Why we must care about police conduct

from the Robert Tanenbaum Website

Echos of My Soul by Robert K. Tanenbaum should be required reading for every American. Why?  Because this case is exactly why there are activist groups challenging prosecutions and convictions.

Few Americans have any concept of how easy it is for the police to extract a false confession. In the case detailed in this book, it isn’t even that the police were corruptly attempting to pin a murder on a young black adult man, George Whitmore, Jr. with an IQ below 70.  The police were so zealous, so intent, and so wiling to believe he was THE ONE that they made him THE ONE.

from the New York Times

We tend to forget that by going after the innocent and fixating on an easy target that we let the person who actually committed the crimes run free and commit more. George Whitmore Jr.’s mistake was in talking to a police officer, telling him that he saw the police chasing the actual murderer, and then telling the officer where that man went.  There is a reason many people in crime-ridden neighborhoods are afraid to talk with the police, and being targeted while innocent is one of them.

Anyone who is not a cop is at a decided disadvantage in a police interrogation.  I have worked hand in glove with the cops and I appreciate the good they do and the tough situations they face.  That being said, if I were on the receiving end of questioning by the police I’d be apprehensive and looking for a lawyer ASAP.

If arrested, or even taken in for questioning, the best thing to do is to refuse to speak with the police until you have a lawyer present. Then remember that each time you say something to the police that you have to invoke your right to remain silent and to have an attorney present all over again. It isn’t easy to do.  Police detectives are the masters of silence.  People want to fill in the silences and they also think that if they can just talk long enough and explain enough and attempt to please the officer enough that everything will be okay.  Rarely is it okay if you’re cooling your heels downtown.

In particular, individuals with a low IQ, people who are deaf – as well as those who are not native English speakers, people who are mentally ill, people who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol – and more – are all vulnerable.  Long interrogations which result in sleep deprivation, and deprivation of food and water, as well as physical and mental abuse can lead to false confessions. Even the questions that are asked and the accusations which are made can lead to false confessions.  It can’t be said too often that the police are allowed to lie to the suspect about evidence they do not have, confessions of alleged co-defendants that never took place, and so on and so forth.

There are too many innocent people in the criminal justice system, in jails, in prisons, on probation, on parole.  There are a lot of folks who have made false confessions or plead out because they felt they had no other option, even though they were innocent of the crime with which they were charged.  And when we take the innocent it means that the person who is actually guilty is still out there.

If juries had any idea how much exculpatory evidence is suppressed they’d be stunned.  That’s right – not all evidence comes in.  Evidence on both sides can and is excluded for a variety of reasons from rape shield laws protecting rape victims to being too inflammatory.  Having sat in on criminal trials and hearing exculpatory evidence being excluded is chilling. How can the jury get it right if there is documentation that the witness lied or that the evidence is not what it seems to be?  However, the tendency of the jury to automatically decide the defendant must be guilty or the case would never have gotten this far tends to make me wonder if exculpatory evidence would be ignored anyway unless it was overwhelming in nature.

In America we talk a good game about defendants being considered innocent until proven guilty, but in a media driven society – more so now than ever – many people are tried and convicted before they ever get to a courtroom. Most Americans who sit on juries figure that if the system has gotten that far the person MUST be guilty… right?  And, admittedly, sometimes the only real question facing a jury is just what level of crime the individual committed when the prosecution and the defense cannot agree to a plea bargain.

Felix Garcia was a vulnerable person snared into the criminal justice system.This is why people who cannot understand the consequences of their statements should not be making them.  This is why we must provide a high standard for accepting statements. And while I understand how staggeringly overworked the prosecution is these days, we can’t afford to have standards lower than that of the legendary District Attorney Frank Hogan or Assistant District Attorney Mel Glass.

I am not saying that individuals with low IQ’s, with literacy or language deprivation, etc. can never be guilty of a crime.  Certainly, everyone has a breaking point and can do something wrong.  However, it is also true that not everyone is guilty of the crime they’ve been convicted of nor do some people understand the ramifications of their actions.

Studies  indicate that our prisons are now warehouses for the cognitively impaired, the mentally ill, the deaf, and other groups who are particularly vulnerable.  Prisons are not suitable places to house those groups.  If an impaired prisoner is actually guilty, there needs to be another form of confinement where the prisoner is provided with rehabilitative care while protecting the community. A psychotic who hears voices needs to be in a controlled medical/psychiatric environment, not a general prison population. A deaf person who is neither literate in English nor fluent in ASL needs habilitation to the point they can participate in their own defense and not railroaded into prison.

Take the challenge. Read the book. Get a look at how wrong it all can go. Then look me in the eye and tell me why you think that we should let Texas continue to execute people who are seriously “mentally retarded” by manipulating what mental retardation (cognitively impaired) means.  Have a conversation with yourself, your higher power/God, your neighbors, your friends.  What if this were you, your son, your brother, your friend? Could never happen to you?  Don’t be so sure.

Articles on George Whitmore, Jr.


The Career Girl Murders – Crime Library 

The Innocence Project 

The Boston Globe