Police Bend, Suspend Rules Pr. George's Officers Deny Suspects Lawyers, Observers Say

By April Witt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 5, 2001

Third of four articles

By the time Dennis Green realized he was in a whole lot of trouble and asked for a lawyer, he said, the detectives interrogating him simply refused.

Instead, the 17-year-old said, Prince George's County homicide detectives gave him legal advice themselves: Admit to a triple shooting that left one man dead and you'll have a good claim of self-defense.

After day became sleepless night in the interrogation room, Green confessed to pulling the trigger -- even though he did not have a gun and prosecutors later acknowledged that he was a victim in the melee.

"I had been cracked by then," Green said.

Green's claim that his request for a lawyer was denied reflects a broad pattern of allegations against Prince George's homicide detectives. Detectives repeatedly have refused to allow people they are interrogating to speak to an attorney, according to interviews and court testimony.

An examination of police and court records shows that four people who Prince George's homicide detectives said confessed to murder were later exonerated by DNA or other evidence. In three of those false-confession cases, which happened over the last three years, the people who have been vindicated allege that police interrogators ignored or refused their requests for a lawyer.

In addition to those cases, a review of hundreds of police and court documents and interviews with dozens of other suspects and lawyers found repeated allegations that homicide detectives violated the rights of suspects during interrogations.

Among the allegations: In many cases, detectives backdated documents so that it appeared that suspects waived the right to counsel before they confessed, and turned away lawyers from the interrogation room door with false claims that the client didn't want to speak with them.

Lt. Michael McQuillan, commander of the homicide unit, said no suspect who asks for a lawyer is refused.

"If somebody invokes their right, they are granted the opportunity to speak to an attorney," he said. "We are fair."

The detectives involved in the Green interrogation did not respond to written requests for interviews.

Allegations that Prince George's homicide detectives violated a particular suspect's constitutionally protected right to counsel are nearly impossible to prove because, unlike some other area police agencies, they do not use video cameras or tape recorders during interrogations. Without them, judges and juries must decide who is more credible -- an accused criminal who says he asked for a lawyer or detectives who say he didn't.

James Papirmeister said that during his tenure as a top homicide prosecutor in Prince George's County, he believed detectives who testified that a suspect confessed to murder without asking for a lawyer. After becoming a defense lawyer, his opinion changed.

"I have too many clients who do not know the law and do not know each other, and they all tell the same kind of stories," Papirmeister said. "Not everything my clients tell me is true. But they can't all be making this stuff up. It's too improbable. I believe them. It happens routinely."

About five years ago, Prince George's public defenders said they began hearing the same odd tale from clients: A man wearing a "Harvard" sweat shirt visited the interrogation room, introduced himself as a lawyer, listened to the suspect's story and instructed him to tell it to the detectives.

When the public defenders determined that the visitor actually was a Prince George's police officer -- and put a credible witness on the stand to testify about their "Harvard" visitor -- "the practice stopped," Public Defender Joseph Niland said. "We never heard of it happening again."

It's not only the poor and powerless who complain that they are denied lawyers.

When Dean J. Pantazes -- a savvy Prince George's bail bondsman -- was being questioned about his wife's murder last year, detectives kept his lawyer fuming in the lobby for hours.

His lawyer was the most influential defense attorney in Maryland -- House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George's). Police told Vallario that Pantazes hadn't asked to talk to him.

"They are not exactly telling the truth," Vallario said. "Afterward, he said he was asking for an attorney. From the minute he got there, he was asking for an attorney."

Pantazes was released after questioning that day. Weeks later, police came to arrest him. As he was led away in handcuffs, Pantazes asked a co-worker to contact his lawyer -- imploring, "Call Joe, call Joe right away" -- said Harry J. Trainor Jr., a longtime Prince George's lawyer who helped defend Pantazes.

Even so, police interrogated Pantazes for 27 hours without a lawyer present, Trainor said.

It's common for county police to keep witnesses and suspects from consulting lawyers, Trainor said. Homicide detectives questioned a high school student for 30 hours in March without charging him, Trainor said. Trainor said that when he tried to speak to his young client, a sergeant told him: "You know the drill. You won't be able to talk with him."

"It was a probing interrogation and coercive and illegal," Trainor said. "He was not permitted to speak with an attorney or his family, and he was not permitted to leave. He was not there as a volunteer.

"It's almost as if we are living in a police state."

Basic Rights Abridged

The U.S. Supreme Court has long acknowledged that unless suspects have access to a lawyer in the confines of the interrogation room, guarding constitutional rights in the courtroom may be meaningless. The presumption of innocence at trial is little comfort to a defendant from whom police have coerced a confession.

In its 1964 decision in Escobedo v. Illinois, the court said that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel during "all criminal prosecutions" extended to interrogation rooms.

