By April Witt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 4, 2001
Second of four articles
Joanne Beale wasn't worried when she delivered her 17-year-old son to a detective at Prince George's County police headquarters. She waited inside the locked homicide unit for less than an hour, she said, before a second detective ushered her to the lobby, saying her son was free to go and was waiting there for her.
As soon as the locked door slammed behind her, she realized she had been tricked and began to pound on the door, she said. She would not see her son again for several days. By then, he was facing a first-degree murder charge.
Homicide detectives took turns questioning Corey Beale over three days, records show. He said they slammed him against a wall, threatened him with execution and deprived him of sleep -- until he confessed to a slaying that evidence later showed he did not commit.
"They just wore me down," Beale said.
He spent 10 months in jail and had missed his senior year in high school before detectives in adjoining Charles County -- and not the Prince George's homicide unit -- found evidence that convinced them he was not the killer.
"I never knew that police could do these terrible things," Joanne Beale said in a recent interview. "How many other Coreys are in prison right now for things they didn't do?"
Twenty months after Beale was exonerated, police have yet to arrest the real killer.
The tactics Beale alleges reflect a broader pattern in which Prince George's homicide detectives have used marathon interrogations and sleep deprivation to extract incriminating statements, according to interviews with lawyers and suspects -- and the review of hundreds of police and court documents.
Lt. Michael McQuillan, commander of the Prince George's homicide unit, denied that his homicide detectives ever coerce or abuse suspects or detain them for long interrogations against their will.
Unless someone being questioned is under arrest, "if they ask to go, they are free to go," McQuillan said.
"The length of the interview is determined by what the person being interviewed gives us," McQuillan said. "If they want to stay, talk, and are doing it voluntarily, we continue to talk to them."
McQuillan said no one abused Beale to obtain a confession.
"Under no circumstance is a defendant, a witness -- anyone -- slammed against the wall in any of the interrogation rooms," he said. "It would not be tolerated. If it occurred, the department would take the necessary steps."
None of the detectives who interrogated Beale responded to written requests for interviews.
The U.S. Supreme Court has granted police wide latitude in trying to win confessions. They may lie or trick suspects, pretending they have eyewitness testimony or evidence that doesn't exist.
But police cannot use physical or psychological coercion to extract confessions. A confession must be freely and voluntarily given -- not dictated by interrogators -- if it is to be used as evidence in court.
In addition, Maryland rules of criminal procedure require police to take people they arrest before a judicial officer "without unnecessary delay and in no event later than 24 hours." State law also says, however, that no confession may be thrown out solely because police violated the 24-hour rule.
Beale's case was one of four examined by The Washington Post in which people who Prince George's homicide detectives said had admitted to murder were later exonerated by DNA or other evidence that persuaded prosecutors to drop the charges.
The methods allegedly used to gain those false confessions are not unusual, according to lawyers, former suspects and court and police documents. In the last three years, people have been convicted and imprisoned based on confessions they gave during interrogations conducted over 32, 35, 51, even 80 hours.
Sometimes police document sleep deprivation in their own interrogation logs. For example, a log indicates that Keith Longtin slept about 50 minutes during more than 38 hours in the interrogation room when he allegedly implicated himself in his wife's 1999 slaying. Longtin spent more than eight months in jail before DNA evidence exonerated him.
The effects of prolonged lack of sleep during interrogation were underscored during the Korean War, when 36 of 59 captured U.S. airmen confessed to war crimes they had not committed. That immediately raised fears that the communists had developed terrible new drugs or methods of brainwashing. Their tactic proved more simple: sleep deprivation.
"It was just one device used to confuse, bewilder and torment our men until they were ready to confess to anything," Louis West, a psychiatrist who served on a government panel that studied the confessions, once told an interviewer. "That device was prolonged, chronic loss of sleep."
Richard Schwab, medical director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Sleep Disorders, said depriving people of sleep during prolonged questioning can help extract confessions, even from the innocent. After one night of lost sleep, people's judgment is impaired, their reactions slow, they have trouble making decisions and they are prone to mistakes, Schwab said. After two nights, he said, people can become temporarily psychotic and hallucinate.
