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January 12, 2008
New York Times
True and Untrue Confessions
What did Martin Tankleff look and sound like when he confessed in 1988 to bludgeoning and slashing his parents to death? Did he seem like a killer or a confused 17-year-old being pressured into admitting something that he did not do? We’ll never know. There is no video or audio recording, just an incomplete narrative, handwritten by detectives, which Mr. Tankleff signed, quickly repudiated, and spent nearly two decades trying to undo.
Mr. Tankleff, now 36, was released from prison this month after a New York State appeals court overturned his murder conviction, ruling that new evidence would likely have led the jury to find him not guilty. The district attorney, Thomas Spota, then announced that he would not pursue the case. After spending half his life behind bars, Mr. Tankleff is free, and his parents’ killer or killers presumably remain at large.
His confession came after hours of interrogation during which detectives lied to Mr. Tankleff, telling him that his mortally wounded father had identified his son as the attacker. “Could I have blacked out?” he asked. “Could I be possessed?” Largely on the basis of his own words, he was tried and convicted.
The Innocence Project, the watchdog group that helped to defend Mr. Tankleff, has long argued that false confessions are far more frequent than is commonly believed. The group claims that in more than a quarter of cases in which defendants were later exonerated by DNA evidence, they had made incriminating statements, given confessions or pleaded guilty. Suspects do this for many reasons — because they are coerced, threatened, frightened, drunk or high, mentally impaired or ignorant of the law. Some do it because they have been lied to.
The Innocence Project, many other civil liberties groups and growing numbers of police departments and prosecutors’ offices, argue that interrogations in major criminal cases should be recorded. The practice, they say, would deter false convictions by discouraging misconduct and manipulation by the police. It would give judges and jurors a tool to assess a confession’s authenticity. It would protect the police from false claims of abuse, create a clear record of suspects’ statements and it would bolster public confidence in the legal system.
Illinois, Alaska and Minnesota are among more than 500 jurisdictions that routinely record police interrogations. A bill that would require videotaping of questioning in felony cases passed the New York State Assembly last year but stalled in the Senate. The Legislature should promptly revive and pass the bill, and Gov. Eliot Spitzer should sign it into law.
The Tankleff case and the recent high-profile exoneration of Jeffrey Deskovic, who spent 16 years in prison for a rape and murder he confessed to but did not commit, both argue strongly for fixing this glaring flaw in New York’s justice system.