New law requires Colorado police to record interrogations

About one quarter of wrongful convictions stem from false confessions.

We at The Independent have reported on several cases in Colorado and elsewhere in which police have coerced statements from criminal suspects. Often, these suspects are developmentally disabled, highly suggestible and all too easy to push around – especially when law enforcement is under pressure to “solve” a crime.

Now there’s a fix.

Gov. John Hickenlooper has signed into law a measure requiring all Colorado law enforcement agencies to electronically record interrogations in certain felony cases. Such recordings are a known and proven safeguard against wrongful convictions stemming from false confessions.

“This law will not only protect the innocent, it will strengthen good cases against the real perpetrators of crimes. This is a big win for all Coloradans,” said Amshula Jayaram, state policy advocate for the Innocence Project which, nationwide, has either helped secure or documented 342 wrongful convictions proven by DNA evidence.

The new law, signed Friday, comes a year after Colorado enacted another innocence reform measure to reduce eyewitness misidentification – also a major factor leading to wrongful convictions. It requires more stringent identification procedures that offer protections against racial bias and faulty memory.

Both policies are the result of the Colorado Best Practices Committee, a two-year-old coalition of prosecutors, defense attorneys and Innocence Project policy advocates.

Several law enforcement agencies, including Denver Police, say they already record police interrogations. One of the reasons, says Jonathyn Priest, a former lieutenant with that department, is to protect “against any unjustified claims of police coercion.”

An especially noteworthy case of coerced interrogations involved Tyler Sanchez, a hearing impaired and cognitively delayed teen accused in 2009 of breaking into the bedroom of an 8-year-old girl and groping her in her Arapahoe County track home. Sanchez didn’t match the description of the perpetrator, and somebody else’s DNA was found on the girl’s panties. The only evidence against him was a short statement he gave as investigators wore him down over 38 hours with little food or sleep.

Sanchez was cleared of charges three years later.

Said his lawyer, Iris Eytan: “If not for Tyler Sanchez’s interrogation being recorded, he would not have been exonerated.”

Photo credit: DRs Kulturarvsprojekt, Creative Commons, Flickr

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