To prevent false confessions, interrogation critics say there’s a solution so simple that it’s remarkable it hasn’t happened already: videotaping every minute of every police interrogation. Where the idea was once impractical, they note, the digital era changed that. Some law-enforcement officials fear that if juries see how the sausage is made, they might blanch at convicting even guilty suspects. In fact, Kassin’s recent research indicates that when people see two versions of a false confession—one with just the confession and another that includes the entire interrogation—they become more effective jurors, correctly acquitting the innocent and convicting the guilty. Still, eighteen states and more than 800 jurisdictions have already started taping interrogations. New York has moved slowly—when they videotape at all, police tend to tape only confessions, not whole interrogations—but the New York State Bar Association has called for taping the full questioning session.
Earlier this year, the NYPD announced with some fanfare that it would test recording interrogations in two precincts. Last week, spokesman Paul Browne told me the bids have been selected, and that the 67th Precinct in Brooklyn and 48th Precinct in the Bronx will soon be outfitted with interrogation rooms ready for digital recording. Tests should start after the first of the year. Commissioner Ray Kelly “is open to seeing what we learn,” Browne says, though in the spring, Kelly told me deploying such a system throughout the NYPD was a complicated endeavor, and that it wasn’t clear to him yet that the effort would be worth the results.
One group solidly against tape-recording in New York is the Detectives’ Endowment Association, whose president, Michael Palladino, holds on to the belief that what happens in an interrogation room is too messy for some jurors to tolerate. He also worries that juries won’t be the only ones influenced. “Every taped interrogation can be used as a training film for criminals on what to expect from the police during an interrogation,” he says. “Certainly, the element of surprise is gone.”
Curiously enough, however, research shows that police and prosecutors forced to tape their interrogations often wind up supporting the practice. One Minnesota prosecutor famously called it “the best thing we’ve ever had rammed down our throats.” A taped record can mean fewer motions to suppress and fewer claims that suspects were unduly deceived or abused. Joseph Buckley says the Reid method and taping can go hand in hand. “When somebody claims there was coercion, the record speaks for itself,” he says. Even Patrick Crough says he believes in it, calling it “a tool to let the jury see what we see.”
Don Thompson has thought a great deal about what would have happened in 1992 if the jury had been able to see the whole Sterling interrogation and not just the final twenty minutes. “You can’t describe to a jury the effects of isolation over a twelve-hour period,” he says. “I’d make them sit through the whole twelve hours. Because at that point, even for the jurors sitting in the jury box, it begins to feel like a hostage crisis.”
Frank Sterling is standing on the railroad tracks in Hilton behind his old house—a small ranch-style building on a two-lane road, about a quarter-mile from the high school. “When we first moved here, the trains were still running through,” he says, pointing at the tracks. “Then they disbanded it.”
As we walk down the gravel path, Sterling points in the direction of the Big M supermarket he walked to on the afternoon Vi Manville was killed. To get to the store, he had to cross a train trestle over a creek and then leave the tracks, walking along the opposite creek bed. To get to where Manville was killed, Sterling would have had to continue on the tracks away from the market—“another mile and a half down the road,” he says, laughing.
Sterling is heavier now than he was when he was sent to prison. His teeth were neglected for so long that a week before his release, he had nine of them pulled. At the time, he joked to his lawyers that he put them under his pillow for the Exoneration Fairy. He can’t drive a truck because of medical issues, but he hopes to find computer work. For now, he is living with friends one town over from Hilton. He drives to Rochester when he needs to see his lawyers about finding health benefits, job training, and donated clothes. Sterling says he’s angry, but he tries not to dwell on it. “I don’t want it to tear me up.” He hasn’t decided whether to file a civil suit for wrongful conviction. The first night he was out, he says, he woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of rain on a windowpane. “It was something I couldn’t hear for eighteen years,” he says. “It’s amazing. Something so simple that happens every day. Something everyone complains about.”