By Grace Deng / Washington State Standard
Ted Bradford was 22 years old when he confessed to a crime he didn’t commit following over nine and a half hours of police interrogation.
“I thought just give them the statement, give them what they want, they’ll test the evidence they claimed was at the crime scene and this will all be over,” Bradford said during a Washington state House committee hearing on Monday.
Bradford, the first person in Washington to be exonerated by DNA evidence, was testifying in support of House Bill 1062, which would effectively ban police from lying about evidence during suspect interrogation.
“My case and my experience illustrates perfectly why this bill is needed,” said Bradford, who was exonerated in 2010 after serving a full 10-year prison term that ended in 2006.
Under HB 1062, anything a suspect says in custody while a police officer uses “false facts about evidence or unauthorized statements regarding leniency” during interrogation will be thrown out of court. The legislation is meant to prevent false confessions.
Misrepresentations of evidence are present in “virtually every wrongful conviction stemming from false confessions,” said Lara Zarowsky, who heads the Washington Innocence Project, a legal services group working to exonerate wrongfully convicted people. According to Zarowsky, 29% of DNA exonerations recorded by her group involved a false confession.
“When criminal investigations are no longer a search for truth, but a search for generating material that will lead to a conviction — any conviction — the system that we have has fallen really far away from justice,” Zarowsky said.
While police deception in interrogations is legal in every state, according to The Innocence Project, several states have introduced similar proposals to ban the practice. Oregon, Illinois, Utah and California have also passed legislation to protect juveniles from police deception in interrogations.
It’s also a global practice among law enforcement: Amanda Knox, who was incarcerated in Italy for four years as an American exchange student because she was wrongly convicted of killing her roommate, also testified in support of the bill.
“My roommate had just been murdered. I thought the people who were there to protect me were the police. The fact they betrayed me and violated me with their lies, their threats shocked me,” Knox said.
Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, the lead sponsor of the bill, said many of his constituents are shocked when he tells them officers can lie during interrogations.
“This is a matter of fairness,” Peterson said. “If we want to build that kind of trust between our police agencies and our communities, truthfulness is, I think, the basis.”
The legislation would protect both adult and juvenile suspects.
Police and prosecutor groups argued the bill could be interpreted too broadly.
“We have to lie to people to get them to tell the truth,” said James McMahan, representing the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. “If we could somehow get people to actually be required to tell the truth, we wouldn’t have to lie.”
He added that police lie to protect confidential informants, to carry out sex offender stings and to protect ongoing criminal investigations.
However, experts who testified, including a former homicide detective, James Trainum, said banning deceptive practices will improve police interrogation techniques and relationships with communities.
Under current state law, police can use these practices in order to get information for criminal investigations as long as what officers say is not so “shocking” it violates “fundamental fairness.”
The Seattle Police Department recently enacted a policy preventing officers from using so-called “ruses” among the general public and from making false promises of leniency, but stopped short of banning officers from lying during interrogations.
Peterson introduced a similar bill to the one he now has pending in two previous legislative sessions.
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