Last month, Frank Sterling was exonerated by DNA evidence after being incarcerated 18 years for a crime he did not commit. Sterling was wrongfully convicted of murdering an elderly woman in Rochester, New York in 1988. His conviction was based entirely on a false confession. In the meantime the actual killer remained free, and six years later he murdered four-year-old Kali Poulton. This tragedy leaves no question that addressing the flaws in our criminal justice system that lead to wrongful convictions is a public safety imperative.
Sterling confessed to the murder after a twelve-hour interrogation that followed his 36-hour truck driving shift. Almost immediately, he recanted his confession. Police focused on Sterling from the outset because of his brother's troubled relationship with the victim years earlier. In doing so, they disregarded evidence that implicated another man, Mark Christie. Sterling had no prior criminal record; however, once the case was brought to trial the confession sealed a conviction. DNA testing later revealed that Christie was the true perpetrator.
While many find it hard to fathom, false confessions are a well-documented reality. Approximately 25 percent of the first 200 individuals exonerated by DNA evidence falsely confessed to crimes they did not commit. A confession can be the most powerful evidence at trial, and can overwhelm evidence pointing to the defendant's innocence. Electronically recording interrogations provides access to a reviewable record that helps judges and jurors clearly evaluate a suspect's statements and gives them the information they need to intelligently assess voluntariness and reliability.
Many police and prosecutors who work in jurisdictions that record interrogations have recognized that recording helps to both develop the strongest evidence and convict the guilty while protecting against false or coerced confessions which can lead investigators away from the true perpetrator. The Justice Project details the best practices for recording interrogations, and provides a comprehensive rationale for changes in procedure in the policy review Electronic Recording of Custodial Interrogations.
Hundreds of police departments around the country electronically record interrogations. Additionally, a growing list of states, including Alaska, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, New Mexico, Maine, Wisconsin and Illinois, have mandated electronic recording in order to strengthen the quality of evidence available for criminal prosecutions. Other states must join this growing list to help prevent wrongful convictions like Frank Sterling's. Modernizing police work with readily available recording technology is the best way to ensure that a false confession will not shut down a police investigation while the true perpetrator remains at large.
John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.