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Allegations of Abuses Mar Murder Cases

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By April Witt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 23, 2001

First of four articles

The room is cramped and cold. The floor and walls are carpeted to muffle sound. A small table and two chairs are the only furnishings. There is no window, no clock, no clue to when night becomes day. After 28 hours in that interrogation room, Keith Longtin was so exhausted he wondered if he'd lost his mind.

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"The detective said, 'Well, thanks for making a confession . . .' " Longtin recalled. "I'm like, 'What? I didn't admit to anything.' . . . He said, 'Yes, you did.' "

Longtin spent the next eight months in jail, charged with the 1999 slaying of his wife while Prince George's County homicide detectives overlooked DNA evidence that would set him free. Eventually, other investigators -- not the homicide squad -- linked the DNA to a man they now say is the real killer.

While Longtin was in jail, that man allegedly sexually assaulted seven women. Prince George's County homicide detectives have coerced confessions and denied suspects lawyers during marathon interrogations that appear to violate state rules and exceed bounds set by other police agencies, according to a yearlong investigation by The Washington Post. The investigation involved dozens of interviews with lawyers and suspects and the review of hundreds of police and court documents. In four cases, Prince George's homicide detectives took suspects into their interrogation rooms and extracted confessions to murder that later proved false. The confessions put the wrong men behind bars while the killers remained free to commit other crimes.

The four false confessions were made by Longtin; a teenager with learning disabilities who said he stabbed a friend; a high school senior who implicated himself in a triple shooting; and an illiterate janitor who shakily signed a statement a detective wrote for him confessing to slaying a co-worker. The four men were detained in the interrogation room from 11 to more than 38 hours. Three of the four insist that detectives refused to let them speak with a lawyer. And in each case, the suspect's alleged statement was virtually the only evidence homicide detectives used to charge him with murder.

In two of the cases examined by The Post, the trail went so cold while Prince George's police focused on what prosecutors eventually concluded was the wrong man that the true killer is still free. In all four cases, homicide detectives misread, ignored or lost evidence and failed to follow significant leads, records and interviews show. In each case, the man was exonerated only through the intervention of outsiders -- detectives from other units, savvy lawyers and crime lab experts -- and not Prince George's homicide detectives.

Prince George's Police Chief John S. Farrell defended his detectives, saying he had faith they did not violate people's constitutional rights in the interrogation room. He noted that judges are not throwing out the confessions they obtain, but he said he would investigate The Post's findings. "I look for accountability," Farrell said. "Does that mean mistakes are never made? No.

"In all four of the false murder confessions that The Post examined, prosecutors dropped charges after exonerating evidence came to light, Prince George's County State's Attorney Jack B. Johnson said. "Ninety-nine percent of the officers are good officers," Johnson said. "But any violation of rights is huge. We put people in jail because of their statements. "Johnson said he believes tamper-proof video cameras should be placed in interrogation rooms. Though many police departments, including the District's and Montgomery County's, videotape some confessions, Prince George's police never do.

Prince George's police came under federal investigation late last year when the Justice Department said it would review complaints of brutality, racial discrimination and excessive use of force. Federal authorities said the probe, which is expected to take more than a year, also would include a review of the police canine unit and of shootings of civilians by police officers. A Pattern of Complaints The methods the Prince George's detectives allegedly used in the four false-confession cases -- including lengthy interrogations, refusal to let suspects speak with lawyers, and improper threats and promises -- were similar to police tactics described by suspects and defense lawyers in dozens of other Prince George's cases reviewed by The Post. In many of the other cases, the evidence does not make clear whether the confessions extracted were false.

Some Prince George's lawyers, including former prosecutors, said interrogation room abuse is the routine rather than the exception. "That's the name of the game: They hold people for as long as it takes until they say something, and they don't let them see a lawyer," said Steven D. Kupferberg, a former Prince George's prosecutor who is now a private defense lawyer in Rockville. "I haven't had that experience in any other county, and I practice law all over [Maryland] and in D.C.

"Prince George's Public Defender Joseph M. Niland said long and intimidating interrogations are part of the history of the Prince George's Police Department. "The culture is that not only is this okay, this is how you do it: You get in there and you make him give it up," Niland said. James Papirmeister said that when he was a top homicide prosecutor for the county, he accepted detectives' testimony about confessions at face value. After he became a defense lawyer, however, he said he was shocked by the frequency with which his clients' rights were violated in the interrogation room and detectives then lying about it on the witness stand.

CONTINUED     1                 >

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