Interview Jay Salpeter

Jay Salpeter

Co-author of A Criminal Injustice, a book on the 1988 Marty Tankleff false confession case, Salpeter is a former NYPD detective and hostage negotiator, who has since worked as a private investigator. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on April 21, 2010.

You've been an interrogator?

Yes, I was a detective, and there were numerous occasions where, as a detective, I had to do interrogations, sure.

What is it like?

There's so many different type of interrogations. Sometimes you're just interviewing witnesses to a crime; you know that they're actually witnesses. You're more or less trying to get information from them, but there comes a point where, after you do an initial investigation, you're going to be bringing in subjects who are potential perpetrators. So that's where we take it to another level.

“Thank God [Ford] was stopped -- he might have arrested the whole Navy by the time he was finished.”

The interrogations could be done by one person in a room. I've done an interrogation for nine hours, alone, off and on, with one person. You could have a partner. You don't really want to bring too many detectives into a room, because at the time, if the case ever goes to trial, the defense attorney is going to come back and say, "Jesus, you were gang-attacking this fella."

But it only takes one good detective or two detectives to get to the truth. It takes only one or two detectives to get a lie. Basically what happens in interrogation is, I'll take you into a room, and if I want you or I need an arrest to be done, I'll tell you right now, I have the luxury of keeping you in that room until you walk out after me -- but I'm going to be walking out with your confession.

And what goes on in that room only a couple of people know. And unfortunately, a detective who takes confessions and does interrogations has a right to take a person's freedom away. And it is very unfortunate if you get the detective that will do the wrong thing -- and there are detectives like that -- but most detectives will do the right thing, who are fair detectives. But it's really the luck of the draw, or the intensity or the publicity of the case, that will basically give you your fate at the end of the day.

Can people falsely confess?

Oh, of course. It's very easy to get a false confession.

How does it happen?

… All I've got to do is take you in that room, and I have the luxury of keeping you there and wearing you down. ... I will lie to you. I will weaken you mentally, physically, until you confess. ...

They will want to confess. You will put them into a mental state that, in order for them to get the release, the desire that they need to get out of the room, they will say anything just to get away from you.

Even if they're innocent?

Even if they're innocent or even if the consequences will be bad for them. No one will confess over an hour or two, believe me, no one that didn't commit a crime. You have to mentally wear them down, and besides mentally, physically wear them down.

At the end of the day -- and confessions can go for over 24 hours -- you will have sleep deprivation. Your subject will be hungry, but probably doesn't even want to eat. You know, so you're taking him into another situation. So many people say, "Well, how could you confess to a crime that you never did?" Well, I'll tell you something: Put them in a room with me, I could do it.

Do I do it? No, I don't think I've ever taken a false confession. But if I've ever taken a confession that was not right, it was a mistake. Many detectives will take a confession and wear you down with intent, and that's where the difference is.

Do the detectives know it's a false confession?

There isn't a detective that's taken a false confession that believes it, because the detective that takes the false confession knows what he's doing, because he's putting you into that state. It's a detective that will give you a polygraph. You'll pass the polygraph, and he'll come back and tell you you've failed the polygraph.

So why would a detective knowingly [continue] now [that he] knows that he might have the wrong person in the room? He's continually lying to you and starting to wear you down and break you and putting your mental state in doubt: "Jesus, I didn't do the crime, so how in the world did I fail that polygraph?" But he knows. He knows. ...

It has happened that police have taken a false confession but believed in it.

I disagree with what you're saying. I don't think the police believed him. The police have to go with the lie. I'm a detective. Once I get a confession from you, I have to go with that. I'm going to have to testify to it. ... How could a detective not believe his own work? There isn't a detective that could take a confession knowing that it's false, [who] does not know it.

You think that?

A hundred percent. I've done it. Not that I've taken a false confession, you know. I've taken confessions. You know what's right or wrong.

The detective has the luxury of being at a crime scene, right? So if a subject has given you a totally different scenario of what the crime scene looked at, and you walk out and you take a confession from him with a difference of crime scene, what you're observing -- God, there's something wrong here. Wake up.

