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Helping ensure justice

By From page A10 | December 29, 2013

The issue: False confession is part of a growing case for videotaped interrogations

Terrence “T.J.” Johnson, 17, is back in the relative safety of his Memphis home, but thinking about his 64 nights in jail should give pause to opponents of mandatory videotaping of police interrogations.

JOHNSON’S CASE is the latest entry in a catalog of false murder confessions. He admitted to police that he drove the getaway car in the Oct. 4 robbery and murder of Piperton, Tenn., contractor John “J.P.” Shelley.

We have only Johnson’s account of the interrogation, the police not having commented on it. But from his description, it had the earmarks of a method developed in the 1950s that permits interrogators who believe suspects are lying to obtain confessions by making false and misleading statements to them and promises that interrogators don’t intend to keep.

The widely employed Reid technique, described in detail by writer Douglas Starr in his Dec. 9 New Yorker article “The Interview,” has been called into question by criminal justice scholars because of the number of false confessions it has produced.

As an antidote, at least 18 states require videotaping of interrogations in murder cases. Tennessee had an opportunity to join them in 2011 when the issue was debated in the General Assembly. Legislators ultimately accepted the argument that the decision should be left up to law enforcement officials because taping can cause a guilty suspect to clam up.

But suspects who waive the “right to remain silent,” believing they have nothing to hide and wind up confessing, are almost never acquitted by juries. And in 50 percent of exonerations resulting from DNA evidence, false confessions were obtained.

IT’S NOT DIFFICULT to see why police focused on Johnson. They had evidence that the driver in the Shelley case was nicknamed “T.J.” Johnson had associated with gang members. A cell phone that belonged to one of the robbery victims had been found near his home. He and the co-defendants all once attended Wooddale High School in Memphis. And Johnson wasn’t in school when the crime occurred.

After lengthy questioning, he signed a statement confessing to the crime.

Fortunately, Johnson’s attorneys didn’t believe it. Their investigation, as well as more work by prosecutors and police, eventually resulted in a murder charge against alleged getaway car driver Thomas Bernard Moss, 17.

The story would seem to have had a good ending. It would be a lot better, of course, if the public could be assured that it’s not likely to happen again.

— Memphis (Tenn.) Commercial-Appeal

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