These days Frank Esposito lives anonymously, in the shadow of the Central Park jogger uproar.
The five young Harlem men convicted of attacking and nearly killing a Manhattan woman became causes celebres earlier this year, after an incarcerated serial rapist said that he alone, and not those five, had attacked the jogger. DNA evidence backed up the claim. And the “Central Park Five” became known as victims of a problem presumed to be much bigger than them: the New York City Police Department forcing false confessions from criminal suspects.
Esposito avers that it happens. It started in the summer of 2000 when he was a 17 year old in the Flatlands section of Brooklyn who liked to hang out with friends–“my boys,” he calls them–and smoke marijuana. Late one August afternoon, Esposito remembers, “Some guy in a suit came up to me and said, ‘We want to question you.'” The guy turned out to be a cop. Esposito had an overnight bag with him. When the police opened it, they “saw the weed. They arrested me like they got John Gotti or something.”
The cops were less interested in marijuana than that Esposito was the prime suspect in connection with a fire that had killed 21 horses and destroyed a century-old Bergen Beach stable just blocks from his home. When he admitted guilt, the tabloids had a field day–particularly with his videotaped confession.
The tape, made a day after his arrest and after many hours of untaped questioning, begins with Assistant District Attorney David Holland reading Esposito his Miranda rights. (He had waived his right to an attorney, but Esposito later claimed that his repeated requests to have his mother present were ignored by detectives.) The videotape shows a small, windowless room. Esposito, visibly terrified, sits a few feet away from Holland, whose calm demeanor makes him seem more like a psychotherapist than an interrogator. The two are joined by another assistant D.A. and by Detective William Wagner, who had thoroughly interrogated Esposito the night before.
“Can you tell me where you were that night?” Holland starts. In a trembling voice, Esposito replies: “I was hanging out, drinking, smoking–doing what I usually do. At around 11, I got out of my friends’ car and started walking home. I stopped by the Bergen Beach stable. I started smoking pot. I was already drunk. Then I smoked a cigarette. After[ward] I smoked marijuana, then I was playing with my lighter [and] lighted the hay on fire. I kept lighting it…I seen pieces glowing.” Toward the end of the tape, Esposito, amid tears, looks squarely into the camera and says, “I want to apologize to everyone for what I did.”
With such a dramatic confession on tape, further court proceedings seemed destined to be mere formalities. But one problem remained–Esposito apparently didn’t burn down the stables, accidentally or otherwise. He tells City Limits he was in a different neighborhood when the fire took place. “My friend’s little cousin was going to her prom. So we followed them to Bay Ridge to make sure it didn’t get out of control,” he says. At his trial, crucial phone records and eyewitnesses supported this alibi. The jury voted for acquittal.
So why did Esposito confess? Because the police “messed with my head all night,” he says. “They put me in a room that was freezing. I was chained to a little metal bench.” Esposito’s attorney, Nick Gravante, notes that his client was interrogated for 18 hours without any sleep or food. All the while, Gravante says, detectives were urging Esposito to say he’d set the fire by accident.
At first, Esposito says, he repeatedly denied any role in the arson. But detectives wouldn’t take no for an answer. They “were just pounding the same thing over and over again.” Esposito voluntarily submitted to a polygraph exam. Afterward, he was told he had failed–a lie, as he would later learn. When Esposito offered an alibi that he had been with his “boys” at the time of the fire, the police said the friends denied that claim. This, too, was a lie.
Once, Esposito recalls, when he stood up and screamed that he wanted to call his mother, a cop pushed him against the wall. Finally, he gave up. “You tell them the truth so many times and it gets to the point where you can’t take it. I was like, ‘You want to hear a story? Then here’s a story.’ They said, ‘Would you say it on camera? I told ’em, ‘I don’t care…’. They told me to keep apologizing, show remorse.” Esposito asked his interrogators if he could go home afterward. “They said, ‘Yeah.'”
Instead, he was charged with arson, reckless endangerment and 21 counts of aggravated cruelty to animals. If convicted, he faced five to 15 years in prison. The media denounced him as an animal-abusing monster.
Esposito’s account of the interrogation is just his story. The questioning wasn’t taped, so we will never know what really occurred. (The NYPD declined to comment for this story.)