I didn't do anything. Can I still be broken down?

Oh, without a doubt. But I'm not going to be talking to you like I'm talking to you now, lady. It's going to be quite a little different type of conversation.

Like what?

We're going to start very pleasant, like, what -- are you hungry now?

No, thank you.

I'm not asking if you want to eat; I'm asking you if you're hungry.

No.

Are you tired?

No.

Why not?

Because I slept last night.

Oh, well, put yourself 10 hours later with me. OK, are you tired 10 hours later with me asking you the same questions over and over?

Yes.

And I'm not going to be asking it like this, right. You know how I'm going to be asking you? Are you deaf? You're not deaf, right?

No.

Well, talk louder. I'm asking you a question: Are you deaf?

No.

OK. Now, you want to go to jail? You want to get the death penalty? Or do you want me to help you out?

Of course I don't want to go to jail. I don't want to get the death penalty.

So then tell me what the hell happened there, and I'll help you out. But don't look at me like that. We're sitting here 10 goddamn hours. How much longer are we going to do this?

I don't know.

You don't know? Well, it's up to you. Don't tell me you don't know. You failed the polygraph.

I haven't done anything.

You haven't done anything? Well, what do you think you're sitting here for?

That's what I want to find out.

Well. find out. Somebody told me you did it. Not going to tell you who. There were people out there that told me you did it. You failed the polygraph, so you're not going to tell me you didn't do it.

I didn't do it.

Well, we're going to go here all night. You're not leaving this room. Now, you want to be put to death? We've got capital murder out there. You want to be put to death, or you want me to help you? So you decide: You want to die, [or] you want to see your family again?

I want you to help me.

You want me to help you. Then tell me what happened. Now, you were in the room, correct, when it happened?

Correct.

"Correct." Don't say "correct." Say "yes."

Yes.

OK. You saw the body stabbed three times, right?

I don't remember.

You don't remember? But you were in the room.

Is this going to be a 10-hour conversation?

Without a doubt. We're not going to start this way, but we're going to get this way.

You start polite?

I'm going to start polite. You get more with sugar than spice, but I'm telling you, by the end of this interrogation, you're going to cry to get away from me.

Whatever it takes.

Whatever it takes, and I don't have to put a hand on you. Whatever it takes. You want to see your kids?

Sure.

You want to see your kids? You want them to come visit you the day that you're put to death? You want out of here?

Yes.

So then, well, let's talk.

We're talking.

So tell me. I asked you if you saw the woman stabbed.

No.

You didn't see her stabbed?

No.

Then apparently we're not leaving here yet.

You just sit here until I say what you want to hear?

Will I sit with you? No, you're going to sit. I'm going to walk; I'm going to go for a drink. I'm going to take a little break, and you're going to be in the room. You're not leaving that room. I am.

I can leave because I'm not arrested.

Oh, you can't leave that room; you're a suspect. The only way you're leaving that room is to go to the ladies' room.

But the suspect can leave if he's not under arrest.

Why don't you ask for an attorney, Ofra?

I want an attorney.

Then you know what? Why in the world would you want an attorney now? We're sitting here 10 hours. You're almost there. You get an attorney, then I'm going to have to lock you up for the capital murder. So why did you put in 10 hours? You're telling me now that you did it. You just didn't tell me that they were stabbed three times, but you already told me you were there. You confessed. So let's finish it up; then we'll get you your attorney.

But if you're going to call for your attorney now, I mean, you didn't finish up what you had to tell me. Then I'm just going to put you in for the capital murder. So what do you want to do, Ofra?

I want out.

Well, you're not going until you tell me what happened.

So it goes.

And so it goes, but you see, you're sitting here with the luxury of we're just talking for a half hour. You want to stay with me for 10, 15 hours?

No.

And this is not even where I'm going to take you yet. All right.

You can do it.

Can I do it? Without a doubt. It's done. It's done.

