New Trial Ordered for Suspect Tricked Into Confessing
Part of the interest in the Thomas case stems from the fact that the entire interrogation was captured on video, providing an extraordinary window into the tactics used by expert interrogators.
Expert Testimony Barred
Thomas, an unemployed high school dropout with no criminal record and no history of abusing or neglecting his seven young children, was targeted when a doctor at Albany Medical Center Hospital wrongly told police that his sickly child, who was suffering from pneumonia and sepsis when he was brought to the hospital close to death, had a fractured skull. That inaccurate diagnosis instantly put Thomas in the crosshairs of a police investigation.
Troy police, primarily Sergeant Adam Mason, spent portions of two days grilling Thomas, alternating insults and empathy, repeatedly lying to the suspect.
Thomas adamantly insisted he did nothing to harm his child, but began to waiver when Mason threatened to "scoop up" his wife, Wilhelmina Hicks. At that point, Thomas offered to "take the fall" for his wife. But Thomas maintained that he did not know what happened to the baby.
The confession came after Mason, who knew Matthew Thomas was brain dead and would not survive, told the suspect that there was a chance the baby's life could be saved if doctors knew exactly what happened. With Mason's prompting, Thomas then demonstrated how he had roughly thrown the child on a mattress several times.
The confession, which Thomas instantly recanted, became the lynchpin of the prosecution's case.
Although there was medical proof that Matthew had suffered brain trauma consistent with being thrown, that evidence was contradicted by defense experts who said the child's head injury was more likely the result of his fever and illness or the difficult vaginal delivery he had endured a few months earlier.
Rensselaer County Judge Andrew Ceresia (See Profile) refused to allow expert testimony from Richard Ofshe, an expert in psychological coercion, on how police can compel a false confession and why someone would confess to a crime he did not commit. Thomas was convicted of second-degree murder. Ceresia said Ofshe's theories, although presented in several courtrooms around the country, did not meet the Frye standard for admissibility (see Frye v. United States, 293 F. 1013 (1923)).
The Third Department, in an opinion by now retired Justice Edward Spain, approached the case from a traditional perspective: was the police trickery of a sort that would be likely to induce a false confession? Concluding that a father, eager to safe the life of his child, would be unlikely to make up a false story, Spain found it more likely that the deception would yield a true confession than a false one and the court unanimously affirmed Thomas' conviction and 25-year-to-life sentence (NYLJ, March 23, 2012).
Judge Robert Smith (See Profile) granted leave and yesterday the Court of Appeals suppressed the statement and sent the case back for trial.
No Bright-Line Rule
The Court of Appeals did not attempt to establish any bright line rule to delineate the point at which trickery becomes coercive, nor did it back away from its long history of acquiescing to police deception. But here, the court said, police simply went too far.
"Had there been only a few such deceptive assurances, perhaps they might be deemed insufficient to raise a question as to whether defendant's confession had been obtained in violation of due process," Lippman wrote. "This record, however, is replete with false assurances. Defendant was told 67 times that what had been done to his son was an accident, 14 times that he would not be arrested, and 8 times that he would be going home. These representations were, moreover, undeniably instrumental in the extraction of defendant's most damaging admissions."