We say it so often that it almost sounds like a cliche -- when police officers arrest, charge or convict the wrong person of a crime, the true perpetrator is left on the streets to commit other crimes. A new lawsuit, brought against the Albuquerque Police Department, aims to hold the Department liable for money damages for a death that resulted from one such wrongful arrest. In a case that I blogged about earlier, Albuquerque police officers arrested and charged two travelling magazine salesmen -- Travis Rowley and Michael Lee -- with the murder of a Korean couple, Tak and Pung Yi. The only evidence against the men was a confession that police had obtained from Rowley after a lengthy interrogation. While Rowley and Lee were arrested and awaiting trial on these charges, DNA testing of material found under Tak Yi's fingernails excluded Rowley and Lee. This DNA profile was later linked to a serial killer named Clifton Bloomfield. The discovery that Bloomfield killed the Yi's led to the release of Rowley and Lee. But it came too late for Katherine and Scott Pierce. While Lee and Rowley were locked up, Bloomfield was on the streets and while there he shot and killed Scott Pierce just six days after he and Katherine got married in June 2008. In a lawsuit filed by Ms. Pierce, she claims that the City and the detectives investigating her husband's case and the Yi killings, were negligent in not connecting the dots between the two killings and allowing a serial killer to roam the streets. "The killer was at large, on probation, in part because of the negligence of defendants in not 'connecting the dots' and doing their jobs in the investigation of crimes that occurred months and years before (Scott Pierce) was killed," the lawsuit contends. The civil complaint further alleges that the police should have realized that Rowley's statement was unreliable because it "didn't match up with the physical evidence at the crime scene," detectives "did no corroboration investigation of the inconsistent details in the police-induced false confession" and "perhaps worse yet, no supervisors required corroborative investigative work." According to a February 2, 2010 article in the Albuquerque Journal, the Deputy City Attorney Kathryn Levy had not yet seen the lawsuit but said "Obviously, Mr. Pierce's death was a terrible tragedy, but nothing APD detectives did could have prevented it."
Hopefully, the question of whether police negligence led to the wrongful death of Scott Pierce will ultimately be decided by a jury. This groundbreaking lawsuit, however, could force police officers in Albuquerque and elsewhere to change their investigation protocols when it comes to confession evidence. All too often, police view the confession as the be-all and end-all of any investigation. While confession evidence is perhaps the most powerful piece of evidence in a court of law, it is not worthy of this status. Confessions are not per se reliable. They are only as reliable as the evidence which corroborates the confession and any good police department will continue to seek corroboration even after securing a confession. Moreover, confession evidence can be contaminated. To the extent that confession details appear to match the crime evidence, case after case of wrongful convictions have shown that these details are often fed to suspects by police officers through leading questions, showing suspects crime scene photos, and other tricks of the interrogation trade. Lawsuits such as the Pierce's, if successful, have great potential to improve the quality of police work and to prevent future tragedies like what occurred to Scott Pierce from recurring.
Here's hoping that this case goes to trial or, at the very least, as part of any settlement, the Albuquerque police institute changes to their investigation protocol to improve the reliability of confession evidence.