A respected textbook on law enforcement interrogations warns against "an unduly prolonged, continuous interrogation" that might be apt to make an innocent person confess. The authors of "Criminal Interrogation and Confession" suggest that competent interrogators should be able to obtain most confessions within about four hours.
Police departments in adjacent jurisdictions say their interrogations of suspects generally are far shorter than those in Prince George's County.
"I don't think I've ever seen one more than six or seven hours, really," said Lt. Philip Raum, a former Montgomery County homicide detective who now works for the chief of the detectives bureau. "If somebody had to stay up 24 hours without sleep, how voluntary is that?"
Detective Pamela Reed, who teaches interrogation tactics to District detectives, said she has kept murder suspects in the interrogation room for seven or eight hours while she alternately questions them and checks out information they've given her. In 23 years on the force, she said, the longest interrogation she has participated in was of a man suspected of killing a police officer. She said it lasted between 16 and 18 hours.
How Long Is Too Long?
Rutgers law professor George C. Thomas, co-author of "The Miranda Debate: Law, Justice and Policing," contends that marathon interrogations are inherently coercive.
"It's just not ethical policing," Thomas said in an interview, "and I'm pretty far right on these issues. I don't think it's wrong to trick or cajole an offender. But it's wrong to question a guy for 55 hours with relays of fresh officers. Whether it's unconstitutional or not, who knows, but it's wrong."
The U.S. Supreme Court has left it to judges and juries to decide if "the totality of the circumstances" indicates that a confession was voluntary or whether the suspect's "will was overborne" by coercive police conduct.
The length of time a suspect was questioned is just one factor judges and juries are supposed to consider, the court has said. They also should take into account the suspect's age, intelligence and character, where the questioning took place, whether the suspect had previous experience with police and whether police used violence, threats or promises, either direct or implied, to extract a confession.
In one high-profile case in 1988, Prince George's Circuit Court Judge Joseph S. Casula issued a blistering 53-page ruling that threw out the confession Prince George's homicide squad interrogators elicited from Jane F. Bolding. Bolding, a nurse, had come under scrutiny after a series of unexpected cardiac arrests in the intensive care unit of Prince George's Hospital Center.
Casula found that detectives unlawfully held Bolding for 34 hours in an interrogation room, refused to let her see a lawyer, grilled her for more than 24 hours without letting her sleep and coerced her to confess that she had injected patients with lethal doses of potassium chloride.
"There are simply no short-cuts around the Constitution," Casula wrote in suppressing the confession.
Thirteen years later, Prince George's homicide detectives "appear to operate under the thinking that they may interrogate a suspect for any length of time required to secure an inculpatory statement," attorney Michael S. Blumenthal told the Maryland Court of Appeals recently in an unsuccessful bid to overturn the murder conviction of a client who wept and wet his pants during an interrogation that lasted more than 30 hours.
"No individual, even the innocent individual," Blumenthal said, "is without a breaking point."
Looking for a Way Out
It never occurred to Joanne Beale that anyone would suspect her son of murder.
She had heard that police wanted to talk to him about a body that had been found. His close friend, Michael Harley, had been stabbed to death. Harley's badly decomposed corpse was found under a pile of leaves in Brandywine. His jawbone was missing.
Harley had been with Corey and other pals at a party in a Waldorf hotel room on the August night in 1998 when he disappeared.
Joanne Beale, a former deputy U.S. marshal, wanted to be there when homicide detectives talked to her son. He had learning disabilities and struggled to understand language and express himself. She didn't want him confused.
She knew he ran with some tough kids. But she considered him a softy, a natural jokester who tended stray animals in their middle-class Clinton neighborhood. He was immature -- at 17, he still asked for toys for Christmas -- though he was about to become a senior at Gwynn Park High School.
Beale said she delivered her son to police headquarters at Palmer Park about 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 13, 1998. The following account of his interrogation is drawn from available police records, court files and Corey Beale's recollection. The detectives involved did not respond to interview requests. McQuillan said his detectives handled the questioning appropriately, but he declined to answer specific questions about the case.
After he was separated from his mother, Corey Beale found himself in a small, windowless room with carpeting up the walls.
