By The Herald Editorial Board
Watch any cop show on television — we’re looking at you, all versions of “Law & Order” — and the use of deception during scenes of a suspect’s interrogation, in essence lying to a suspect to get a confession, is about as common as cop replies of “Copy that.”
But what makes for good television may have a spottier record when it comes to convicting those who are actually responsible for a crime, and too often can result in wrongful convictions.
Originally sponsored by state Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, House Bill 1062 looks to make statements made during such interrogations inadmissible in court if the investigating officer intentionally used deception to obtain a confession.
“Police can really make up anything they want to during an interrogation. They can falsely say they have DNA evidence; they can say they have eyewitnesses, and I just don’t think that’s right,” Peterson said during an interview prior to the start of the session.”It can lead to wrongful convictions, which, of course, doesn’t serve justice to anybody. The person who is guilty is still out in our community, and somebody who’s innocent is spending time in prison.”
And those wrongful convictions happen more often than many realize, in particular in Washington state. Data gathered by the Washington Innocence Project — which provides legal services to exonerate those wrongfully convicted and promotes policy to end wrongful convictions — shows that 23 percent of exonerations in Washington state involved false confessions, nearly double the 12 percent of exonerations nationally that involved false confessions. And those numbers may be an under-count of such unjust convictions.
The practice of using deception in interrogations is widespread and has largely gone unchallenged for decades following a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case that allowed the practice of “guilt-presumptive” questioning that falsely informs suspects of DNA results, statements by witnesses or other evidence that could be used to elicit a confession or guilty plea.
Washington Innocence Project points to the story of one man, Ted Bradford, who’s wrongful conviction for first-degree rape and kidnapping in 1996 in Yakima County, was won on statements he made during a nine-hour interrogation. Told that there was evidence at the crime scene that could be tested to exonerate him, Bradford, desperate to end the interrogation, signed a statement that he “probably” committed the crime. He later recanted the statement, but it was still used in court to convict him, found more convincing to the jury than the victim’s inability to identify Bradford as her attacker and testimony that he was at work at the time of the attack. The evidence that might have cleared him then, a mask found at the crime scene, went missing before it could be tested for DNA.
Bradford served 10 years in prison, and was required to register as a sex offender upon his release, before the missing evidence was finally located and DNA testing determined he was innocent.
The innocence project estimates that Bradford’s wrongful conviction cost the state more than $389,000, and resulted in lost wages of more than $350,000 for him.
Beyond wrongful convictions, there’s growing recognition that deceptive interrogation results in broader harms. A 2009 report in the Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law found that such tactics potentially cloud the value of confessions as evidence in court, raising concerns about their reliability.
The report further finds that the use of lies in interrogation can result in false confessions either to ensure a lighter penalty or escape the stress of a prolonged interrogation. As well, falsehoods during interrogation also can risk exclusion of truthful confessions from trial. And police reliance on the tactic also can discourage officers from using other, more reliable investigation practices. More generally, the report finds, the use of deception to get to the truth simply “threatens the integrity of the criminal justice system.”
Still, there’s reluctance among many in law enforcement to end the use of deception in questioning suspects.
“Sometimes the use of deception is required to locate the truth both to convict and exonerate people,” said James McMahan, policy director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, during a Feb. 1 public hearing on the bill before the House appropriations committee. And there are already protections in place to prevent such abuse.
“There’s long-standing case law specifically prohibiting coercion both at the state court and federal court levels,” he said, and rules that require judges to review confessions before admitting them into evidence during trials.
However, gauging by the number of exonerations where deceptive interrogation was used, such abuses and their false confessions do slip by judges.
Nine other states have adopted similar legislation, but only pertaining to juvenile court cases. The legislation, which must get a vote on the House floor by Feb. 13, would be the first in the U.S. to apply in adult criminal cases.
Peterson’s original bill has been amended from the original; the substitute bill would as of July 2025 make statements compelled through the use of deception inadmissible in court, but limit the prohibition to custodial interrogations; police would be free to withhold information from a suspect. As well, deception could be used to protect the integrity of a previous or ongoing undercover investigation; protect the identity or ensure the safety of an officer, informant, witness or victim; or confirm information about the identity or location of a victim or witness an officer reasonably believes is being concealed by a suspect.
As importantly, the legislation would require the state Criminal Justice Training Commission to contract with experts in interrogation tactics to develop training in evidence-based non-coercive interrogation techniques for law enforcement agencies in the state by July 2025.
Such tactics, relying on tested methods of questioning and the strategic use of actual evidence may not make for gripping TV police procedurals. But if it results in more reliable identification of suspects and fewer convictions of innocent people, that’s worth a “copy that.”