In an effort to ward off claims of false confessions, Miami-Dade police detectives will soon begin videotaping the entirety of their interviews with suspects in homicide cases.
That decision — made at the behest of prosecutors — means the county’s largest police department will finally join other local law enforcement agencies who for years have filmed their full interviews with people suspected in killings.
The measure also comes as the U.S. Department of Justice, in a major policy shift that went into effect this month, mandated that federal agents begin recording interviews with all suspects.
Miami-Dade’s move to tape murder suspects is being hailed by civil rights activists concerned about innocent people being coerced into confessions, and prosecutors frustrated by defense attacks on the credibility of legitimate confessions not captured on video. The department expects to phase in recordings in other investigative bureaus in coming months.
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“Jurors are not as trusting of police officers as they used to be,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said. “And everything now in this technological world is recorded and our jurors expect all that. They see it on TV. And even though some of that is fantasy, the reality is that we do have more technological ability in putting evidence together for presentations to jurors.”
Miami-Dade Maj. Hector Llevat, head of the homicide bureau, praised the department’s “good track record” in building winning cases against killers.
“That being said, anything we can do to strengthen that relationship with the public, we’re going to do it,” Llevat said. “We like to think of ourselves as a progressive police department. We’re concerned about that trust with the community.”
For decades, many police departments insisted that they were hamstrung by the constraints of expensive, cumbersome video equipment and interviews that can last hours, sometimes even days. Now, with inexpensive digital equipment allowing for hours of footage to be saved easily on CDs or hard drives, the argument is harder to make.
And so hidden cameras should begin rolling in the coming months the minute homicide suspects are led into a police interview room. Detectives are not required to inform the suspects that they are being recorded because there is no expectation of privacy in a police interrogation room.
The footage will allow jurors, judges and lawyers to gauge for themselves interview tactics of police detectives, the mental and physical state of the suspect and how he or she is being treated.
Rebecca Brown, policy director of the Innocence Project, the national organization that has helped free 13 wrongfully convicted people in Florida, said the movement to record interrogations is “taking off within the law enforcement community.”
“This is a reform whose time has come,” Brown said. “It’s very encouraging that departments like Miami-Dade are picking up on it. We’re hopeful the entire state follows suit.”
Twenty states, but not Florida, require some form of taping of suspect interrogations. Two years ago, the Florida Innocence Commission, created by the state’s Supreme Court to examine cases of wrongful convictions, recommended that legislators mandate police recording of suspect interviews.
In 2003, Fort Lauderdale police became the first major South Florida police department to video entire interviews with homicide suspects. The Broward Sheriff’s Office soon followed suit.
The public has been wary of false confessions because of police misconduct, particularly in Broward County, where between 1990 and 2001 at least 38 false or questionable murder confessions were thrown out by courts, rejected by juries or abandoned by prosecutors.
In the most recent notorious Broward case, DNA in 2009 exonerated Anthony Caravella, who spent nearly 26 years in prison for the 1983 rape and murder of a Miramar woman.
Caravella, then a 15-year-old with a low IQ, confessed to the crime on audiotape. But his defense lawyers argued that Broward detectives, over the course of days of unrecorded interrogations, fed him information and coerced him into confessing.
Frank Lee Smith died of cancer on death row in 2000, just months before DNA exonerated him of raping and murdering an 8-year-old girl in Fort Lauderdale.
Inmate Timothy Brown, who claimed that deputies coerced him into confessing, convinced a federal judge that a reasonable jury would not convict him today for the 1990 murder of BSO Deputy Patrick Behan.
Jerry Frank Townsend was convicted of four murders in Broward and two in the city of Miami in the 1980s — based on confessions that were later considered false. He spent 22 years in prison until DNA tests cleared him in 2001.
In at least one recent Miami case, the video-and-audio taped statements led directly to a judge deciding that a confession was coerced by police. In 2006, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Roberto Pineiro dismissed a murder case against Terric Jeffrey, a mildly mentally challenged man accused of fatally beating a 13-month-old.
His defense attorneys claimed that Jeffrey was coached into confessing over nine hours of interrogations, most of it unrecorded. The judge noted that even portions that were recorded showed a Miami homicide detective “coached” Jeffrey.
Miami police have since begun video and audio recording the entirety of their interviews.
Counterparts at Miami-Dade’s police have no history of high-profile false confession cases, though their tactics have been the subject of defense-attorney attacks for years — in a county where jurors are notoriously unpredictable.
In 2005, a jury acquitted Rozbel Dorival of the robbery-murder of a North Miami-Dade shopkeeper, despite DNA, fingerprint and video surveillance evidence tying him to the scene.
He took the stand and insisted that the confession — which was recorded only by a stenographer — was coerced during hours of a “pre-interview.”
The jury’s decision: not guilty. “It seemed to me that jury acquitted Dorival because they found him more believable than the detective,” Miami defense attorney Jeffrey Fink said.
In the case of Samuel Lowry, accused of trafficking two underage girls for sex in Opa-locka, he confessed on tape, but the majority of his interaction with detectives went unrecorded. That gave defense attorney Arnold Trevilla plenty of ammunition to argue police coercion.
The argument swayed jurors during the February trial, jury foreperson Karen Kaany said.
“Why wouldn’t you start recording immediately when you bring in the subject?” Kaany said. “It was definitely a concern, and it didn’t look good for the police.”
Jurors acquitted Lowry of the most serious charges, sex trafficking, but convicted him of unlawful sexual activity with a minor and deriving proceeds from prostitution. A habitual offender, Lowry is now serving more than 27 years in prison.
But it was the high-profile Sean Taylor murder case that spurred prosecutors to approach Miami-Dade police about changing their policies.
The accused shooter, Eric Rivera, confessed that he shot and killed the former University of Miami star football player during a burglary in Palmetto Bay. At trial last fall, jurors were shown a 30-minute videotaped confession.
But Rivera took the stand and insisted that while he tagged along on the burglary trip, he never entered the house. He insisted that for hours before the video rolled, he was badgered by detectives into confessing.
After 16 hours of deliberations, jurors could not agree that his confession was absolutely true. So they convicted Rivera of second-degree murder — without a firearm. He is now serving a sentence of more than 57 years in prison.
Retired Miami-Dade homicide Detective Pat Diaz said he believes the presence of cameras will not damage the success of the cases.
Diaz was the lead detective in the case of Juan Carlos Chavez, the South Miami-Dade farmhand who confessed over 50 hours of interviews to the murder and rape of 9-year-old Jimmy Ryce in 1995.
Detectives did not tape most of the interview, but documented every interaction with the suspect — and the confession was upheld over years of appeals. Chavez was executed in February.
“You have to be transparent. Everybody else is recording now,” Diaz said. “And 99 percent of the time, our interviews are done by the book. I don’t think it’s going to change anything.”