Saturday, 1 August 2009

Pittsburgh-area police may test interrogation changes

Allegheny County police departments could be part of a pilot program aimed at changing police interrogation techniques.

District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., who chairs the investigations section of a state Senate-commissioned Committee on Wrongful Convictions, acknowledged any changes could rankle some police.

"We're looking for the best practices. I'm willing to undertake pilot projects if this is coming out of the committee," Zappala said.

The Committee on Wrongful Convictions, chaired by Duquesne University law school professor John Rago, is due to release a report to the state Senate by fall that could outline several recommendations, including making it easier for convicts to gain access to DNA testing and providing monetary compensation for the wrongfully convicted.

Zappala said he'd be willing to have an independent party, instead of detectives on the case, show photo arrays, pictures or lineups to witnesses for identification. The idea — called double blind — is that there would be no hints or interference of who the witness identifies because the person showing the pictures is not familiar with the case. The pictures would be shown one at a time, instead of all together.

Penn Hills police Chief Howard Burton, who served on the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association accreditation committee for the past nine years, said introducing a third party into interrogations or witness interviews indicates a distrust of police.

"It's suggesting that the police are doing something wrong. It's creating an image of a police officer that police are corrupt and we'll do anything to get a conviction," Burton said. "Police have nothing to gain by putting the wrong people in jail."

Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Republican representing Montgomery and Bucks counties, said he introduced the resolution forming the Committee on Wrongful Convictions to examine how innocent people end up behind bars.

Nine Pennsylvania convicts, including two from Allegheny County, have been exonerated through DNA testing. Nationally, 240 have been exonerated.

"The task force is not to assign blame," Greenleaf said. "It's to find out what we can do that's humanly possible to make sure it doesn't happen again. What are the best practices?"

Zappala endorsed amending the state's wiretapping act to remove a clause requiring police to inform those in custody that they are being recorded. He stopped short of endorsing a plan to force police to record entire interrogations rather than just the "confession," as is common practice.

"We always ask investigators to put someone on tape, but sometimes people will say, 'I'll talk to you but I don't want to go on tape," Zappala said. "I don't want to do anything that makes it harder to convict guys. I think all law enforcement wants to amend the wiretap act to be able to tape guys with or without their knowledge."

Missouri passed a law earlier this month requiring police to record entire interrogations.

The Innocence Project, a New York organization dedicated to freeing the wrongfully convicted, released a report this month detailing eyewitness misidentification. According to the report, 75 percent of wrongful convictions overturned with DNA testing involve eyewitnesses who were wrong.

"There is a growing understanding nationwide that eyewitness identification is often unreliable and that simple reforms can reduce misidentifications," Stephen Saloom, policy director at the Innocence Project, said in a statement.


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