Nor will we know why another New Yorker, Bently Louis Grant, falsely confessed to attempted murder. Grant was arrested in the summer of 2000, weeks after Tiffany Goldberg, an aspiring social worker, was struck in the head with a five-pound concrete slab on the Lower East Side in broad daylight. Grant, who was homeless, closely resembled a police sketch of the attacker and was identified by two eyewitnesses. While in police custody for 20 hours at the 13th Precinct, he apparently told detectives that he hurled the slab at Goldberg after someone ridiculed him on the street. He later recanted the confession, but by then his case was in the prosecutorial pipeline. Ironically, his salvation came in the form of surveillance videotape from a Virgin Records store–which showed Grant listening to music at the time of the attack. Again, we cannot be sure why he made a false confession. His interrogation went unrecorded.
That’s because New York City police officers do not videotape interrogations systematically, from the beginning of the session. They generally record high-profile cases or those especially in need of a confession because they are weak on other evidence.
Unlike New York, more and more cities and states nationwide now mandate video records. Once universally dismissed among law enforcement circles, the careful recording of interrogations is winning over increasing numbers of police and prosecutors.
Alaska and Minnesota were pioneers in such reform. For years, they were the only states to mandate that interrogations of suspects in felony cases be recorded. Since the beginning of this year, Illinois, Connecticut and Washington, D.C., have required taping of interrogations. Meanwhile, police departments in locales as diverse as Fort Lauderdale, San Antonio and Maryland’s Prince George’s County have begun their own recording initiatives, as Louisiana, Texas and about 20 other states weigh proposals to do the same.
Defendant advocates say using cameras to record interrogations will curb police misconduct and prevent cases of wrongful imprisonment. But recording the end of the process is not enough, says Manhattan civil rights attorney Ron Kuby, who represented Central Park defendant Yusef Salaam during the early stages of his appeal. “After a suspect has been poked, prodded and, in some cases, rehearsed, the camera light goes on and the suspect steps up for his 15 minutes of fame to make a confession,” says Kuby. “But you never get to see what led up to it.”
A rash of other cases nationwide, in which questioning was taped, make it clear that practices similar to what Esposito describes can easily prompt false confessions.
Dr. Richard Ofshe is a Pulitzer Prize–winning former journalist and now professor of sociology at the University of California who has studied false confessions for over a decade. He says applying the right amount of psychological force can drive someone to make false statements to an interrogator. “An interrogation is really about overcoming resistance and getting someone to say what you want them to say,” Ofshe notes. Suspects “have to be made to feel that their situation is hopeless. It’s only when someone feels they’re far better off by confessing than continuing to tell the truth that you get a false confession.”
That’s a feeling Michael Crowe knows all too well. One morning in January 1998, his 12-year-old sister, Stephanie, was found stabbed to death in her bedroom at their San Diego home. Though neighbors told investigators about a suspicious, disheveled man seen banging on doors the night of the murder, detectives believed that, with no signs of forced entry, the culprit could only be someone who lived in the house. The drifter, Richard Tuite, was found, questioned by police and ruled out after a brief interrogation. Instead, police zeroed in on Michael and his friends after discovering some of his drawings and role-playing video games like Dungeons & Dragons, with themes of rape, murder and bestiality set in the medieval era.
Michael, then 14, was taken into protective custody and subjected to grueling questioning with neither his parents nor a lawyer present. Over the course of a videotaped 11-hour interrogation, Michael denied any involvement in the murder. He eventually broke down and confessed after being told he failed a polygraph exam and that Stephanie’s blood was found in his room. And during a withering, 10-hour videotaped interrogation, detectives informed Michael’s friend Joshua Treadway, who denied any role in the murder, that Michael and another friend had already confessed and implicated him. After being told that a knife found in his room tested positive for Stephanie’s blood, Joshua confessed.
None of what the cops told Joshua and Michael was true.
As Michael’s trial neared, defense attorneys put Richard Tuite’s clothes, which had been in police custody, through a DNA test and found traces of Stephanie’s blood. The DNA evidence, as well as the videotaped confessions–which a San Diego judge ruled were illegally obtained–led Michael’s case to be thrown out of court. Richard Tuite is slated to stand trial in February for Stephanie Crowley’s murder.
