Letter From The President Of The New York County Lawyers' Association

2004-04-01 01:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

É[F]alse confessions ultimately result in a cynicism and an erosion of public confidence in the criminal justice system."

Just a few months ago, on the drive from San Antonio International Airport to my hotel, I saw a huge sign that read, "Gun Show," next to a "Babies 'R' Us" store. "Wow," I thought, "how will NYCLA's proposal for videotaping interrogations do in this environment?" So began my February trip to the ABA's House of Delegates.
For almost one year, Gene Nathanson, the principal author of NYCLA's report and resolution calling for videotaped custodial interrogations, Norm Reimer and I had been preparing for this meeting. In fact, there was a strong sense of déjà vu, as we had originally placed NYCLA's resolution on the August 2003 agenda of the ABA House of Delegates meeting in San Francisco only to be pressed, literally moments before the matter was to be presented, to adjourn the matter until February 2004. The ABA's Criminal Justice Section (CJS) had asked us to give them more time to review our proposal and, though we were eager to bring this important matter to the floor, we decided that if we could get the support of the CJS we would have a better chance of success with the House. So, reluctantly, we agreed to table the matter until February in San Antonio.
In preparing for the debate, we lobbied and obtained support from many quarters. In a demonstration of brilliant advocacy, Norm had attended a meeting of the CJS in Washington, DC and, as a result, the CJS was now co-sponsoring NYCLA's proposal. Nevertheless, we anticipated and prepared for a vigorous debate. We were prepared to respond to arguments that our proposal was unrealistically expensive in a time of fiscal challenge. We anticipated that some would argue that enactment of our proposal would make it more difficult to convict guilty people. We were ready to note that most metropolitan police stations already have the necessary equipment in place and that videotaping interrogations would strengthen the ability to obtain solid and reliable convictions. A taped interrogation would (a) allow jurors to see exactly what transpired, (b) reduce the likelihood of false confessions, (c) assure that Miranda rights were properly recited, (d) show corroborative details, and (e) be a good training tool for law enforcement officers. We also were prepared to advise that Minnesota has required videotaping since 1994 and violent crime has been reduced by 40% since then, so taping has not hurt crime fighting. In addition, such a protocol has been in place in the United Kingdom since 1984, without a negative impact on law enforcement.
On February 9, the appointed hour finally arrived and Gene Nathanson took the podium before the 539 delegates from the 50 states and various territories of the United States of America. Gene argued eloquently that the time had come to mandate videotaping of custodial interrogations. He noted that though it may be hard for some to believe that innocent people would confess to crimes they did not commit, there are numerous documented cases in which that was precisely what happened. He noted that false confessions are obtained by skilled interrogators employing high-pressure tactics and that false confessions ultimately result in a cynicism and an erosion of public confidence in the criminal justice system.
Much to our surprise, after Gene's presentation there was no opposition whatsoever and NYCLA's resolution calling for videotaping of interrogations was adopted unanimously by the ABA's House of Delegates. NYCLA has received a great deal of recognition for its leadership on this matter. The New York Times reported on our significant achievement, and television interviews of Norm Reimer and me have been broadcast throughout our nation.
Though NYCLA has moved this matter forward quickly, much work remains. On March 1, NYCLA's Justice Center hosted an extraordinary forum on false confessions, which was brilliantly chaired by Susan Walsh, co-chair of our Criminal Justice Section. The forum highlighted the urgency of this important issue and furthered the dialogue. NYCLA has requested placement of our proposal on the April agenda of the New York State Bar Association's House of Delegates, and we are hopeful that NYSBA will join our effort. As a result of your Association's efforts and that of its leaders like Norm Reimer, Gene Nathanson and Susan Walsh, I am confident that videotaping interrogations will soon become a reality throughout our nation.

Michael Miller