"No system worth preserving should have to fear that if an accused is permitted to consult with a lawyer, he will become aware of, and exercise, these rights," the court said. "If the exercise of constitutional rights will thwart the effectiveness of a system of law enforcement, then there is something very wrong with that system."

The landmark 1966 decision in Miranda v. Arizona required police to inform suspects of their right to remain silent and consult an attorney. The court also said that police must halt an interrogation immediately when a suspect requests a lawyer. It ruled that without proof that the warning has been properly issued and that a suspect has waived his rights, any incriminating statements will be inadmissible as evidence.

The Miranda ruling was intended to stop police intimidation and coercion, and it brought about reforms in interrogation room tactics nationwide. But it does not deter officers willing to violate the rights of suspects behind closed doors and then lie about it on the witness stand.

In the decades since Miranda, subsequent court decisions have weakened some of its protections.

The court also has said that a suspect must request a lawyer emphatically and without equivocation. Ruminating "maybe I should talk to a lawyer" won't suffice.

In a 1986 case, Moran v. Burbine, the court ruled that police don't have to admit an attorney clamoring at the interrogation room door unless the client asks to see the attorney.

Still, if a suspect in police custody unambiguously requests a lawyer -- even if the suspect has previously waived the right to counsel -- police are required to stop the questioning.

"Prince George's police have a perfect and secret way of doing these things and nobody has called their hand," said Niland, the public defender. "The judges should hold them in line, but they don't."

Niland said that more than two years ago, he gave Prince George's County police a beeper number to call whenever any suspect being interrogated at night or on the weekend asked for a lawyer.

"Since then I've gotten exactly three beeps, one from the company that services the beeper and two from old ladies who called the wrong number," Niland said. "I have received no calls from any police agency or anyone who was in the hands of the police.

"I find that peculiar. I find that downright unbelievable."

'I'd Been Cracked by Then'

Shivering in his summer shirt sleeves in the cold, cramped room across a tiny table from a homicide detective, Dennis Deonte Green figured he'd be home as soon as he set the record straight. The Bowie High School student signed a form waiving his right to a lawyer, confident that when the detectives heard what had happened, they would let him go.

Detective Troy Harding asked Green to sign a Miranda waiver and took his first written statement about 2:20 p.m. Aug. 24, 2000, police records show. This account is drawn from court documents, available police records and interviews with Green and others.

Green told the detective that he had been standing outside his Lanham home, talking with several buddies late the night before, when a band of strangers approached, pointed guns at them and forced them to the ground.

The attackers were looking for revenge. Someone in the neighborhood had squirted a teenage girl in the face with a water pistol a few hours before. The girl's older brother and Reginald Woodard Jr., her ex-boyfriend, and a few of their friends confronted Green and his friends as payback for the prank.

A scuffle and a chase ended with a volley of gunshots fired blindly in the dark. One of the avengers who didn't have a gun, Woodard, a clerk at a mall music store, fell dying. Two others were wounded.

Green told the detective that he and his friends had been surprised by the attack, hadn't been armed and didn't fire the shots. He said he hadn't seen who did the shooting. It was too dark.

But for the homicide detectives interrogating Green the day after the shooting, his story didn't add up. Two groups of youths collided in the night and three members of one group were shot. It seemed clear to them that the shots must have come from the group that emerged unscathed.

The detectives pressed Green and some of his friends -- who were in adjoining interrogation rooms -- to confess, Green said.

"The cop said, 'We heard that you had a .22 [-caliber handgun],' " Green recalled.

Green was stunned, he said. If the cops were so confused that they thought he was the shooter instead of a victim, then he needed a lawyer after all, he decided.

"I had been asking to get a lawyer when it appeared they thought I did it for real, and they weren't going to give up until they got what they wanted," Green said. "They said, 'You are not getting a phone call until I hear what I want to hear.' "

The teenager was relieved when a man wearing a jacket emblazoned "forensics" entered the interrogation room, swabbed the teenager's hand and said he was performing a scientific test to determine if Green had fired a gun recently. Finally, they'd believe that he didn't shoot anyone, Green recalled thinking.

"When they come back and the test is negative, I'll forgive you and then I can just go home," Green remembered telling a detective.

The "test" apparently was a bit of interrogation-room theatrics designed to persuade Green to confess. Green said a detective told him that the test showed he'd not only fired a gun, he'd used a .22 -- a degree of specificity that an authentic gunshot residue test doesn't provide.

Convinced that police were trying to set him up, Green said he wanted a lie detector test.

"He said, 'All right, but if this lie detector comes back wrong, I'm going to kick your ass,' " Green said.

The same detective backed him into a corner, screamed that it was his fault Woodard lay dead in the morgue and poked him hard several times, Green recalled.

After that, Green said, he was too intimidated to take the test or ask again for a lawyer or phone call.

"I know my limit," Green said. "I wasn't saying nothing. That's like asking for it, to get beat up."

In other interrogation rooms nearby, Green's friends also were under pressure to implicate themselves and each other in the shooting, according to records and interviews.