Saul Kassin, a professor of psychology and chair of Legal Studies at Williams College, has conducted extensive research on interrogations like Michael Crowe’s. He argues that there are a number of flaws in the process, including the inability of some detectives to entertain the possibility that someone other than the suspect committed the crime. “Interrogators have a high degree of confidence that the person they’re interrogating is guilty,” Kassin says. “With that presumption of guilt, it doesn’t matter what the suspect says. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
The power of that presumption is clear from data compiled by the Innocence Project, a New York–based national organization that analyzes DNA evidence in order to free falsely convicted defendants. The Innocence Project notes that suspects had confessed their guilt during interrogations in nearly a quarter of the cases it has investigated in which DNA subsequently proved their innocence.
Even when used on the guilty, interrogation is less science than it is art. As felons attempt to conceal the truth, cops seek to destabilize them in a game of verbal hardball. On fictional TV cop shows, defiant suspects confess once they’re confronted with evidence against them. In reality, things are rarely so easy. The stakes are high for police to get a confession in cases with little or no evidence. To do so, detectives use manipulation during interrogations.
For more than 50 years, the Chicago-based firm John E. Reid and Associates, Inc., has specialized in training police officers in the United States and Canada. Its handbook, Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, which recommends the use of a nine-step interrogation technique, has been widely adopted by law enforcement departments nationwide. While the NYPD refuses to comment on its own interrogation guidelines, a spokesperson at Reid and Associates says the firm conducts two seminars a year in New York City on interrogation methods.
In the Reid system, each stage of questioning is carefully planned. A suspect is first put in a windowless and virtually empty room, then left alone for a few minutes. After anxiety has built, a detective arrives and calmly tells the suspect that he or she is thought to be the perpetrator.
The detective then observes the suspect’s reaction. Passive denial is said to signal guilt, but even a highly emotional protestation of innocence might be mere play-acting. If denials persist, the detective cuts them off and paints a picture of how the suspect might have committed the crime. Such scenarios include the idea that it was an “accident,” or that the suspect doesn’t remember because he or she was drunk or on drugs.
Nothing prohibits the detective from lying. In crimes thought to be the work of more than one person, a detective can play suspects against each other by telling one that another has already confessed and implicated the rest of the group. Suspects may also be told they’ll be treated leniently if they admit to merely observing the crime while others in the group actually committed it. Ultimately, the whole process can make suspects feel there is no way out but to concede guilt.
Such tactics may be dirty pool, but most cops and courts feel they’re acceptable. In a landmark 1969 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of police officers to use deceit while interrogating criminal suspects. And although young people and the mentally ill are especially vulnerable to trickery, courts have consistently ruled that if they understand their Miranda rights but waive them and voluntarily confess, their statements are admissible during trial.
What if a suspect isn’t guilty? In theory, cops are prohibited from using tactics that would drive an innocent person to confess. But theory and practice are two different things, observers say. Steven Drizin, a law professor at Northwestern University and an expert in false confessions, notes: “When you have an innocent person denying over and over that they’re innocent and the officer cuts off those denials to suggest scenarios, it’s the equivalent of torture.” Interrogations may produce false confessions as readily as “third degree” rubber hoses and electric shock did generations ago, before they were banned.
During four years of researching criminal cases nationwide, Drizin has discovered at least a dozen cases of probable or certain false confessions in New York City. He thinks the city has the same problems as municipalities elsewhere. New York police officers and prosecutors, Drizin says, need training in recognizing false confessions and gathering information from suspects who are mentally ill, of low intelligence or juveniles. Above all, he says, all interrogations should be recorded from the beginning.
For the last 20 years, detectives and prosecutors in New York City have taped confessions at their own discretion, starting and stopping the video camera whenever they choose. But after false confessions became a burning issue earlier this year in the Central Park jogger case, the Innocence Project, Legal Aid, former Manhattan Assistant D.A. Philip Russotti, New York State Assemblymember Adam Clayton Powell IV and other advocates began issuing pamphlets, holding rallies, speaking out and sponsoring legislation in an effort to win reform. “This is something whose time has come,” says Harlem City Councilmember Bill Perkins. He introduced a bill to the City Council last September seeking to mandate that all suspects held in felony cases have their interrogations recorded from start to finish. A hearing on the bill by the Public Safety Committee is slated to be held by the end of the year. A similar bill, sponsored by Assemblymember Powell, has been introduced in the New York State Assembly.
