It may surprise some to know that most states don’t require law enforcement to audio or video record interrogations – including Texas.
Texas law does require investigators tape confessions, in most cases. However, without objective knowledge of what led to the confession it can be hard for a jury to determine whether the confession was genuine or if it was the result of investigator pressure.
As it stands, each law enforcement entity can use discretion when it comes to which parts of suspect interviews they record. Some opposing the idea argue that recording entire interrogation interviews would make the techniques used by investigators public, which could reduce their effectiveness.
Texas has the highest wrongful conviction rate in the nation and according to the National Registry of Exonerations, at least seven of those wrongful convictions were the result of false confessions. That’s at least seven lives taken or dramatically altered unjustly.
Understandably, it’s hard to grasp why someone would confess to a crime they knowingly didn’t commit.
Well, it happens.
One of the reasons (real or perceived) is intimidation by the investigator. Also the use of force by law enforcement is another scenario that must be considered.
False confessions can also happen when a suspect is of a limited mental capacity, which doesn’t necessarily mean suffering from mental illness. This could apply to anyone whose reasoning ability is diminished because of exhaustion, stress, hunger, or even drug abuse. When you’re in an interrogation room for hours at a time, those factors begin to weigh heavily.
Another possibility is investigators alleging they have incriminating evidence on the suspect. If someone, even innocent, believes they are facing the death penalty for a crime they didn’t commit and the investigator offers a reduced life sentence instead, that can encourage a confession, as happened in Austin-resident Chris Ochoa’s case.
Ochoa worked at an Austin-area Pizza Hut with his roommate, Richard Danziger. One night a coworker at another area Pizza Hut was raped and murdered, and cops assumed the act was committed by an employee of the chain with a master key.
Interrogators were convinced it was Ochoa and Danziger, so they threatened Ochoa with the death penalty unless he confessed. In an effort to save his life he “admitted” to the crime so he could receive a life sentence. In his admission he implicated Danziger as well.
Thirteen years into their sentence, letters were sent to the police, Governor George W. Bush, and the District Attorney by Achim Marino admitting to the crime. The letters caused DNA evidence from the scene to be retested which ultimately cleared Ochoa and his roommate while implicating Marino.
Those who want recorded interrogations don’t intend to make jobs of investigators or prosecutors harder by exposing techniques; rather they merely seek to ensure integrity in the justice system and minimize the potential of a wrongful conviction.
This common sense reform is a best practice for all parties: the prosecutor, the investigator, and the suspect. It ensures the admissibility of legitimate confessions, protects the investigator from allegations of coercion (which many guilty suspects often do) and protects innocent suspects.
The last attempt at this type of reform in Texas was SB 87, by then-State Sen. Rodney Ellis. Ellis’ bill would have only required recording in violent crime cases: rape, murder, human trafficking, and some sex crimes. It also provided exceptions for faulty equipment and spontaneous confessions.
Ultimately, there will be the occasional misstep, but having a statewide policy in place may offer protection for those other times. As with any reform there will be positives and negatives, but it is undoubtedly a worthy discussion to be had leading up to the next legislative session.