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Video exalted as interrogation tool for police officers

Video recording of interrogations removes the secrecy of the interview and opens officers to scrutiny, says one law professor

By Adam Brandolph
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Marcus Andrejco spoke slowly and clearly as he confessed to his involvement in the violent home invasion that ended with the wounding of a Clairton police officer.

“I meant no harm. I was wrong. ... I know that,” Andrejco, 20, of Rankin told detectives in the 10-minute audio recording. “I deserve to be punished.”

But during his trial last summer before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Edward Borkowski, he denied involvement in the April 4, 2011, robbery and the shooting of Clairton police Officer James Kuzak.

His mother, Jaime Andrejco, testified he was watching television with her that night.

“Officers may be overzealous to get confessions,” attorney Ralph Karsh told the jury. “He’s stuck in a room and interrogated for hours and hours. The hours before that and his denials are not on tape.”

The jury cleared Andrejco of charges after two days of deliberations, even though they convicted co-defendant Emilio Rivera, 28, of McKees Rocks. He is serving 50 to 100 years in prison.

Jurors after the verdict said they believed officers coerced Andrejco’s confession, and with no physical evidence linking him to the shooting, they voted to acquit.

The verdict might have been different, legal experts said, if detectives had videotaped the confession.

“There are more cues in video interrogations than in transcripts or audio recordings,” said Mark Constanzo, a psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College near Los Angeles and an authority in police interrogation tactics. “With a video, you have so much more than the words.”

Video recording of interrogations removes the secrecy of the interview and opens officers to scrutiny, said Richard Leo, a UCLA law professor whose research focuses on police interviewing practices.

“As a result, interrogators are less likely to use impermissible or questionable techniques, including the psychologically coercive and improper ones that are the primary cause of false confessions,” Leo said. “Recording creates an objective, comprehensive, and reviewable record of an interrogation, making it unnecessary to rely on the incomplete, selective, and potentially biased accounts of the disputants over what occurred.”

Detractors argue that if a suspect knows he is being recorded, it will be harder to elicit confession.

Nationwide, police use of videotaped interviews with suspects has grown in the decade since Illinois became the first state to require video-recorded interrogations in 2003. Since then, 17 states and the District of Columbia implemented similar requirements.

“The expectations of the public are such that this is no longer a debatable issue,” said Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. “The public wants this, and they’re going to get it.”

Pittsburgh police began video-recording homicide suspects in March at Zappala’s behest. County detectives will start using the technology soon, officials said.

The DA’s office used its first videotaped confession at an arraignment last month to persuade a judge to hold Jordan Bey on homicide charges. Bey, 16, of Homewood is accused of shooting Omar Islam, 21, of Perry South seven times in the head, back and leg during a robbery.

Deputy District Attorney Dan Fitzsimmons, who prosecuted Andrejco, declined to speculate on whether a videotaped confession might have swayed jurors in his case. He said he supports police video-recording their interviews if it will help get convictions.

Experts said that if police are going to videotape, they need a policy for conducting interviews.

“Such a policy is also crucial from an evidentiary and prosecutorial perspective,” stated a November 2012 report from The National Institute of Justice, the research, development and evaluation arm of the Department of Justice.

It’s unclear whether Pittsburgh police have such a policy; department spokeswoman Diane Richard declined to comment.

Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, supports videotaping from the moment a suspect enters the interview room, to show that police properly advised the person of his or her rights and how detectives elicited information.

“If you’re looking to promote truth and justice, then videotaping interrogations is essential,” Walczak said.

Copyright 2013 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review