One steadfastly maintained that none of the youths who had been standing outside Green's house had guns when the avengers attacked, said Green's attorney, Michael Worthy.

One caved in and told police that Green had been armed and met the attack with gunfire, Green said.

Disheartened, Green figured that if people were going to lie about him to save themselves, he'd toss the blame back at them. Green wrote a second statement for Harding, police records show. Harding did not fill in the blanks indicating what time he began and finished taking the statement, police records show.

In his second statement, Green suggested vaguely that a couple of his friends might have had guns, after all, because when the attack began he saw them reach for their waistbands.

By the time Green gave the second statement, he was tired, he said. He was cold. He had to go to the bathroom. He had no idea what would happen to him next. He was scared.

The last detective to enter the interrogation room brought Green a soda, gave him a blanket and escorted him down the hall to use the bathroom, Green said.

"I figured he was decent, maybe I can get through to him," Green said.

So Green tried once more to say that he hadn't shot anybody.

This detective seemed very sympathetic, but then he provided Green with a bit of unsolicited legal advice, Green said: Sticking with his story wouldn't play well in a courtroom, but he'd have a good claim of self-defense if he confessed.

"He came in and was like, 'They know you did it. What's it going to look like when you go to court and you are still saying you didn't do it? We can get you a good self-defense claim' or something like that," Green recalled. "He was like, 'You might not even see any time.' He was like, 'Them guys came around there, and they were trying to get you. They probably were trying to kill you. So you pulled out your gun and said, "I'm not going to let them get me first." So you shot them.' "

Green said he had no will left to resist.

"I had been cracked by then," Green said.

"I'd been sitting in that room for hours. When I seen that he still believed whatever was circulating with the rest of the cops, I don't know, I just gave up. I didn't feel like going through no more. I started answering questions the way they wanted. Because they wouldn't let me make no phone call.

"I kept thinking, in my mind, once I get out and make a phone call and I get a lawyer, he's going to prove the truth anyway. When I get out, I'm going to change my story and say: 'Look, they lied, they made me write this.' "

Green wrote a third statement. He said that he had a gun -- a .22-caliber revolver -- and that he fired at his attackers without aiming, dropped the gun and ran.

Cpl. Bernard Nelson took Green's last statement, records show. Green said he doesn't know what time he finished writing it. But by the time he was answering the detective's follow-up questions, he was too tired to sit up.

"I was so tired that at one point, I was laying down on the floor," he said.

At 6:25 a.m. Aug. 25 -- more than 16 hours after Prince George's homicide detectives took him from his parents' house -- Green appeared before a court commissioner who informed him that he'd been charged with one count of first-degree murder and two counts of first-degree assault.

Police also charged one of Green's friends, Chris Evans, with Woodard's murder.

Why did Green confess to a crime he had not committed?

He said no one could understand without having been in the interrogation room with Prince George's homicide detectives.

"What's so bad about the room is you don't know what's coming next," Green said. "You don't get to go to the other side of the door and see who is out there, what they're preparing next. You've just got to sit in the room and wait, and talk to yourself.

"The time goes so slow that it's almost like solitary confinement. You haven't got anybody but yourself in there. So you pray for somebody to come in the room, even if it is a cop that's coming in there to holler at you. You don't know what's going on other than what they say. I couldn't contact nobody so I had no help.

"Being in the room, you are like, 'Man, I've got to get out.' "

From Suspect to Victim

Six weeks later, the Prince George's prosecutor asked a judge to drop the charges against Green and Evans.

Assistant State's Attorney Mary Crawford did her own investigation, walking the crime scene with a witness, diagraming the complicated chain of events and repeatedly reviewing the case with her colleagues, Prince George's State's Attorney Jack B. Johnson said. Police also continued to investigate.

"I had additional evidence that was uncovered after the arrest warrants were obtained," Crawford said. "Based on additional information, we dismissed the charges against Mr. Green and Mr. Evans. We always try to prosecute the people who we believe are responsible for the crime."

Ballistics showed that the gun that killed Woodard was a .22 semiautomatic, not the revolver that Green had described in his confession, according to Worthy, Green's lawyer.

Statements from witnesses and analysis of the angle from which Woodard and the two wounded were shot made it clear that Green could not have been the shooter.

This year, Dante Augustus Roseman -- one of the group that had set out to avenge the prank with the water pistol that evening -- was charged in Woodard's slaying. In the confusion of the scuffle and chase on a dark street, Roseman allegedly shot members of his own group by mistake. He has pleaded not guilty to murder and assault charges and is awaiting trial.

Two other members of the avenging group have pleaded guilty to charges of carrying handguns and assaulting Green and his friends -- exactly what Green tried to tell his interrogators had happened.

Green's name is still listed in a criminal file, but with a new designation:


Staff researchers Bridget Roeber and Bobbye Pratt and staff writer Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.

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