But bruised feelings and infighting about the Central Park jogger case between the D.A.’s office and the police [see “Rewind to Central Park,” below] threaten the effort. “Soon after the convictions were thrown out” in that case, says Sarah Tofte, program coordinator for the Innocence Project, “we had a meeting with the NYPD and thought there was some momentum.” That faded, she says, after Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau recommended that the convictions be vacated. Councilmember Perkins adds that the NYPD has “an instinctive reaction of being picked on whenever reforms are attempted in the wake of blatant misconduct.”
“In order for the police to sign on,” says Tofte, mandated recording “may have to be freed from the spotlight of the Central Park jogger case.”
Even if that spotlight dims, law enforcement officials and politicos may not be wild about videotaping. New York City, after all, is far bigger than Broward County, Florida or Houston. The city’s five boroughs contain 75 police precincts and 38,000 officers who grapple with about a quarter of a million arrests a year. Robert McCrie, professor of security management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, estimates it would cost $500,000 to implement across-the-board videotaping of felony suspect interrogations. That figure does not include the costs of transcribing the interrogations and making copies.
Some believe the price is too high. “We have undercover officers who don’t have working police radios,” the late Councilmember James E. Davis, a former police officer, told City Limits during an interview shortly before his death in July. “Now you’re telling me the police department, during this $3 billion budget gap, is all of a sudden going to have enough video cameras and tape recorders to use in all felony cases? I don’t think there’s enough money.”
Detectives–and their union, the Detectives Endowment Association–aren’t enthusiastic about the idea either. There’s deep concern that mandatory videotaping could result in fewer true confessions. “Some defendants will admit to something. Then when you tell them, ‘Well, now we’re going to videotape,’ they won’t respond,” says Detective Thomas Scotto, president of the union. Scotto also worries that if videotaping is mandated, defense lawyers will gain the advantage. In every case, he predicts, attorneys will be asking the police, “‘When did the defendant make the admission? Did you record it appropriately?’ All this will tie up the courts endlessly with the technical aspects of the issue rather than the crime itself.”
Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr., a former prosecutor and chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee, agrees. He calls mandated videotaping problematic because “it puts another technicality in a process that is already overloaded with them. I am very hesitant to have a good confession thrown out for ridiculous reasons by a New York City judge.” Storage and chain-of-evidence logistics are another issue: The late Councilmember Davis, who also served on the committee, asked, “Who’s going to protect the tape and make sure it isn’t doctored?”
In cities that have started recording confessions, many prosecutors have come to embrace the mandates. They have a good reason to: Videotapes can beef up their success rate with convictions.
After the Miami Herald reported last year that at least 38 cases of questionable murder confessions had been thrown out of Broward County courts since 1990, the sheriff’s office decided to record felony interrogations in full. The move cost $100,000 to outfit rooms at six police stations with DVD equipment. Meanwhile, the San Antonio Police Department, a longtime opponent of recording interrogations, made a stunning about-face in August when it announced plans to obtain a $612,000 federal grant to begin taping the interrogation of suspects in all homicide and other felony cases.
Such reforms may not be received with enthusiasm at first, but they are often welcomed later. Alaska’s video recording legislation, for instance, was enacted in 1985, and Minnesota’s was passed in 1994, following state Supreme Court decisions in appeals of criminal cases where suspects claimed they were forced to confess.
Alaska and Minnesota law enforcement authorities were wary of interrogation videotape requirements, but they soon proved helpful for prosecutors. “When you’ve got it on tape, you can judge the demeanor of the officers and the defendant for yourself,” says Paul Scoggin, a prosecutor in Minneapolis. “Most defendants are pretty cleaned up and sitting quietly by the time they get to trial, but some are much rougher and tougher on the night they are arrested. It’s very helpful to get a glimpse at the whole picture.”
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” says John Leggio, a spokesman for the Houston Police Department, which has recorded interrogations for about a decade. “Why not let what happened during an interrogation play out before the eyes of a jury?”
