In one of the Kankakee County sheriff's first attempts at videotaping an interrogation, suspect Christopher Connery was led into a small room. It was bare but for two chairs, a table and a wall thermostat the size of a cigarette pack.
Detectives listened intently to Connery's repeated denials that he had raped and stabbed Melissa Osman to death. By the time investigators left the room to interview another witness, though, Connery appeared to have forgotten something--he had agreed that his interview could be videotaped. A tiny camera was perched behind the thermostat.
Alone in the room, Connery started singing, "Ding, dong, the wicked witch is dead..."
Connery has now taken up lifetime residence at the Pontiac Correctional Center.
For a sheriff's department full of cynics, that marked a conversion to the value of videotaping. Today their basement offices in downtown Kankakee are teeming with converts.
Detectives assert that their community reputation has improved since they started videotaping felony interrogations and confessions in 1996. Serious police brutality challenges have become almost non-existent. Prosecutors rarely lose on a motion to suppress a confession before trial. The police have learned new techniques by watching each other on tape.
Undersheriff Bradley O'Keefe notes another unexpected bonus: The valuable information they learn when the suspect thinks he's alone in the room.
Videotaping interrogations and confessions stood among the major recommendations issued last week by the Governor's Commission on Capital Punishment. The respected panel spent two years meticulously examining the system and issued 85 suggestions to make it better. Videotaping is one of the more controversial proposals, even though the idea has also been endorsed by a state Supreme Court committee that issued an earlier set of reforms.
The states of Minnesota and Alaska require videotaped interrogations and confessions. An increasing number of police departments around the country have adopted it on their own.
So why is it that so many law enforcement officials in Illinois still regard videotaping as a neutron bomb to effective policing? Why do places like Kankakee remain lonely islands of reason in a combative sea?
Mere hours after Monday's press conference to announce the commission's report, spitballs started flying. Why? Because too many cops want to serve and protect the status quo. Because they see it as a knock to their credibility rather than as a tool to help build strong cases while protecting the rights of the accused.
Law enforcement folks have plenty of reasons to worry about credibility, but this isn't one of them. The reasons they should be focused on include Ronald Jones, Corethian Bell, Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez--not to mention the 7- and 8-year-old boys who were wrongly accused of murdering 11-year-old Ryan Harris.
All were Death Row inmates or murder defendants who eventually were released because police took bad confessions from them. That means DNA or someone else's confession exonerated them from the crime they "confessed" to police. Had their interrogations been videotaped, that might have been discovered weeks, rather than months or years, later.
Ronald Jones confessed to murder. But he later claimed at trial that he had been interrogated for eight hours and brought to the crime scene to enhance the detail and accuracy of his statement. A videotape, with a date and time stamp on it, would have resolved that issue years ago.
A Tribune series published in December illustrated that it's not hard to extract a false confession from someone who, like Jones, has a low IQ or who is an alcoholic or a drug addict.
So taping only murder confessions, as is the practice in Cook County, doesn't go far enough. Corethian Bell confessed on videotape that he murdered his mother. But DNA tests later linked someone else to the crime. After 17 months in jail, Bell was released in January. A video of his interrogation leading up to the false confession would have shed light on what happened here.
Another Death Row inmate, Aaron Patterson, for years has maintained he confessed to a crime he did not commit because he was subjected to police torture. Given that he was interrogated by officers working under notorious Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, his claims may have credibility. A videotape would have resolved the issue years ago.
Dozens of excuses, from the picayune to the far-fetched, have been thrown out by police departments terrified by the idea of pulling back the curtain to the interrogation room.
Excuse No. 1: All that fancy equipment costs too much.
Video cameras cost a few hundred bucks. Sony sells digital video cameras starting at $500 retail. The entire setup, including cassettes, could reach $1,000. That's cheaper than the alternative financial burden, shelling out millions in civil liabilities for false confessions. DuPage County paid $3.5 million to exonerated Death Row inmates Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez; Cook County paid $38.5 million to the four released Death Row inmates known as the Ford Heights Four. Cook taxpayers are destined to shell out millions more in legal fees and settlements for mishandling interrogations and confessions of four men wrongfully convicted of murdering medical student Lori Roscetti. Then there are the two young boys initially charged in the Ryan Harris case after their questionable confessions.
