I’ve written before about the fact that 25 percent of the cases in which the Innocence Project has proven someone convicted of murder or rape have involved false confessions. That baffles people, who can’t imagine how or why someone would confess to a crime they didn’t commit, especially when the result is spending their lives in prison or being put to death. But NPR has a long piece on one such case that illustrates perfectly how it happens.
Nga Truong was a 16-year old girl with a 13-month old son, living with her family when her baby stopped breathing in late 2008. They called 911 but the baby was declared dead a short time later at the hospital. And the police immediately decided that she was responsible for it and locked her in a tiny interrogation room to get a confession out of her.
Back in the interrogation room, Sgt. Kevin Pageau presses in on the sobbing teenager.
“Somebody hurt that baby, and we need to know who it was, and we’re going to find out who it was,” Pageau says.
“I’m telling you everything,” Truong replies.
“No you’re not. Stop. Don’t lie to me,” Pageau says.
In that room, Truong will admit to suffocating her son. She’ll be arrested and she’ll spend almost three years awaiting trial for murder. But a videotape that police made of that interrogation, which NPR member station WBUR fought in court to obtain, will eventually set her free.
That videotape provides a rare look into the interrogation room, and the potential power it gives detectives to coerce false confessions.
A judge has thrown out the confession, ruling that it was the result of threats, intimidation and lies told by the police.
Homicide detectives are often required to confront the people they question. But in the case of a teenage girl whose baby has been dead for 27 hours and who pleads and cries through much of the interview, Truong’s attorney, Ed Ryan, says this is psychological torture.
“Their interrogation was designed not to determine the truth, not to get at the facts,” says Ryan, who wasn’t present for the interrogation, when Truong didn’t yet have a lawyer. “Their intention was designed to force her to confess to doing it in the way they figure she did it. They are the ones that force-fed her the word ‘suffocation.’ ”
Pageau also fed her the word “smother,” saying the medical examiner had determined Khyle had been smothered to death. But, in fact, the medical examiner said no such thing. Pageau was lying to Truong.
According to conventional training manuals, the purpose of interrogation is to get the suspect to incriminate themselves or, better yet, make a full confession. Confessions are considered the queen of criminal evidence, so in that room, Pageau does what he can to get the evidence he’s looking for.
The detective knows, as he will later acknowledge in court, that the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy a few hours earlier has not yet discovered a cause of death. But in the box, he betrays no doubt.
“I know how he died, which is why we are here,” Pageau tells Truong…
“Maximization” is a technique detectives use to convey to the suspect the hopelessness of their situation. It’s meant to give the impression that continued denials will fail and that confession is an easier way out. And that’s just what Pageau does when he tells Truong, “If you think this is going to be like that other baby you were watching so well, you’re sadly mistaken.”
Eventually, the detectives switch from “maximization” to “minimization.” Pageau’s partner, John Doherty, offers Truong sympathy and plays down her responsibility for what they accuse her of doing. After all, Doherty tells her, “you’re just a kid.”
“People will be much more understanding if you come forward and say, ‘I’m a 16-year-old girl. I lost it, this is what happened,’ ” Doherty says.
The detectives exploit the antagonism between Truong and her mother, who is only 14 years older than Truong. They say the house is a mess and that Truong’s mother is unfit. While offering Truong an excuse, they dangle a motive for why she did what they accuse her of doing.
“It’s not fair to you,” Pageau says. “You’re a kid. You should be able to be a kid, right?”
He continues, “We know you’re pissed because you have to keep taking care of your mother’s kids, and you didn’t have a chance to be a kid. That’s why you smothered Khyle, didn’t you?”
“I did not,” Truong replies.
“That’s why you smothered him, didn’t you?”
“I would never kill him.”
That’s when the detectives turn to another method of extracting a confession: making promises and offering inducements. They say they can get Truong help if she confesses.
“All everyone’s waiting for today is for you to admit to what you did so that we can start the process of getting you some help,” Pageau says, “getting your brothers out of that house and getting them in a better home, where there’s a mom that gets up in the morning and takes care of them.”
A few minutes later, Truong asks, “What kind of help am I going to get?” That’s when the detectives know they’re getting close. Pageau tells her there are women on the other side of the door who help children “like you.” But there are no women on the other side of the door.
He tells her that if she confesses, she will get help and leniency in the juvenile court, saying, “Keep it in the juvenile court. Keep it in the juvenile system, where punishment is minimal, if any — let’s say there is any.”
This is why every interrogation should be recorded and made available to defense attorneys. It’s also why any confession that occurs after the police lie to a suspect should be thrown out.