Jurors–including those in New York City–seem increasingly wary of confessions that are not recorded. In 1999, a Manhattan panel handed down a surprising verdict when it acquitted a 27-year-old man in the 1997 murder of Jonathan Levin, son of Gerald Levin, former chairman of Time Warner. Despite an 11-page written confession, the jury believed the defendant was too drunk or high on drugs to have committed the crime. They believed his confession was false.
Northwestern law professor Drizin welcomes the new public skepticism. “We’re nowhere near the point of no return,” he says. “But I think far more prosecutors and juries are beginning to realize that a confession isn’t the golden nugget it once was.”
For Frank Esposito, that nugget still weighs heavy. “I wasted all my parents’ money” in legal defense fees, he says, “for something I didn’t do.” As a result, “My parents are struggling. I’m struggling.” His emotional trauma is perhaps worse than the financial burden. The experience of being innocent but “treated like a murderer” has alienated him from friends who cannot understand what he went through. And he feels soured on the community.
“I went through everything on my own,” Esposito says. “I don’t hang out with the friends I used to. I don’t stay with them no more. I want to get out of Brooklyn.”
Curtis Stephen is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and media fellow with the Open Society Institute.
SIDEBAR: Rewind to Central Park
Would beginning-to-end videotaping of their interrogations have changed the fate of the five defendants in the Central Park jogger case? The recent reversal of their convictions has inspired calls for the NYPD to methodically record all police questioning–but the truth is that it’s impossible to say whether it would have made a difference.
The five young men–Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Kharey Wise–have filed a $250-million lawsuit against the NYPD and the Manhattan D.A.’s office charging both with malicious prosecution and ignoring evidence that proved their innocence. The most significant is DNA, acquired earlier this year, that implicated serial rapist Matias Reyes in the rape of jogger Trisha Meili.
After lengthy interrogations immediately following the 1989 rape, detectives got written confessions from all five teenagers. Then four gave videotaped statements. The tapes show each boy graphically describing the sexual assault–mostly as if they were mere observers, placing blame upon one another in accounts that were vastly different and contradictory.
False confession expert Richard Ofshe, of the University of California, has examined the Central Park jogger tapes and argues that the teens did not realize they were producing confessions. “What these kids wound up telling is what I call a ‘witness story.’ It arises after police tell a suspect, ‘Look, I know you were there. We have overwhelming evidence linking you to the scene. We don’t think you had anything to do with the crime, but you need to tell us what you saw.'” Hoping to be released, suspects may comply by making up stories. “Unfortunately,” Ofshe says, “they don’t realize how their statements are linking them” to the crime.
It also appears the police improperly fed details of the rape to the suspects before they could make independent statements. Kharey Wise was taken back to the crime scene, then shown pictures of Meili’s wounds while being questioned about her injuries. In using suggestion during questioning, detectives “contaminated their search for the truth by providing information to the suspect” that he might not have known otherwise, says Steve Drizin of Northwestern University, another expert on false confessions who has evaluated the Central Park Jogger tapes.
Furthermore, the police used tactics some call unfair. Then–16-year-old Wise, for instance, was reading at a second-grade level–yet he was interrogated without a lawyer present. And at Salaam’s trial, a detective testified that during his interrogation, Salaam, then 15, repeatedly denied involvement in the rape until he was told–falsely–that his fingerprints were found on the victim’s pants.
Full videotape would have put these coercive moves on the public record. Even so, taping might not have exonerated the teens. For one thing, the young men gave ready, consistent descriptions of their roles in assaults that seriously injured a homeless man and a male jogger in the park that night. What’s more, there is evidence that at least some of the Central Park Five freely admitted to participating in the rape. The mother of a friend of Wise, for instance, testified that shortly after Wise confessed, he spoke to her on the phone from jail and described taking part in the sexual assault. And instead of blaming his friends, McCray often used the first person “I” in his confession when discussing the attack.
In a report issued in January, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly concluded that the teens probably helped Reyes with the rape. Harlem community activist Sharonne Salaam, mother of defendant Yusef, doesn’t believe that. “I don’t know what happened in the interrogation room,” she says. Video cameras “would have helped” get to the truth.