"It was like being in a closet," he said.
There was a table, two chairs and a metal fitting on one wall.
Almost three years later, Beale insists that the first statement he gave police was the truth: Harley, who was black, was talking to a white girl when Beale and his friends left the party.
"That was the last time I saw him," Beale's statement said.
Everyone who had been at the party in Room 233 of the Master Suites hotel that night told detectives the same story, according to the police records that were turned over to Beale's defense attorney.
But in the confines of the interrogation room, Beale said, detectives first insisted that Harley must have gotten into a fatal fight after the party with another buddy, Jurwand "Posey" Riley.
No, Beale told them, Riley left the party with him.
"They kept trying to blame it on my friend Posey," Beale said. "They kept trying to say that he did the murder and they know that I know it. Just say it and they'd let me go."
Beale said he asked to see his mother.
"They wouldn't give me her," he recalled. "I asked for a lawyer. They wouldn't give me him. They kept saying I was a witness, not a suspect; when you are not a suspect you are not appointed a lawyer. I ain't never been in trouble. I didn't understand what they was talking about. I was like, 'I want a lawyer.' They were like, 'You don't need a lawyer.' "
After 4 1/2 hours of questioning, Beale said, he was relieved when detectives said they wanted him to sign a "release form."
"They said, 'Initial here and here,' and I did it," Beale said. "Like a dummy. I thought it was a release form so I could go home."
He had signed a Miranda waiver form, the first of several he would initial in the days that followed, indicating that he was willing to give a statement without consulting a lawyer. He signed another form saying the detectives had not threatened him.
One detective gave Beale a test he called a Voice Stress Analyzer and told him it indicated he was lying when he denied knowing who killed Harley, Beale said.
"I was like, 'It should say I'm telling the truth, 'cause I don't know nothing,' " recalled Beale, who was unaware that police are allowed to lie to people under interrogation.
Around midnight, after more than six hours of questioning, Beale said he decided to appease detectives with something they wanted to hear: He said Harley and Riley got into a fight after they left the party. It was a lie, but the detectives wouldn't accept the truth, he said.
"I drove off, and they was still fighting," Beale's statement said.
The statement was taken by homicide Detective Troy Harding, who was hired by the Prince George's Police Department in 1990 even though he had been arrested on charges of theft and battery in Anne Arundel and assault in Montgomery County. He was found not guilty of the Anne Arundel charges. He was found guilty in the Montgomery assault, but the judge struck the guilty verdict and placed him on probation.
Harding did not respond to requests for an interview.
From Witness to Suspect
As the questioning continued through the night, Beale said, the detectives seemed to rethink their theory of who committed the murder.
"They started changing the story from [Riley] doing it, to I did it," Beale said. "They told me, 'We're trying to help you out. If you just say you did it, we can let you go right now on pretrial.' I didn't even know what pretrial was back then."
He said the tenor of the questioning grew more threatening when he again insisted that he knew nothing about Harley's murder.
"That's when they got all aggressive and started cussing and stuff."
At some point, Beale said, he again requested his mother and a lawyer and asked to use the phone.
"Then the cop started getting violent," Beale said. "He started jacking me up. He snapped me out of the chair and he threw me up against the wall. He was short and white. He was like, 'We ain't got time to be playing games with you. Just confess so we all can go home.' "
Through the night, detectives came and went from the interrogation room, Beale said.
About nine hours into the interrogation, at 2:30 a.m., Detective Joseph McCann took a third statement from Beale that was at odds with the first two. This time, Beale said he became involved in the fight between Harley and Riley. That statement wasn't true either, but Beale was afraid not to write it, he said.
"I get out the car trying to break it up but Mike start to try to hit me and I swang, Then I told Posey lets go, and I drop him off at his house then went home," Beale's statement said.
The interrogation continued, and McCann later elicited a fourth version of events.
"After I get into my little fight I saw Mike go down and Posey had a knife in his hand with blood on it," Beale's statement said.
