ALBANY – Weeks after the state’s chief judge called for legislation requiring police to videotape interrogations as an antidote to wrongful convictions, an appellate panel in Albany has affirmed a murder conviction because a recorded confession showed that, despite defense allegations, authorities did not violate the defendant’s rights.
In People v. Thomas, 103008, the Appellate Division, Third Department, said that despite the fact that Troy authorities questioned Adrian Thomas about injuries to his 4-month-old over the span of more than nine hours and lied to the suspect repeatedly to elicit a confession, the tactics were not unlawful or coercive.
“[T]he recorded interviews simply do not support the conclusion that defendant was unduly fatigued or sleepy, or that he was physically or psychologically overwhelmed,” Justice Edward O. Spain (See Profile) wrote for the court in a March 22 opinion.
Justice Spain said that contrary to Mr. Thomas’ “vehement claims,” the tactics used by Troy police officers to elicit a confession “were not of the character as to induce a false confession and were not so deceptive that they were fundamentally unfair and deprived him of due process.”
The Adrian Thomas case, the first in Rensselaer County in which a jury viewed an entire videotaped interrogation, centers on a 500-pound father of seven who eventually told police that he threw his baby onto a mattress three times in four days and also accidentally hit the infant’s head on the side of a crib several times. Mr. Thomas was convicted of depraved indifference murder and sentenced to a term of 25-years-to-life in prison (NYLJ, Nov. 15, 2011).
The case is the focus of an award-winning 88-minute documentary, “Scenes of a Crime,” by Los Angeles film makers Grober Babcock and Blue Hadaegh.
Mr. Babcock said the film is slated for a one week engagement at Cinema Village in Greenwich Village starting March 30. He said MSNBC has licensed the film with plans to broadcast it later this year.
On appeal, the main issue was the lengthy interrogation, all of which was captured on tape.
The jurors and the Third Department justices were able to watch the interrogation from start to finish and decide for themselves, without relying on either the prosecution or defense, whether police crossed the line and physically or psychologically coerced a confession.
They saw police officers lie to and mislead Mr. Thomas, witnessed a “good-cop-bad-cop” routine where one officer acted as the suspect’s friend and the other angrily called him a liar and heard authorities threaten to pin the crime on the man’s wife.
But the question for the court was not whether police were dishonest, but whether their tactics were likely to result in a false confession. The Third Department found no evidence of that.
For instance, Justice Spain referred to a segment of the interrogation in which police implored Mr. Thomas to tell them what he knew about the baby’s injuries so doctors could save the boy’s life, knowing full well that the victim was brain dead and had no hope of survival.
“The officers’ repeated misrepresentation that the defendant’s truthfulness might enable doctors to effectively treat Matthew did not render his statements involuntary, because appealing to his parental concerns did not create a substantial risk that he might falsely incriminate himself,” Justice Spain wrote. “Indeed, common sense dictates the opposite conclusion…that parents, aware of their child’s life threatening predicament, would accurately disclose any information that might enable doctors to save their child.”
The recording showed that Mr. Thomas was never abused during the interrogation, was repeatedly offered food, beverages and cigarettes and allowed to retain his cell phone.
In addition, the court noted that the interrogation was not continuous and was interrupted for some 15 hours after Mr. Thomas mentioned suicide and was taken to a mental health center.
Dozens of police agencies across the state are now routinely recording interrogations, many of them using state grants to purchase equipment.
Currently, the Legislature is considering mandating the recording of interrogations, a proposal advanced by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, in his Feb. 14 State of the Judiciary address (NYLJ, Feb. 15). Judge Lippman touted video recording as a means of preventing false confessions and wrongful convictions, but this case illustrates how it can also be used to obtain and secure a conviction.
Videotape ‘Carried the Day’
Rensselaer County District Attorney Richard J. McNally said the fact that the jury and judges were able to witness the taped interrogation in the Thomas case was crucial to both the trial court verdict and the appellate result.
“The videotape, I think, carried the day,” Mr. McNally said. “It was persuasive and demonstrated that there was no coercive conduct by police. [The judges] could see it in living color.”
In addition to the issue of the confession, the Third Department reviewed and rejected Mr. Thomas’ claim that his conviction for depraved indifference homicide is contrary to a string of Court of Appeals decisions over the past several years, culminating in People v. Feingold, 7 NY3d 288 (2006).
Through those rulings, the high court has re-defined depraved indifference in terms of the defendant’s mindset—the mens rea—rather than the prior standard which dealt with the objective risk posed by the defendant’s conduct.
Justice Spain said the facts of the Thomas case “fall within the limited class of one-on-one killings that still satisfy the depraved indifference standard.”
He noted that the baby had been sick and said that Mr. Thomas’ conduct in repeatedly throwing a premature and sickly infant to the mattress evinced depravity.
An autopsy revealed that the infant had pneumonia and one of the trial issues was whether he died from sepsis and pneumonia or blunt force.
“Defendant inflicted injury, ignored signs that the child was in distress (by defendant’s account) and allowed him to slowly deteriorate, prolonging his suffering, until [the mother] discovered him unresponsive, evincing depraved indifference,” Justice Spain wrote.
Assistant Rensselaer County District Attorney Gordon Eddy argued for the prosecution and then Rensselaer County Public Defender Jerome K. Frost argued for the defense.
Mr. Frost, who recently retired but plans to continue working on the case, said he anticipates an appeal.
“Adrian Thomas is innocent and that is the beginning and end of this whole story,” Mr. Frost said. “Look, I am no bleeding heart. I am very, very conservative and even believe in capital punishment. But this is an abomination.”
@|John Caher can be reached at email@example.com.