Liesbeth Boots, a Miami Public Defender, had a nightmare of a case on her hands. Her 18 year old client, Terric Jeffrey, had confessed to punching his girlfriend's son in the stomach, a blow that police believed had caused the boy's death. Not only was Jeffrey charged with the boy's murder, but he was facing the possibility of the death penalty. Instead of laying down and looking for a plea deal, as unfortunately, many defenders do, Boots came out swinging and attacked both the reliability of the confession and its voluntariness.
Boots turned up evidence that Jeffrey was mentally retarded and that officers used trickery to get him to confess. She hired a medical expert who placed the time of death at a time when the boy was with his mother. Her investigators got a statement from the mother (a recantation) in which she alibied Jeffrey during the time of the killing. During a voluntariness hearing she hired false confession expert Richard Ofshe to talk about the way in which police officers manipulate suspects into confessing through the use of tactics that imply leniency to those who confess and threaten harm to those who do not. She attacked the fact that the state did not electronically record the entire interrogation process and used the videotaped confession as evidence to support her claim that Jeffrey was compliant and suggestible.
After oral arguments, all that was left was the waiting. Today, the wait is over. Judge Robert Pineiro suppressed the confession of Jeffrey, holding that police had failed to meet their burden of proving the confession was voluntary. Judge Pineiro's eighteen page order is a textbook example of how judges should assess confessions. Judge Pineiro attacked the credibility of the detectives who conflicted over whether or not they used the "accident scenario" to obtain the confession, he took the detectives to task for the fact that they disagreed amongst themselves about who got the defendant to confess, and he lambasted the police for failing to follow-up on leads and other avenues of investigation once they obtained the confession, citing the old maxim of " first investigate, then interrogate."
Judge Pineiro also analyzed the confession line by line and noted each instance where the defendant simply parroted back information given by the detective and highlighted the last line of the confession when the defendant asks the detective; "I did that right?" as evidence that the confession was scripted. Perhaps the most important paragraph is the way in which this law and order judge describes how this case has changed his thinking about the need for videotaping the entirety of the interrogation process:
"Prior to this hearing, I was not convinced that it might be good police practice to videotape the entirety of a defendant's interrogation. That it would not be practical. Given the evidence adduced at these hearings I have come to believe that, regardless of the practicality, it might be imperative. It would provide the court and jurors credible proof of what takes place within the closed off environment of the interrogation cell. Perhaps this tragedy may have the salubrious effect of causing police departments to re-examine their interrogation policies."
Congratulations to Liesbeth Boots, her supervisor Stephen Harper, and the Miami Public Defender's Office for reminding us all of how to litigate a false confession in the pre-trial stages of a murder case. Their work gave the judge all of the ammunition he needed to make what unfortunately today can only be described as a "courageous ruling." Check out tomorrow's Miami Herald for more coverage of this decision. The final paragraph of the judge's order are words that we so rarely hear but which are music to the ears of anybody who cares about the meaning of justice:
"[W]e cannot let our zeal and thirst for retribution lead us to the point where we end up cutting corners, bending the rules, perhaps stretching the truth to get to that suspect who our gut tells us must have done it. When we do so, not only do we face the possibility of wrongfully accusing the innocent and of letting the guilty off Scott free, but of destroying that which makes our society worth protecting -- the rule of law. Only when we are willing to accord the least of us, to those charged with the worst crimes, due process of law can we truly preserve our Creator endowed "inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."