State lawmakers should pass legislation requiring law enforcement agencies to videotape all interrogations with suspects of violent and serious crimes, according to a report released Friday by a group that spent two years reviewing wrongful convictions in Oklahoma.
“We were surprised to find that 27 percent of the 301 wrongful convictions we studied involved false confessions that were made by suspects during investigation of the crimes,” said former state Attorney General Drew Edmondson, who served as chairman of the Oklahoma Justice Commission. “Those were the kinds of things we've attempted to redress — instances where a common factor existed and practical ways to prevent future error.”
Edmondson said the commission, made up of law enforcement officers, lawmakers, victims' advocates and defense attorneys, hopes that law enforcement agencies will voluntarily start videotaping interrogations involving suspects of violent crimes.
But to ensure the practice is followed, the commission is urging lawmakers to require law enforcement agencies to videotape the entire interrogation. The commission also recommends the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training develop training for law enforcement agencies.
“This practice protects law enforcement by preventing allegations of coercion and preserving the subtle details of a suspect's behavior for investigative and prosecutorial purposes,” said Edmondson, a former legislator and prosecutor. “The commission recognizes this practice may not always be feasible, but we believe it should be standard practice when possible.
“If the wrong guy is in prison, that means the guy who really did it is out on the street and nobody feels more strongly about that than the people who wear badges and enforce the law,” he said. “They want the right guy in prison.”
‘It adds ... credibility'
Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty said Oklahoma City and most of the large police departments in the state already videotape interrogations of suspects in violent crime.
“It adds a lot of credibility to the investigation, some accountability when it goes to court,” said Citty, who served on the commission. “Law enforcement has a true interest in trying to make cases the best they can for the purpose of prosecution and honest conviction.”
The commission was established by the Oklahoma Bar Association in September 2010 to review Oklahoma's justice system.
Edmondson said members of the commission first reviewed cases where wrongful convictions occurred. It identified five broad areas that require further review:
Forensic evidence, including DNA;
General criminal procedure, including the use of informants;
Victim and family rights.
The commission also recommended new procedures for police lineups and photo identification.
DNA testing laws
The report expressed support for the state medical examiner's office in its efforts to regain national accreditation, obtain a new building and secure additional pathologists in order to reach that standard. The agency in 2009 lost its accreditation with the National Association of Medical Examiners, which cited facility and staffing deficiencies.
“The commission reviewed instances where DNA evidence proved faulty and found that of the cases studied, only one instance occurred in an accredited laboratory,” Edmondson said. “This clear correlation underscores the importance of the work done by the medical examiner's office, and it is in the public's interest that they be given the resources and facilities they need to conduct their work.”
The commission pointed out that Oklahoma is the only state that does not have a post-conviction DNA testing law and proposed legislation to allow access to DNA in cases where additional testing could establish innocence.
Rep. Lee Denney, R-Cushing, is the author of House Bill 1068, which would allow persons convicted of a crime who assert they were wrongfully convicted to file a motion in court requesting forensic DNA testing of any biological material secured in the investigation or prosecution. It passed the House, 98-0 last week and is awaiting action in the Senate.
“If there is significant and sufficient evidence that they're actually innocent, then they'll be able to ask for a new hearing through a judge and have their name cleared and then released from one of our institutions,” said Denney, who also served on the commission.