Protecting life, liberty

New law will help prevent wrongful convictions, false confessions

141

By Mindy Ragan Wood
Staff Writer

Two new laws signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt are designed to prevent wrongful convictions.

Senate Bill 636 requires investigators to record an interview or interrogation when they have been given the Miranda rights warning, or when someone is being detained and questioned about an alleged crime related to homicide or felony sexual assault.

The law also demands that a police department’s policies for recorded interrogations be made public. Recordings are required while a suspect makes a verbal statement or signs a statement regarding those crimes.

The measure was approved by the legislature and signed by the governor because of the spotlight on innocent defendants who have been incarcerated for long periods of time, and were released years or decades later.

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 798 requires law enforcement agencies to include evidence-based practices to identify a suspect when an eyewitness is being used.

The new law requires officers who do not know the identity of a suspect to conduct the suspect lineup and tell the witness that the person they saw may not be in the lineup.
Witnesses will also have to state how certain they are of the identification after they claim to spot the suspect in the lineup.

Both laws will go into effect Nov. 1, 2019 and were praised by the Oklahoma Innocence Project.

“The new laws will protect the life and liberty of innocent Oklahomans, help law enforcement obtain more accurate evidence, and protect taxpayers,” said Vicki Behenna, executive director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project. “Senator Julie Daniels, Senator Kay Floyd and Representative Chris Kannady provided real leadership on these issues. We’ve also been proud to partner with law enforcement for statewide training on best practices.”

In Oklahoma, 11 wrongful convictions involved eyewitness accounts and five false confessions since 1989, the National Registry of Exonerations found. More than $40 million has been paid to victims of wrongful convictions in Oklahoma.

SURPRISED

Law enforcement officials in Canadian County were surprised to see the law was needed because their policies already require some form of recording, audio or audio and visual.

“If you have someone in custody for one of those crimes, I don’t know why anyone would not be recording that,” Yukon Police Chief John Corn said. “If they give a confession, utter a statement, you would want to have that recording even if it might be only be the first interview.”

However, that isn’t the case in all Oklahoma jurisdictions as evidenced by the 11 wrongful convictions and false confessions since 1989.

Yukon’s police department has two different types of interrogation and interview rooms. Rooms at the front of the building and “hard” interrogation rooms behind security doors, but all of these rooms are wired for audio and visual recording.

Canadian County Sheriff Chris West said they have been recording police interrogations for years.

“When we submit a case to the DA (district attorney) we include, in the record, that in an audio video file,” West said. “I don’t think we’ve ever not given the public a copy of our policies.”

Piedmont Police Chief Scott Singer said technology like body cams has been adopted by most law enforcement agencies, an added layer of accountability and transparency in addition to interrogation recordings. Body cameras insure few, if any, official police interview or interrogations occur without electronic recording. Yukon’s police force does not have body cameras.

“If you’re in contact with a subject, if you doing anything other than community intervention or just talking to someone in a neighborhood, anytime the officer believes they’re going to be taking official action on the part of the police department, a citation or DUI or arrest, it’s (body cam) supposed to be turned on,” Singer said. “It is supposed to be activated from the first moment of contact until the contact is ended.”

His department’s interrogation rooms are wired for recording.

“We believe that obviously any time an officer gets up (in court) and testifies it’s far easier to sustain his credibility if you have it on tape with the guy who you’ve read his Miranda rights, you asked him direct questions and answered those directly,” Singer said. “Having that on video and audio is powerful. Certainly supports the officer so the officer doesn’t have to go in and have his credibility attacked.”

Kingfisher Police Chief said his department’s body cameras and dash cameras help with other types of interviews to further an investigation.

“They’ve proven effective also for the recording of not only suspect interrogations but also the initial contacts with victims and witnesses and any follow-up interviews that may occur as a result of ongoing investigations,” Baker said. “Officers find this practice particularly helpful in preparing their written reports. The recordings not only enable them to review exact words and phrases used for report preparation, but also allow them to review for things they might have missed upon first hearing. Recording itself has proven a valuable tool.”

Police investigators are also trained to spot false confessions and prompt a guilty suspect to divulge the truth, most commonly known as the Reid Technique.

Kingfisher County Sheriff Dennis Banther said most of the time investigators already know the truth before the interrogation begins.

“The fact is, 99 percent of the time, by the time we question the suspect of the crime, we already know the answers to the questions we are asking,” Banther said. “It’s just a time to give the suspect a chance to own up to their mistakes. It gives them a chance to show remorsefulness for what they have done. As officers, we have more respect for those who own their mistakes than those who won’t.”