McCann is one of several Prince George's detectives named in a pending federal lawsuit brought by a Laurel man who alleges they kidnapped him from another county, beat him, terrorized him and stuck a gun to his head because he was dating the niece of a high-ranking police official. The police official resigned, and the FBI opened an investigation into the officers' conduct. McCann did not respond to requests for an interview.
Based on statements McCann took from Beale, Detective Joseph Bergstrom typed out the paperwork to charge Beale with murdering Harley and to pick up his pal Riley on the same charge.
Beale was taken before a court commissioner, who assured him he was entitled to a lawyer. Then he was taken to the Upper Marlboro jail. He was offered food at the jail but said he felt too sick to eat.
When detectives picked up Riley, he refused to implicate himself in Harley's death. Riley told detectives Harley had been talking to the girl when he and Beale left the hotel. That was the last they saw of him, according to Riley's written statement.
Detectives retrieved a bleary-eyed Beale from jail and returned him to the interrogation room. He said they handcuffed him to the metal fitting in one carpeted wall.
"I was so tired I just wanted to lay down," Beale said. "But the way they had it, it's like you can't lay down, you've got to be up against the wall."
It was Saturday, his third day in the room, and the grilling had begun again. At 9:49 a.m., he initialed another form waiving his right to a lawyer.
He said the same detective who earlier had slammed him against the wall demanded a new statement: This time he was to say that he alone had killed Harley. Beale said he was assured that if he said Harley hit him first, he would have a solid claim of self-defense.
"It's not my words," Beale said. "That short, white dude. He was standing over top of me. Right on the side of me. He was telling me what to say so I could get off."
A little after 5 p.m. Saturday, the third day after his mother delivered him to the detectives, records show Beale confessed to murder.
"Mike picks up a tree branch and swang it at me and I took my knife and sta[b] him," Beale's statement said.
"They said they were going to send me home," Beale said in an interview. "They kept pressuring me: 'The only way you are going to get up on out of here is if you confess and say you did it.' . . . Then after I done it, they were, 'Okay, we're about to send you home now.' I guess by 'home' they meant 'jail.' Because that's where I went."
Fourteen months later, the case against Beale that began in the secrecy of a locked interrogation room ended with a courtroom whisper.
Assistant State's Attorney Frances R. Longwell asked if she could approach the bench. In a voice just audible on a court videotape, she told Judge C. Phillip Nichols that she needed to drop the charges against Beale.
"Because we found another defendant and [the murder] happened in Charles County on top of that," Longwell said on Oct. 19, 1999.
While he was in jail, Beale had passed a lie detector test arranged by his attorney, but that's not what freed him.
Police in Charles County had found Harley's missing jawbone and determined that Beale was not the murderer, although they won't say how.
The Prince George's detectives who had won Beale's confession resisted dropping the charges, according to Louis Martucci, Beale's attorney.
"It was a nasty business," Martucci said. "I don't think the lead detective gave a damn. He told me to my face one day: 'He's it. He's been arrested, and we don't care if there are other suspects.' I found that rather shocking."
Prince George's State's Attorney Jack B. Johnson said last week that his office dropped the charges against Beale as soon as it received evidence from Charles County that he was innocent.
"The criminal justice system is not fair," he said. "My job as prosecutor is to make it as fair as possible."
Charles County detectives, still hopeful that they will gather enough evidence to make an arrest in the Harley case, decline to talk publicly about the facts that cleared Beale.
Beale, now 20, recounted his story sitting in the living room of his mother's house. She said she took a second mortgage on her home -- and so did her ex-husband, a retired District firefighter -- to pay his legal bills. As Beale talked, his mother put her head down and pulled on her hair in anguish.
"He's not the same Corey," she said. "He doesn't laugh anymore. He doesn't trust anyone. He's just angry. He'll go into a rage and whoop and holler: 'I was locked up by the white man for 11 months for something I didn't do.' I know that's what's wrong with the boy."
Frustrated by trying to explain why he agreed to confess to a murder he didn't commit, Beale jumped up and raised his voice:
"I was in questioning for three days. Man, I was tired. I wanted to go home. If they tell me . . . 'Shoot this dude right here and you go home,' I'm going to do it if that's what it takes to go home.
"I would have said anything to get out of that room."