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Philly Finally Makes Good On a Promise to Record Interrogations and Confessions

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This week's announcement by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey that the Philadelphia Police Department will start to electronically record the interrogations of suspects in police custody is music to my ears.

As a Philly-boy who has advocated for mandatory electronic recording of interrogations in courts and legislatures around the country, Philly's slow pace to adopt this much-needed reform has been a source of embarrassment. But what has irked me most was Philly has welshed on a promise it made more than 15 years ago to a grieving mother after the two men who were charged with murdering her daughter on the streets of Philadelphia in November 1995 were acquitted despite having confessed to the crime.

On November 2, 1995, Kimberly Ernest, a 26 year-old woman, was returning from her early morning jog when she was brutally assaulted and left to die in the stairwell of a building in an upscale neighborhood in downtown Philadelphia. The crime shocked Philadelphians in much the same way that the Central Park Jogger case shook New York City. In the days after her death, makeshift memorials of flowers and cards filled the stairwell where Kimberly's body was found and the Philadelphia police vowed to find out who killed "Kim", "the Center City Jogger" who had moved to Philadelphia to study to become a paralegal and had grown to love the city.

The shockwaves from Kim's murder reached me in Chicago. In 1995, I had lived in Chicago for almost a decade, having moved to the city in 1986 after graduating from Northwestern Law School. But my Philly roots ran deep, so deep that I continued not only to follow Philly sports teams (I still do), but I also tried to keep up with news from Philly. Because Kim was from Hinsdale, IL., a suburb of Chicago, news of her death made the Chicago papers. I remember feeling relieved when I read that the Philly police had arrested two men -- Herbert Haak and Richard Wise -- and that the two men had confessed and absolutely stunned some years later when I learned that the two men had been acquitted in 1997.

Haak and Wise were acquitted, in part, because the Philly police did not record their interrogations and confessions. DNA evidence recovered from Kim's body also did not match either Haak or Wise. Given the Philadelphia Police Department's reputation for physically abusing suspects -- a reputation I remember well as a boy from when Frank Rizzo was the Police Commissioner and Mayor -- the failure to record the interrogations and the DNA-exclusion gave defense attorneys ample ammunition to persuade jurors to acquit.

In the wake of the acquittals, Philadelphia officials, led by Mayor Ed Rendell and District Attorney Lynne Abraham made a promise to Dorothe Ernest, Kim's mother. At Dorothe's urging, they convened a panel to study whether to electronically record suspects' confessions. In June 1998, at a press conference attended by Dorothe, new Police Commissioner John Timoney announced that the Philadelphia Police Department would videotape confessions.

I met Dorothe Ernest in 1999, shortly after Commissioner Timoney's announcement and just as I (and others) began to press the Illinois General Assembly to require that police electronically record custodial interrogations of suspects. I had begun to collect false confession cases from Illinois and around the country -- Chicago was the false confession capital then and now -- and my strategy was to use these cases to build the case for recording. But I knew that a strategy that focused only on police failures would not likely succeed. I called Dorothe up and asked her if she would be willing to give a victim's perspective on the need for recording and to testify in the legislature in support of a recording bill. Dorothe agreed. In February of 2000, her testimony delivered the most riveting response to the arguments of the police and prosecutors who opposed the bill. Not only did she speak of her disappointment at the jury's verdict in Kim's case and her desire to make sure other victims did not suffer the same fate, she spoke glowingly of the detectives who took the contested confessions. She said they were men "who I would be proud to have as a brother" and told legislators that the only solution to protect the police from "character assassinations" was to record the entire interrogation.

Although the bill did not pass in 2000, three years later, Illinois became the first state to enact a law requiring that all custodial interrogations of suspects in homicide cases be electronically record. Dorothe deserves some of the credit for this. She continued to speak out in the press until the bill became law. The first bill was limited to homicide cases but many of the police and prosecutors who opposed recording prior to 2003 have since come to embrace recording. As a result, this year Illinois expanded the recording statute to include other serious felonies.

While Chicago and Illinois have become beacons in the interrogation-recording movement, Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, at least until last week, have been mired in quicksand. Philly's promise to Dorothe Ernest turned out to be a false promise. Recording was discretionary, not mandatory. More importantly, the police did not turn on the camera until after a suspect had signed a confession written by the police. As a result, very few homicide confessions were recorded. The failure to record the entire interrogation still left police officers open to allegations of abuse and over the years has led some Philly judges to toss out confessions and other juries to acquit potentially guilty defendants when defendants have claimed they were coerced.

Philly has been embarrassed not only with allegations of police coercion, it has been home to several false confessions in homicide cases, including the cases of Russell Weinberger and Felix Rodriguez, chronicled by former Philly public defender Mark Bookman in the Atlantic Magazine, and the "Lex St. massacre," a case in which Jermel Lewis falsely confessed to participating in the December 2000 murders of seven people in a crack house. The false confessions of Barry Laughman, Bruce Godshalk, and others show that false confessions are not just a Philly-problem but a statewide problem.

Philly's police force may no longer be behind the curve when it comes to recording interrogations. Early this week, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey announced that all interrogations of homicide suspects will be video-recorded and that eventually, all detective divisions and the Special Victims Unit will be required to record interrogations as well.

By requiring interrogations -- and not just confessions -- to be recorded and by making the policy mandatory, Commissioner Ramsey appears to have finally fulfilled the promise that Philly officials made more than fifteen years ago to Dorothe Ernest. Merry Christmas, Dorothe.

But let's not wipe the debt off the books just yet. Policies do not have the force of law and police commissioners, even reformers like Commissioner Ramsey, do not have life-time appointments. Although Philly's voluntary initiative to record interrogations is to be lauded, I will not be satisfied until the Pennsylvania General Assembly, following the lead of Illinois and more than a dozen other states, enacts a new law requiring that all custodial interrogations of suspects, at least in homicide cases, be electronically recorded in their entirety. And neither should you.