Excuse No. 2: Who has room to store all those cassettes?
In the Kankakee sheriff's evidence room is one small bookshelf on which sits all of last year's 157 videotapes, and there's plenty of room for more. Now with digital video technology, interviews could be stored on computers instead of shelves.
Excuse No. 3: This is one more technicality that will let murderers and rapists to go free.
Many prosecutors and police who use videotapes say just the opposite is true: Videotape helps win their cases or leads to faster plea bargains. "I would describe it as a big improvement," said Kankakee County Judge Clark Erickson. "We're spending a lot less time on pre-trial motions. It just narrows the issues."
In Minnesota, Hennepin County Prosecutor Amy Klobuchar said there are two major advantages to videotaped interrogations. They squelch virtually all police brutality claims because judges and jurors are able to see for themselves whether brutality occurred. And jurors are able to see what a defendant's demeanor was after the crime, rather than have to rely on someone else's descriptions and memories. "We had a guy who claimed he was blind," Klobuchar said. "When police left the room, he picked up a paper and started reading. The camera was on the whole time."
Excuse No. 4: Things can go wrong with the tape.
True. Kankakee Chief Investigator Ken McCabe said he has a case now where no audio was recorded on a tape. But this is the first time that has happened after handling more than 500 videotapes. Exceptions can be written into the law to allow confessions to be admitted when there was a technical breakdown or practical problem with videotaping. The commission recommends just such an exception.
Excuse No. 5: Sometimes a suspect will start confessing in the squad car or in the field before he can be taken to the station for interrogation.
Minnesota has provided the answer. Have cops carry small tape recorders for instances when a confession occurs outside of the police station.
Excuse No. 6: Suspects will clam up if they know a camera is on.
That was the same argument made before Miranda warnings were imposed, and it turned out not to be true. Kankakee Police Chief Michael Kinkade said about 55 percent of last year's felony suspects agreed to be videotaped. At the sheriff's office, more than 95 percent of felony suspects have assented to videotaping, O'Keefe said. Cameras can be positioned to be unobtrusive.
Excuse No. 7: Juries won't understand the kinds of tactics police use, which can involve legally protected lies or misleading statements.
To that, Kankakee Circuit Judge Kathy Bradshaw-Elliott said juries have gotten increasingly sophisticated about police questioning tactics by, believe it or not, watching television crime shows like NYPD Blue and Law & Order. Beyond that, people simply have the ability to understand the sometimes tough interrogation techniques used by police when they're carefully explained in court.
Some authorities suggest videotaping should be voluntary. Videotaping already is voluntary. Mandating it statewide is good, sensible policy. And for all the election year Nervous Nellies, this has nothing to do with being soft on crime. Videotaping interrogations helps further the search for the truth.
No one craves truth more than victims. Ask Dorothe Ernest of Hinsdale, whose daughter Kimberly was murdered while jogging in Philadelphia in 1995. The suspects claimed their confessions were coerced; the jury believed them. A videotape, Ernest believes, would have proved otherwise.
Illinois' criminal justice system is flawed. The 13 men who have been wrongly sentenced to die since 1977 stand as stark evidence of that. It is time to substantially improve that system, and videotaping interrogations and confessions will be an important step toward that.
A videotaping bill has sat in the House Judiciary committee for years. It is a fine bill. Some committee members have said the recommendation of the governor's commission will prompt them to take fresh look at it.
Great. Do it now. The Illinois legislature has proved it can respond quickly and forcefully when it is faced with a crisis, as it did nearly a decade ago in reforming the state's child welfare system.
Well, here is an issue that is no less one of life and death. The governor's commission on capital punishment has offered dozens of ways to improve on Illinois' capital punishment system. Move on them. No one craves truth more than victims.