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BY ALFONSO A. CASTILLO AND CHRISTINE ARMARIO
8:47 PM EST, February 7, 2008
Suffolk's plan to begin videotaping police interrogations of homicide suspects has been several months in the making, and largely prompted by jurors' requests for more transparency in the taking of confessions, Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota said yesterday.
The new protocol was announced Wednesday by County Executive Steve Levy. It should result in stronger evidence and fewer questions about what takes place in an interrogation room, Spota said.
"I just think that this is the natural evolution of the interrogation process," said Spota, who expects to have the new process in place by the end of the year. "And quite frankly, I'm aware that it will increase the public's confidence ... in the integrity of the police's interrogations and their tactics."
Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer said he supports the plan, which "is not a reflection of how our Homicide Squad investigates murder cases at this time." He said it was based on technology advances and trying to be "ahead of the curve."
And as Suffolk law enforcement authorities announced their plans, Nassau police said yesterday that they are looking at a similar system, almost three years after former Nassau District Attorney Denis Dillon called for it and police said they were considering it.
"It will help our investigators in that defense attorneys will not be able to say for whatever reason we coaxed a confession out of someone," said Nassau police spokesman Det. Lt. Kevin Smith.
In Suffolk, police interrogation tactics have long been criticized, dating back to a state investigation commission finding in 1989 raising questions about the county's 94 percent confession rate in homicide cases.
Defense attorneys routinely challenge confessions as being coerced. Currently, Nassau and Suffolk tape confessions only with a defendant's consent, and after a written confession.
"There's not a downside," Stephen Saloom, policy director for the Manhattan-based Innocence Project. Saloom said of the more than 500 police departments that have adopted similar procedures, "To a man, they're glad they're doing it.
"Simply put, justice benefits when we can simply go to the videotape to determine what was and was not said, and under what conditions," Saloom said.
Spota said he began looking at videotaping last September, after prosecutors told him jurors were increasingly asking for videos of police interviews.
Spota said he sent some of his top prosecutors to counties with similar protocols. He said his office is determining details such as whether police should notify suspects they are being taped, and what facilities should be equipped.
Levy said he believes the cost of the new initiative is minimal.
News of Suffolk's plan was welcomed by supporters of Martin Tankleff, the recently freed Belle Terre man whose 1990 conviction in his parents' murder was based in part on his unsigned confession. But Dormer and Spota both said the Tankleff case, now being looked at by the state attorney general, had nothing to do with the new plan.
"If Marty had a video recording of his complete interrogation then he would not have had to spend half his life imprisoned for a crime others committed," Tankleff family spokesman, Lonnie Sourie, said.