Questions on video assisting justice

Police policy in Md. varies

legislation on tap in Assembly

February 20, 2006|By LAURA CADIZ | LAURA CADIZ,SUN REPORTER

With the courtroom lights dimmed, the jury intently watched the black-and-white images of the defendant crying and saying, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm a bad person."

Afterward, the jury rejected the pleadings of prosecutors to convict Melissa Burch Harton, 26, of murder and instead found her guilty of involuntary manslaughter for strangling a friend during a drunken argument in Ellicott City.

Juror David Kilpatrick said he might have held out for an acquittal had he not seen the videotaped confession, which left him convinced that Harton killed the woman, though not with the intent that prosecutors alleged.

"I don't know where we would have gone if we didn't have that video and the transcript," he said.

After resisting the practice for years, a growing number of police agencies nationwide are videotaping interviews with suspects, sometimes with surprising results.

In Baltimore County, prosecutors gained a first-degree murder conviction last year after a suspect in the shotgun killing of an educator at Towson Town Center confessed in a taped interview. However, his attorney says prosecutors dropped efforts to secure the death penalty after he argued that his client's obvious remorse on the video would arouse the sympathies of jurors.

Overall, police departments are losing their aversion to videotaping, said Thomas P. Sullivan, an attorney and former co-chairman of a commission on capital punishment appointed by then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan.

Among the large police departments that use video recording are Los Angeles, Denver and Washington. Of the more than 450 law enforcement agencies in 43 states interviewed for a study by Sullivan, the overwhelming consensus is "they absolutely love it."

Sullivan said the only agencies he has spoken with that oppose recording interviews are those that haven't tried it.

"It is a reform whose time has come," he said. "It's just so good for everybody. ... Like, if you watch a football game and want to see if the guy went over the line, you don't have to argue about it - you have a replay."

Locally, police in Howard and Baltimore counties and the Harford County sheriff's office make video recordings of interrogations. Harford records most interviews in criminal investigations, and Howard and Baltimore counties do so on a case-by-case basis. Baltimore police, Anne Arundel County, Westminster and state police do not record at all.

Video legislation

Sullivan is scheduled to testify in support of a bill in the House of Delegates that would make the statement of a defendant in a violent crime inadmissible unless it is electronically recorded.

Del. John S. Arnick, who is sponsoring a separate bill that would require the recording of interrogations in death penalty cases, said the procedure would help ensure justice.

"There are a lot of cases that are thrown out or reversed because of what allegedly happened in the interrogations," he said.

The Baltimore County Democrat, who sponsored a bill in 2003 that would have required videotaping of all interrogations, said he believes his current bill stands a better chance of passing because it is limited to capital cases.

But some police remain leery of having their work taped and replayed for jurors and others.

"It sounds idyllic, a prosecutor's dream," said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office. "But it would probably be very difficult to implement in the city."

She said it is unclear how useful videotaping would be because most violent offenders in the city "know it's to their advantage not to say anything."

Burns said her office, which prosecutes about 115 homicide cases a year, doesn't have the resources to deal with video recordings.

The cost of videotaping would vary, according to legislative analysts, who estimate that it would cost about $87,000 for video equipment for the state police alone.

The Maryland Chiefs of Police Association is not against electronic video recording but opposes mandatory taping, said Bernadette DiPino, who chairs the group's legislative committee.

"We're just opposed to the legislature dictating what processes are used for criminal investigations," said DiPino, who is Ocean City's police chief. "Each individual agency has its own policies."

Agencies that don't want to tape interrogations might not want someone "looking over their shoulders when a confession is extracted," said Michael Greenberger, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.

"We all would rather do our jobs without having our activities videotaped," Greenberger said.

But he said videotaped interrogations generally make police cases stronger, if the interrogations are conducted properly, without "trickery and browbeating."

"The confession has that much more weight for either compelling the defendant to plead ... or it should be persuasive to a jury that there should be a conviction," he said. "By and large, it ensures that we are convicting people who are really guilty."

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