New Trial Ordered for Suspect Tricked Into Confessing

, New York Law Journal

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Adrian Thomas in the interrogation room of the Troy police station
Still from the documentary "Scenes of a Crime" shows Adrian Thomas in the interrogation room of the Troy, N.Y. police station on Sept. 21, 2008.

ALBANY - The Court of Appeals on Thursday overturned a homicide conviction in a case where police used deception and subterfuge to trick an upstate man into confessing to the murder of his 4-month-old baby.

In a unanimous decision, the court said the sheer volume of the deceptive techniques used by Troy police to obtain a confession from Adrian Thomas overwhelmed the defendant's free will and rendered his statement involuntary. The court suppressed the statement and granted the defendant a new trial.

"The choice to speak where speech may incriminate is constitutionally that of the individual, not the government, and the government may not effectively eliminate it by any coercive device," Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman (See Profile) wrote for the court. "What transpired during defendant's interrogation was not consonant with and, indeed, completely undermined, defendant's right not to incriminate himself—to remain silent."

Police interrogated Thomas for 9 1/2 hours, playing good cop/bad cop, repeatedly promising him that he would not be arrested, falsely claiming that his wife had implicated him, threatening to arrest his wife, misleading him into thinking that his son's life could be saved if he provided information and finally suggesting to him how a 500-pound man could "accidentally" injure his 15-pound child.

Lippman said the "highly coercive deceptions" were "of a kind sufficiently potent to nullify individual judgment in any ordinarily resolute person and were manifestly lethal to self-determination when deployed against defendant, an unsophisticated individual without experience in the criminal justice system."

The ruling overturns the Appellate Division, Third Department, which had unanimously affirmed Thomas' conviction.

People v. Thomas, 18, was one of two appeals in which the court was asked to determine the point at which police deception—a law enforcement tool that the court has sanctioned for nearly 150 years—is so psychologically coercive as to render a confession involuntary and therefore unconstitutional.

In the other matter, People v. Aveni, 19, the Appellate Division, Second Department had overturned a Westchester County homicide conviction because police had lied to and tricked the defendant into confessing. The high court dismissed the appeal on technical grounds, allowing the Second Department ruling to stand.

The District Attorney's Association of the State of New York appeared amicus curiae in support of the prosecution in both the Thomas and Aveni cases.

But the Thomas case generated a plethora of amici in support of the defendant—the New York City Bar, American Psychological Association, Legal Aid Society and New York Law School Post Conviction Innocence Clinic all submitted briefs in support of Thomas—and inspired an award-winning documentary, "Scenes of a Crime."

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