A Rare Look at the Police Tactics That Can Lead to False Confessions
Photo: Screenshot from WBUR.
On Dec. 1, 2008, Worcester, Mass. police had 16-year-old Nga Truong locked in an interrogation room. Her 13-month-old son, Khyle, died the day before.
“Now you said to me earlier you were going to tell the truth,” a cop barks from across one side of the table to the young girl on the other side. “I’m waiting.”
“I did,” she pleads…
The detective is convinced Troung had killed her son. Truong continually denies it. After two hours of questioning, however, the detective walks away with her confession. She’s charged with murder as an adult.
Truong’s lawyer, former Massachusetts Bar Association president Ed Ryan, described it as the worst case of coercion he’s seen in 35 years. Now, thanks to David Boeri’s reporting at WBUR, we can watch the interrogation of Nga Truong.
Nga Truong’s case is an example of an interrogation gone terribly wrong; it’s also a rare window into the techniques some detectives use to elicit confessions. Some of them are pretty shocking — and some are entirely within the rules.
“Most of what police do in interrogations that lead to false confessions is legal,” false confession expert and law professor Richard Leo told FRONTLINE for our 2010 film The Confessions. “The accusations, yelling; moving in closer, invading one’s space; lying about evidence, making it up, pretending to have evidence; telling somebody they failed a polygraph, for example.”
“It’s just the threats and the promises that are not legal.”
The most common interrogation technique is known as the “Reid technique,” initially developed by John E. Reid in the mid-1900s. Reid and Northwestern Law professor Fred Inbau’s 1962 book Criminal Interrogations and Confessions, revised and republished several times since then, is essentially the bible of modern interrogations. Reid once touted his technique as getting “better results than a priest.”
New York Magazine’s Robert Kolker explained part of the method, which appears to have been used at least in part during the interrogation of Truong:
The procedure basically involves three stages meant to break down a suspect’s defenses and rebuild him as a confessor. First, the suspect is brought into custody and isolated from his familiar surroundings. This was the birth of the modern interrogation room.
This would equate to Truong being questioned in an 8-by-10 windowless room.
Next the interrogator lets the suspect know he’s guilty — that he knows it, the cops know it, and the interrogator doesn’t want to hear any lies. The interrogator then floats a theory of the case, which the manual calls a “theme.” The theme can be supported by evidence or testimony the investigator doesn’t really have.
Watch the detective question Truong, claiming they know the truth about what happened, using the death of Truong’s brother of sudden infant death syndrome years earlier as evidence that she’s killed a baby before. The detective says also that he has the results of Khyle’s autopsy and that it says the child was smothered. In fact, he has no such evidence:
In the final stage, the interrogator cozies up to the subject and provides a way out. This is when the interrogator uses the technique known as “minimization”: telling the suspect he understands why he must have done it; that anyone else would understand, too; and that he will feel better if only he would confess. The interrogator is instructed to cut off all denials and instead float a menu of themes that explain why the suspect committed the crime — one bad, and one not so bad, but both incriminating, as in “Did you mean to do it, or was it an accident?”
Here, the detective tells Truong that his goal is to get her to admit to what she did — at this point, there’s no alternative narrative as to why the Khyle died — so that she can “get some help.” The detective also makes mention of getting her and her brothers into a “better home,” likely foster care, implying that Truong committed the murder because she was frustrated and overburdened taking care of her siblings (at one point, during the third video excerpt, he says that her mother “is more to blame” than she is).
The detective also tells her that, if she confesses, they’ll “walk right out here, to special crimes juvenile” to “talk to a social worker.” If not, he’ll consult with the medical examiner and start working on a murder case against her. Those, according to the detective, are her only two options:
Finally Truong confesses, after being reassured by the detective that “maybe something good will come out of all this,” and that the courts will decide on what “treatment” she should get in the juvenile system. After a long pause: “I smothered him” [3:22]:
There’s more — watch David Boeri describe these and other techniques, as well as explain more about Truong’s home life:
According to Kolker, this method of interrogation is questioned by some legal scholars: “Critics say the Reid technique is a major source of the problem [of false confessions]. What was once seen as the vanguard of criminal science, they argue, is nothing more than a psychological version of the third degree.” He adds: “Reid detractors also say that police often feed evidence to suspects, which accounts for why false confessors sometimes know details about a crime that they wouldn’t otherwise know.”
For their part, John E. Reid and Associates, Inc., has a section of their website that’s dedicated to the debate about false confessions — they describe them as a “rare phenomena,” but one to carefully study nonetheless — as well as a link [PDF] to the chapter of their book titled “Distinguishing Between True and False Confessions.” They argue, writes Kolker, that getting guilty people to confess would prove difficult without their methods, and that if a false confession does occur, it’s because of a misapplication of the technique.
But are false confessions actually that rare? Brandon L. Garrett, a University of Virginia School of Law professor who recently wrote a book called Convicting the Innocent, says his research “suggests that innocents actually confess to a lot.” Forty of the first 250 people exonerated based on DNA evidence, or 16 percent, falsely confessed.
What perhaps saved Truong from what her lawyer claims was a false confession is the fact that her interrogation was videotaped. While the state of Massachusetts doesn’t require departments to tape their interrogations, many do in light of a 2004 Massachusetts Supreme Court decision that a jury must be told “the State’s highest court has expressed a preference that (custodial) interrogations be recorded whenever practicable” if an unrecorded interrogation is entered into evidence.
According to an Innocence Project spokesperson, about 850 U.S. jurisdictions regularly record interrogations. A map of state laws is on the Innocence Project’s website.
As for Truong, her confession never made it to trial. Judge Janet Kenton-Walker approved a motion [PDF] in 2010 to suppress any statements she made to law enforcement during her interrogation, in part because the detectives did not allow Truong “a genuine opportunity for a meaningful consultation” with a parent or lawyer — a required element of Miranda for juveniles — and because the detective was “not credible”:
When, as here, there exists a combination of trickery and implied promises, together with Nga’s young age, lack of experience and sophistication, her emotional state, as well as the aggressive nature of the interrogation, the totality of the circumstances suggests a situation potentially coercive to the point of making an innocent person confess to a crime.
Without the confession as evidence, the case against Truong was flimsy at best. Khyle’s cause of death was found to be “undetermined.” Writes Boeri:
The death certificate reads: “asphyxial death consistent with but not exclusively diagnostic of suffocation.” Contributing factors, it says, are streptococcal pharyngitis [strep throat] and tracheobronchitis, which belonged to a history of respiratory problems involving asthma that required a nebulizer. And the boy’s body temperature was 101 degrees Fahrenheit an hour after he was dead. Whatever else may have happened to Khyle Truong, he was a sick boy.
With the confession out, the prosecutor didn’t have enough evidence to try the case. It was dropped this past August. Truong is now free after spending almost three years in jail.
So why did Truong confess to something she says she didn’t do? Why would anyone? “It was a pretty long two hours,” she told Boeri, “and all I could hear throughout those two hours was that they were going to give me help if I confessed.”
According to their website, the Worchester Police Department have responded to this case by making an agreement that the District Attorney will be “involved in all homicides and serious crimes investigated by the Worcester Police Department.”
Also take a look at our film The Confessions, which tells the story of four men who confessed to a brutal rape and murder they didn’t commit. And dig deeper into studies and reporting on interrogations and false confessions here.
Correction [Dec. 9, 2011]: The original blog post referred to a stat on the Innocence Project’s website that about 500 jurisdictions nationwide regularly record interrogations. A spokesperson later confirmed that the number has risen to about 850.