On a September morning in 2008, Wilhelmina Hicks found her four-month old son Matthew unconscious. The boy died at the hospital and doctors concluded that he had suffered blunt force trauma. Troy, New York police officers brought Matthew’s father, Adrian Thomas, in for questioning that same day.
The interrogation lasted more than nine hours and by the end Thomas had confessed to causing the infant’s head injury, even acting out the motions for the officers. Prosecutors charged Thomas for the murder and showed video of the confession at trial. The jury convicted him and he was sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison.
To get Thomas to confess, however, officers had told him a series of lies. On Thursday, New York state’s highest court ruled that police had coerced Thomas into an “involuntary” confession. In a unanimous ruling, the Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and ordered a retrial.
“The various misrepresentations and false assurances used to elicit and shape defendant’s admissions manifestly raised a substantial risk of false incrimination,” Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman wrote for the court.
During the interrogation, Troy Police Sergeant Adam Mason and other officers continually assured Thomas that the injury appeared to have been an accident and that he was not in trouble. They told him his wife would be arrested if he did not admit responsibility. They told him his son was still alive and could be saved only if doctors knew how he was injured.
Mason said to Thomas:
You better find that memory right now, Adrian. You’ve got to find that memory. This is important for your son’s life man. You know what happens when you find that memory? Maybe if we get this information, okay, maybe he’s able to save your son’s life. Maybe your wife forgives you for what happened. Maybe your family lives happier ever after. But you know what, if you can’t find that memory and those doctors can’t save your son’s life, then what kind of future are you going to have? Where’s it going to go? What’s going to happen if Matthew dies in that hospital tonight, man?
Several hours into the interrogation, Thomas admitted that “about 10 or 15 days before, he accidentally dropped Matthew five or six inches into his crib and Matthew hit his head ‘pretty hard.'”
Over the course of the nine and a half hours, according to the court, Thomas “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.”
Near the end, Mason was coaching Thomas through a re-enactment of the alleged crime, telling him to throw down a clipboard the way he threw down the baby:
MASON: Move that chair out of the way. Here hold that like you hold the baby. Turn around, look at me. Now here’s the bed right here,all right. Now like I said, the doctor said that this injury is consistent with a 60 mile per hour vehicle crash, all right, all right. That means it was a very severe acceleration. It means he was going fast and stopped suddenly, all right, so think about that. Don’t try to downplay this and make like its not as severe as it is. Because [we] both know now you are finally starting to be honest, okay, all right. Maybe this other stuff you said is the truth.
THOMAS: That is.
MASON: For what the information that I need to know we both know now you are starting to finally be honest with that, all right. Hold that like you hold that baby, okay and start thinking about them negative things that your wife said to you, all right, start thinking about them kids crying all day and all night in your ear, your mother-in-law nagging you and your wife calling you a loser, all right, and let that aggression build up and show me how you threw Matthew on you bed, all right. Don’t try to sugar coat it and make it like it wasn’t that bad. Show me how hard you threw him on that bed.
The court did not use this case to prohibit any specific interrogation techniques. It assessed the sum of the police conduct, the accumulation of misleading statements that pushed Thomas to confess. The court did, however, highlight that the officers’ straight-up lying was the root of the problem.
“Most prominent among the totality of the circumstances in this case, is the set of highly coercive deceptions,” Lippman wrote. “They 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.”
Prosecutors will not be allowed to use Thomas’s confession in the retrial.
Next: the text of the court’s decision.
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