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.

Rather than focusing on whether the deceptions were likely to result in a bogus confession, as had the Third Department, the Court of Appeals stressed that a coerced statement is inadmissible whether it is true or false. Further, the court observed, "there is not a single inculpatory fact in defendant's confession that was not suggested to him" by police.

Lippman was joined by judges Smith, Victoria Graffeo (See Profile), Susan Phillips Read (See Profile), Eugene Pigott (See Profile), Jenny Rivera (See Profile) and Sheila Abdus-Salaam (See Profile).

The court did not decide whether Ofshe should have been permitted to testify on psychological coercion. Lippman said that with the confession suppressed, there was no need to address that issue.

Jerome Frost, the former Rensselaer County public defender, represented Thomas at trial and at both appeals along with Ingrid Effman of Troy. Frost said that without the confession, "they don't have a case."

"There is no evidence outside the confession that will even indicate that a crime occurred," Frost said, adding that he had hoped the court would adopt a bright-line rule. "The D.A. should do the right thing here and admit they don't have a legally sufficient case."

The prosecution was represented by Rensselaer County Assistant District Attorney Kelly Egan. Acting Rensselaer County District Attorney Arthur Glass,  who prosecuted Thomas at trial along with Assistant District Attorney Krista Book, said he expects to retry the case without the confession. Given the aggressive questioning Egan endured in arguing the appeal, and the comments from the bench, Glass said he was not surprised by the ruling. At first glance, he said, the decision appears case-specific and does not appear to establish any new law.

"I don't know if it helps or hinders police, other than reminding them to be very cautious," Glass said.

Grover Babcock, who produced the Thomas documentary, "Scenes of a Crime,' with his wife, Blue Hadaegh, said in an email that they were curious as to how police persuade individuals to confess and happened upon the Thomas case, with its nearly 10 hours of video.

"The vivid interrogation video in the Adrian Thomas case allowed us to bring to life the wrenching experience of a long police interrogation, with all of its twists and turns," Babcock said. "It was an instantly riveting experience: we see a young man accused of battering his son to death by police who, as it turns out, were operating on mistaken evidence from doctors. He resists for hours, but finally succumbs, making the audience wonder: Is this how justice should be done?"

"Scenes of a Crime" has been shown nationwide and has accumulated several awards, including one from the American Bar Association (NYLJ, July 23, 2012).

Drug Case

Aveni arose from Westchester County investigation into the death of 25-year-old Angela Camillo, who died in 2009 from a fatal combination of heroin, ecstasy and the anti-anxiety drug Xanax. Police quickly zeroed in on Joseph Aveni, her boyfriend.

Authorities knew, but Aveni did not know, that the woman was dead when they interrogated him, telling him he could save her life if he revealed what drugs she had used and possibly implying that if he did not confess, and the woman died, he would be facing a homicide charge. Aveni confessed and was convicted of criminally negligent homicide. After Supreme Court Justice Richard Molea (See Profile) declined to suppress the statement, Aveni was convicted of all the charges in a trial before Justice Susan Cacace in Westchester County (See Profile).

The Second Department unanimously reversed Aveni's conviction in an opinion by then Justice Ariel Belen (NYLJ, Oct. 18, 2012) seemingly holding police to a higher or different standard than the Third Department had embraced in Thomas.

Pigott granted leave, but over his dissent the Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal. It said in a memorandum that the Second Department's conclusion that Aveni's will was overborne was fact based, and therefore resistant to review by the high court.

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