary, I still feel like the court gave short shrift to the undisputed fact that a law enforcement officer punched the defendant in the face giving him a black eye while he was in custody.
For me, perhaps the most troubling thing about this case and cases like it is that these decisions fail to deter abusive treatment of suspects and detainees. It is even more troubling when it seems, in my humble laymen’s opinion, that the prosecution would have had little if any problem obtaining a conviction without the confession. Then again anything can happen at trial, and perhaps there was more to the case than my quick and casual examination of the facts of this case revealed.