Why would a policeman not be afraid of getting a false confession?

... There's really no set standard where a detective wants to get a false confession. He'll take a false confession off of a high-profile case or a little case. I mean, most cases are not high-profile cases, but you're getting many false confessions. You're seeing people getting out of jail today even on an everyday type of murder. They want to clear a case.

It's in the individual if he or she could look himself in the mirror. ... There are a lot of great detectives out there; there are a lot of bad ones.

Few people would say they want to put the innocent in jail.

...A policeman, a detective, their personality in a police department -- it's almost like a child growing up. Within a couple of years in a police department or a couple of years as a detective, you know who that detective is. You know even within a detective bureau the bad guys and the good guys. So he's never going to verbalize, "I'm going to put someone in jail today on a false confession." No one would admit to that, but they know what they're doing.

You think so?

Yes.

You don't think they lie to themselves?

That's what I'm saying. They're not verbalizing it. ... We don't verbalize. We might verbalize to one person, your partner. I mean, when you see the good [cop]-bad [cop], that's nonsense. If the guy that plays the good guy was a good guy, he wouldn't allow what the bad guy is doing. And the good guy would never even be allowed to work in that bureau because he knows what goes on. So I think you agree with me that it's internalized. You just don't publicize, "I'm going to take a false confession," but you know what you're doing.

What about the Miranda waiver? Shouldn't I use that and stop talking?

It's amazing how most people don't. I mean, with all the television shows today, [and] they see that people are being arrested with the publicity of confessions, it's amazing how most people still will speak to the police, that they're not educated enough to ask for the attorney. And you're sometimes dealing with educated people. ...

Whose side are the police on?

The police are arrest-orientated, and they're supposed to protect the public. When the police arrest, they deal with the prosecutor. So they are on the side of the prosecutor.

I was in the police department for 19 years. I've had a private practice for another 17 years. And it's amazing to me now, since I've retired and [have been] working in the private practice and now I do more defense work, that I have no doubt in my mind, half of these prosecutors know what's going on. They're almost as culpable as the detective. And they work under the same guidelines: They need to clear a case. They need to have the publicity, the DA's office. It's all public relations and publicity.

Really?

Yes.

Forget justice.

Forget justice. ... The day, the time, you take a false confession and knowingly take a false confession, you just threw out the word "justice" and took a person's life.

It's being done.

It's being done, yes. And we know it's being done because we're seeing the statistics of people getting out of jail on DNA. They confessed. So if the DNA is exonerating people that confessed, then somebody has got to wake up and say, "Jesus, what the hell is going on in these interrogations?"

The prosecution goes along with it?

Yes, and most of these detectives that do these false confessions, who are the bad detectives, have reputations in the department. So they're dealing with the prosecutors. The prosecutors know what they're doing when they're putting it on. ... I can't speak for most of them, but being around so long, many of them know what's going on. ...

Why do the police manuals say you only interrogate the guilty?

They're interrogating subjects. What do you think you're sitting in the room for? I'm not just taking you off the street. You're a participant or you have knowledge of an incident. That's why you're being brought into the office. ...

You might be walking in as a free man or woman, but the odds are that you're going to be walking out in handcuffs.

What happens if you get a false confession?

Even if you're giving me a false confession, I'm going to testify that you told me the truth, that you did the murder or you did the crime. So regardless of false or not, it's the truth. If I'm locking you up, I'm going to stay with it.

Once I take a confession, how am I going to go back and tell the district attorney or my bosses or the public, "Oh, I think I got a bad confession"? That never happens. I'll keep going. ...

You can lie when you question someone?

Of course I can lie. Why not? I'll tell you anything in that interrogation room to hopefully bring you over. But the detective, when he's lying, should be also aware when the person, the subject, is lying back to him or not telling him the truth.

What goes on in the interrogation room that I don't even know about?

Detective partners, guys that always work with each other -- and most of the time that's what's going to happen; you're going to be a team member. You really have a steady partner and especially in an interrogation. Each one knows how they work. It's like a football game. There's a game plan.

