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False Confessions
With Joseph Niland,
Prince George's County Public Defender

Friday, June 8, 2001

Marathon investigations and other alleged improprieties taint murder cases in Prince George's County, according to a series in The Washington Post. Detailed in the False Confessions series, these marathon questioning sessions and sleep deprivation tactics are used to extract incriminating statements. Several people who made false confessions allege that police investigators ignored or refused their requests for legal counsel, and while innocent people were jailed, in some cases the real perpetrators went free.

Joseph Niland is the Prince George's County Public Defender. As such, he is charged with ensuring that defendants receive the best representation possible in court and that the justice system is fair to all parties.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

washingtonpost.com: Thanks for joining us today, Joseph Niland. In today's article, FBI to Probe Pr. George's Interrogations, FBI officials said they will investigate whether civil rights were violated in the marathon questioning sessions. In your opinion, were suspects' rights violated?

Joseph Niland: The issue of civil rights violations is distinct (a civil matter) from a constitutional violation. The latter are clear violations in my opinion. I am not at liberty to comment on the former.

Herndon, VA: Honestly, what can someone possibly do while they're being interrogated abusively by the police? "I reserve my constitutional right to silence until my lawyer is present" may work in some situations. But what about Joe Victim who's being pushed around and bullied physically, emotionally, and mentally in a typical "all-night" interrogation?

Joseph Niland: This highlights the need to videotape the "secret police"sessions so that we can see what happens in these isolated interrogations.

Fairfax,VA: How many cases have you defended where the witness was a victim of public corruption and abuse by the police department? How successful were you in defending your client? Were the police brought to justice?

Joseph Niland: I have been in numerous cases in which I believed that improper and coercive police tactics obtained statements or confessions. Defense attorneys succeed in eliminating this evidence in only a few cases (probably 5% or less). Judges regularly side with police versions of events. (More reason to videotape). I have not seen any police officer publicly disciplined for improper interrogation behavior in more than 30 years practice.

Centreville, VA: Has the Prince George's County police argued against having videotape in their interrogation rooms? Since so many other jurisdictions have them, why doesn't Prince George's County?

Joseph Niland: Prince George's police have resisted videotaping for years. The defense bar and some judges have urged videotaping for decades. Only the police can answer what they do not want us to see.

Hyattsville: How many times have you defended someone who claimed they gave a wrong confession? How do you defend them?

Joseph Niland: I and other members of this office have defended hundreds of defendants who have claimed coerced, oppressive or falsely obtained statements; denied requests for attorney assistance; and some claims of physical violence or threats of violence. These issues are usually determined by a judge in a pre-trial hearing. Most involve opposing testimony of the police and the defendant. Nearly always the police are believed. Rarely is there independent evidence such as a video.

Cumberland, MD: I don't understand how you could admit to something you didn't do. Why would you lie when you would possibly go to jail for it? No matter how much sleep I could be deprived of, I still wouldn't admit to something I didn't do.

Joseph Niland: I am sure that many may feel as you do. In a real interrogation situation, this is often not the case. Though some are able to resist interrogation tactics, many are not. The impact of psychological coercion is well recognized in the law and in the world of interrogators.

Herndon, VA: Do you believe that as more cases of police impropriety surface, the courts will demand more than just an "officer's word"? I want to trust and believe in law officials but they are human, just like the rest of us. Just because they carry a badge and a gun doesn't mean that they are somehow immune to the temptations of humanity.

Joseph Niland: I believe that since there are a number of possible controls (video, audio, court reporters, required presence of lawyers etc.), if the police are not willing to implement effective oversight, the legislature should compel the oversight.

Upper Marlboro, Md.: Do you think there will be any changes in the way police act?

Joseph Niland: Yes. There are many capable and dedicated police officers. I think that their leadership and ideals will succeed in weeding out the "bad apples", they will demand proper oversight such as videotaping, they will expect that their integrity not be challenged by a limited number of abusers. The simple solution lies in the hands of the police.

IH, MD: Let's suppose that PG County puts video equipment in the interrogation rooms and uses the equipment. This is not necessarily a solution. If judges/prosecutors want to see the accused signing a confession on tape, then that's probably what they are going to see.

What would be the rules for turning on/off the video equipment during an interrogation? What happens if the accused confesses 2 minutes after the video recorder was turned off, and there are conflicting accounts as to what went on in those 2 unrecorded minutes?

Joseph Niland: There would need to be a secure(sealed) taping system with self-contained timing and tamperproof devices. I think that these devices are presently technologically available.

Kelvin Slade: Does anyone have any idea how long this practice by the Homicide Detectives has occurred? It seems to me there could be countless others who are victims.

Joseph Niland: I am of the opinion that many interrogation abuses have been in existence throughout my legal career of more than 30 years here.

Laurel: Will this series effect the ability to get a conviction in cases where abusive tactics were NOT used? I mean, will defense lawyers introduce that police sometimes use these tactics, even when they weren't used in a particular case? Will jurors who read the series know in their minds that sometimes questionable tactics are used and possibly discount the value of legitimate confessions?

Joseph Niland: Knowlege of these abuses cannot help the prosecution of cases in general, however, I believe that it is important that this behavior is finally coming to the attention of a larger part of the community.

I think that it should not harm the case where a proper statement has been obtained because the specific evidence pertaining to that case and that statement will be before that jury.

Cincinati, OHIO: What kind of precedence has there been for this situation? And what happened in those cases?

Joseph Niland: There are large amounts of case law pertaining to this subject. More than we can discuss now.

© Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company


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