People v. Adrian P. Thomas
AD3 order dated March 22, 2012, affirming judgment of conviction for depraved-indifference murder of his infant child. Decision below: 93 AD3d 1019; 941 NYS2d 722. Smith, J., granted leave October 23, 2012.
ISSUES PRESENTED: (1) The trial court’s refusal to admit defense expert Richard Ofshe’s opinion testimony as to why an innocent person might confess, on the ground that "current research fails to establish ... a consensus connecting specific interrogation techniques to the occurrence of false confessions." (2) Whether defendant’s confession was involuntary as the result of bullying, lies, deceit, false statements, ruses, and the threat to arrest his wife if he did not confess (all on videotape). (3) Sufficiency of evidence where defense experts convincingly testified that infection, not trauma, was the cause of death. (Assigned counsel: Jerome K. Frost, 287 North Greenbush Road, Troy, NY 12180.)
Issue before the Court: Whether the defendant’s inculpatory statements were rendered involuntary when the police told him that if he did not confess, (1) they would arrest his wife, and (2) his baby – the deceased, who was already dead - would die. They additionally told him that if he confessed he would be allowed to go free – amongst other ruses, threats, and deceptive tactics.
Held: Under the totality of the circumstances, the police use of highly deceptive coercion was “of a kind sufficiently potent to nullify individual judgment in any ordinarily resolute person.” The statements were also “involuntarily made” under C.P.L. 60.45(2)(i), as the police tactics, including suggesting the factual scenarios underlying his confession, raised a substantial risk of false incrimination. The statements were suppressed, the judgment of conviction for murder reversed, and a new trial ordered.
CAL Observes: (1) This case demonstrates the value of, and need for, the electronic recordation of all post-arrest interrogations of defendants. It was only the fact that all of the police tactics were on videotape that enabled the Court of Appeals to reverse this conviction. (2) Whether a confession is voluntary is a “mixed question of law and fact” over which the Court of Appeals has no review power unless there is no support in the record for the lower courts’ holdings. The Court does not discuss this jurisprudential doctrine in the Thomas decision; yet the fact that all seven judges signed onto this opinion demonstrates that the police tactics here were so over-the-top that the decisions below, including the Third Department’s affirmance, were incomprehensibly obtuse. (3) Unfortunately, in light of the Court’s decision to suppress and remand for a new trial, it did not address the important issue of whether the defendant’s expert should have been permitted to testify about the phenomenon of false confessions and the interrogation techniques employed by the police to get Thomas to confess. Trial defense attorneys take note: This is still an important issue to litigate! Juries (not to mention prosecutors and judges) still do not get why someone would confess if they didn’t do it.