In Amicus Brief, City Bar Criticizes Coercive Interrogation Tactics in People v. Thomas

Where recordings of interrogations “demonstrate promises, threats and tactics that offend notions of fundamental fairness,” confessions resulting from those interrogations must be excluded as evidence, according to an amicus brief filed by the New York City Bar Association in People v. Thomas. The brief, filed with the New York State Court of Appeals by the City Bar’s Criminal Law and Criminal Advocacy Committees, addresses the case of Adrian Thomas, convicted of murder in the death of his infant son. The brief recounts the details of Thomas’s nine-hour interrogation, including that the police interrogators, among other things:

  • fabricated conversations with doctors, and claimed that the confession could help doctors treat his son although they knew the infant was brain dead at the time;
  • threatened to arrest Thomas’ wife, the mother of his six children, if he did not explain how he caused the injuries;
  • promised Thomas over 30 times that he would be released if he admitted to “accidentally” injuring his son;
  • threatened Thomas that if he didn’t explain how this was an accident then someone else would go after him criminally.

Although Thomas proffered an expert, Dr. Richard Ofshe, to explain how such tactics can lead to false confessions, the trial judge denied the motion. The Appellate Division upheld the trial court’s decision admitting Thomas’s statements as voluntary and refusing to permit the defense to present expert testimony on false confessions. “The tactics used in the recorded interrogation in this case are not consistent with either New York or Federal Constitutional law” the brief states. “Fabricating conversations with doctors and falsely telling a person that someone may die if they do not confess is such a strategy. This is particularly so where, as in this case, a parent is told that his child will die if he does not speak and is accused of not wanting to save his child if he does not provide an explanation that satisfies the officer. The tactics used in the interrogation of Mr. Thomas do not just violate due process, they also increase the risk of a false confession.” These high-pressure tactics are, according to the brief, “precisely those that have been condemned as unconstitutional by this court time and time again.” The brief also argues that denying the defense the opportunity to present an expert on false confessions also “undermined the integrity of the truth-seeking function of the trial, which is brought to bear when both sides vigorously present their case.”  The Court of Appeals has held that such testimony should be admitted “in a proper case,” and, according to the brief, this was such a case, as the jury had to review “voluminous evidentiary materal, in addition to the trial testimony, in order to determine whether a confession was truthful” and jurors often do not have their own life experience to provide the context for examining whether a confession is false. The brief can be read here: