Police can lie when interrogating suspects, but when the lies become "patently coercive," any confession cannot be used as evidence, New York's highest court ruled Thursday.
The Court of Appeals, ruling unanimously, threw out the murder conviction of 31-year-old Adrian Thomas, whose infant son died with a head injury and infection in 2008, and the court ordered a new trial without the Troy man's purported confession.
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman wrote that Troy investigators' lies became "a set of highly coercive deceptions" as they tried for hours to coax a confession from Thomas.
Investigators told Thomas they would next pick up his wife if he didn't confess to injuring his son. They told him that his child — though already brain dead, which Thomas didn't know — would die if he didn't explain how the boy hit his head, Lippman wrote. They also told Thomas 67 times it was an accident, 14 times that he wouldn't be arrested and eight times that he would be going home.
"It is well established that not all deception of a suspect is coercive, but in extreme forms it may be," Lippman wrote. In Thomas' case, the interrogation "completely undermined" his right to remain silent and not incriminate himself, the judge wrote.
Doctors at the trial disagreed over whether 4-month-old Matthew died from blunt force trauma or sepsis, a whole-body response to infection. Thomas and his wife have six other children. Lippman noted there was no evidence any of them had been abused or neglected.
"It is clear that defendant's agreement to 'take the fall' — an immediate response to the threat against his wife — was pivotal," the court concluded. "Another patently coercive representation," repeated 21 times, "was that disclosure of the circumstances under which he injured his child was essential to assist the doctors attempting to save the child's life."
That may have been a valid waiver of his constitutional right against self-incrimination if it were true, but it wasn't, Lippman wrote.
After four hours into his second interrogation, Thomas said that about 10 or 15 days earlier he accidentally dropped the boy five or six inches into his crib and he'd hit his head pretty hard. After Sgt. Adam Mason insisted it must have been harder, based on what the doctor said, Mason directed him to re-enact the incident, which was captured on the interrogation video.
Thomas has been in Auburn prison since 2009, sentenced to 25 years to life. Messages left for his attorneys were not immediately returned. Messages left for Mason and Rensselaer County prosecutors also were not immediately returned Thursday.
The top court overturned rulings by both the trial judge and the midlevel Appellate Division in Albany.
In a related case, the Court of Appeals upheld a midlevel court in Brooklyn in overturning Paul Aveni's conviction of criminally negligent homicide after concluding police in New Rochelle implicitly threatened him with a homicide charge if his silence about his girlfriend's drug use led to her death. Aveni admitted injecting her with heroin. She had already died from an overdose that night on Jan. 12, 2009.
Judge Eugene Pigott Jr. dissented, concluding the lower court should have reviewed police conduct and the entire case, "as opposed to cherry picking a phrase or two from a comprehensive interrogation."