The detectives know what each one is going to do. The good guy, the bad guy, that's a lot of television junk. But there's going to be one main detective doing the talking, and the partner knows what's going on. He might just come in with a question or try to maybe calm things down, but the quarterback is your main detective.

In this case [of the Norfolk Four], [Detective Robert Glenn] Ford was the quarterback. He was the main detective on every interrogation. ...

What do you make of the Norfolk Four?

I've worked cases of false conviction. It's probably the most heinous of all cases that I've ever read or became aware of. Right from the beginning, when [Ford] takes in [Danial] Williams only because [he] called 911, where in the world would he even think he's a suspect?

[Editors' Note: The original investigator in the case, Maureen Evans, was tipped off to Danial Williams from a neighbor. Evans asked the neighbor who she thought might have done it; the neighbor pointed to Williams, although she states that she also offered up Omar Ballard as a suspect.]

And he had the right to just interview him, ask for DNA and let him go. He took a false confession. ... He just wore him down, [which] is what happens here in these false-confession cases. And then when he's proven wrong, when the DNA comes back negative that it's not him, you know what? He's locked in. This guy is not going to stop now. So he just continues. He continues. He continues. ...

The detective has the power to ruin a life. A detective can take your life. That's why you have to rely, hopefully, God willing, that you get the right guy. He [Glenn Ford] knew he was wrong.

You think so?

Think so? As soon as Williams passed the polygraph -- [Ford's] a detective; he relies on the polygraph. So if anything, he should have had a little doubt there. Williams should have been able to leave, take a [DNA] sample, let him go. He kept him there X amount of hours until he wore him down, and if we interview Williams and any of the other gentlemen, they all will say the same thing. They couldn't take anymore. "It was my escape." It's the typical M.O. [modus operandi] of a false confession: Wear them down until they can't go anymore. ...

People out there who are not in the criminal justice field or just people that watch television, they have no idea what you are doing to a person in that room, how a person could just admit to a crime. It's a release. They have to get out of there. You're being fed with false information, and by the end of the confession you're repeating what the detective is telling you with facts [of the case]. ...

Thank God [Ford] was stopped. He might have arrested the whole Navy by the time he was finished. Detective Ford is known for this. He's called in on this. He is their man to bring in to get a confession. He's their go-to guy. He knows what he's doing. ...

Explain what should have happened with Williams.

All he did was call 911. I don't even know where he would have even been perceived as a suspect.

Someone thought he did it.

If [someone] thinks he did it and he takes a polygraph, and he passes the polygraph, and if I interrogate him for a normal amount of time -- which was a good three, four hours, which is before you're going to get somebody going -- and he's being consistent, and he's cooperating, then you know what? I ask him to give me a DNA sample. If he doesn't, I'll get a warrant, and then you know what? I'm a detective. I'm not a street cop that just saw a crime happen. ...

What would you do?

I would have let him go. I would have my DNA sample and see what it comes back. So if the DNA comes back negative, you know what? I did my job; I got the wrong guy; I continue my investigation.

You think everything after Williams was an effort to preserve the work?

To preserve the confessions. Everything after Williams, all the other arrests were there to protect his confession. Everything. Ford had to protect his work. He couldn't come back looking ridiculous. Or, how in the world can one detective take so many confessions? Somebody is going to wake up. Unfortunately, nobody did in this case. The writing was on the wall. Everyone's DNA is coming back negative. Isn't anyone going to wake up here? Where's your prosecutor? ...

They finally ended up solving the crime just by coincidence. [Omar] Ballard happened to write this letter.

Right. When Ballard sent that letter, thank God it got into the hands of the police, who still didn't want to believe anything. But look what happened: His DNA came. Here it is. It wasn't a large crime scene. How in the world are you going to put four guys, seven guys, into that small area and it being so neat? ...

I've been to so many crime scenes that have been violent-crime scenes. You have pieces of evidence all over the place. It was a one-person crime. ...

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posted november 9, 2010

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