Coerced Confession an Issue in New York Retrial of Man Charged With Mυrder

by / June 3, 2014 Black News 17 Comments

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By Andrew Scot Bolsinger

For the second time Adrian Thomas’ life hangs in the balance of the Adrian Thomascourtroom drama taking place in upstate New York. But on trial with him this time is police conduct that resulted in a court of appeals win for Thomas and an award-winning documentary about the interrogation.

Thomas’ first trial ended in a conviction for the mυrder of his four-month-old son. Following a harrowing nine-hour interrogation that included dozens of lies and threαts by police, Thomas confessed to throwing his son down in the crib hard enough to kιll him. Video shown to the jurors in the 2009 trial showed Thomas throwing down a book to simulate how hard he threw his son on the bed the night he dιed.

It seemed open and shut and Thomas was sentenced to a 25-years-to-life sentence.

But in February the New York Court of Appeals tossed out the conviction and ordered this second trial.

Chief Justice Jonathan Lippman ruled police “completely undermined” Thomas’ right to remain silent and that they used “highly coercive deceptions.”

“Detectives falsely told Thomas more than 60 times that the severe head injuries to his son Matthew that caused brain swelling were accidental,” reporter Bob Gardinier wrote. “They also told Thomas that if he explained what happened, he would not be arrested and could go home, which was not true.”

Further, they threαtened to arrest Thomas’ then-wife, Wilehlmina Hicks, if Thomas did not confess. Thomas repeatedly said he didn’t do it.

“Throughout the course of the interrogation, they told Thomas 67 times that they were sure it was an accident, 14 times that he would not be arrested, and eight times that he would be going home if he simply confessed,” Criminal Justice reform advocate Hannah Riley wrote. “At one point in the interrogation, a detective told him, ‘You want to save your son’s life, man?  Why are you holding out on me?’”

Eventually, he confessed.

Now Thomas is again in the spotlight in a trial that headed into its second week on Monday. The coerced confession that forms the central plot of the documentary, Scenes of a Crime, won’t be spoken of in front of the new jury who will decide whether he spent the past six years behind bars wrongly convicted or whether he’ll go back to spend the rest of his days incarcerated.

Opening arguments last week showed the different strategies both sides plan to use. Prosecution focused on Thomas’ character – a negligent and disinterested father who was unemployed but still took little interest in his kids and step-children – and the testimony of a former cellmate of Thomas’ back in 2009 who says Thomas confessed.

Defense attorney Stephen Coffey, who took on the case from retired Rensselaer County Public Defender Jerome Frost, said the case is a simple matter of science, which shows that Thomas’ son didn’t die of traυma but of sepsis he was likely born with.

“Examiner writes in autopsy that Matthew died of traυma. You know what he leaves out? ‘Cause of Death – Contributing Factor – Sepsis,” Attorney Steven Coffey said in his opening arguments according to tweets by Geoff Redick of Time Warner Cable news.

Coffey stressed that sepsis, not murder nor neglect, kιlled Matthew Thomas, stressing that nobody ever caught sepsis through traυma.

Thomas’ character flaws were on display in the opening days of the case, when his step-daughter and ex-wife testified for the prosecution. His step-daughter said she was often left to care for the twins even though she was only nine years old at the time. When she left the stand, she broke out crying screaming obscenities at Thomas.

Hicks testified that she was the only one working in the home at the time of her son’s deαth. She also testified that Thomas did not see his twin sons the first month of their life when they were still in the hospital, according to published reports.

Coffey has done little to counter these personality attacks, but did oppose the prosecution’s announcement that it would call William Terry, Thomas’ former cellmate.

Coffey did not return requests for comment.

The Facebook page for Scenes of Crime, which is posting updates throughout the trial, posted about the surprise strategy.

“ADA Christa Book surprised the court during the Adrian Thomas trial on Wednesday, just before opening arguments. She described ‘re-discovering’ on Monday a letter written more than 5 years ago from a cellmate of Adrian Thomas, who claimed Thomas confessed to murdering his son. She asked Judge Andrew Ceresia to allow the surprise informant, William Terry, to testify for the prosecution. Over the objections of the defense, this morning, Judge Ceresia agreed,” the post read.

Despite the obvious interest in the case, co-creator of the film, Grover Babcock said he needed to stay silent for now.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to discuss the film or the case at the moment,” he said.

The new testimony caused a stir among criminal-justice reform advocates following the case. Few were buying Book’s sudden recall of Terry’s letter while questioning the testimony now that Thomas’ own coerced confession has been ruled out.

“The Innocence Project points out that more than 15% of demonstrated wrongful convictions in its DNA exoneration project involve informants, oftentimes ‘jailhouse snitches,’ seeking favors in exchange for testimony,” was posted on the Scenes of a Crime Facebook page.

Scenes of a Crime has been hailed by the American Bar Association. The New York Times review wrote, “This smart, cool-headed film, which has a ‘Rashomon’-like vision of the case, presents a disturbing picture of courtroom justice.”

Regardless of the outcome of Thomas’ new trial, the issue of police conduct will continue to be reviewed by the state’s courts.

The state has begun to consider what the standard for police conduct in interrogations should be. According to an Associated Press brief, the court will soon rule about the conduct of police in Thomas’ case and another New York case where similar tactics were used and where the conviction was tossed out on appeal.

“The question is whether that’s so deceptive that it amounts to coercion and therefore disqualifies any incriminating statements from a suspect that follow,” the AP reported.

As Riley pointed out the high court’s ruling in Thomas’ case still gave police “the green light to lie while interrogating a suspect.” The issue is when do the lies go too far.

“What we are learning — and what these recent rulings are corroborating — is that it may be impossible to be confident in the reliability of a police-induced confession statement unless the details of the statement can be independently corroborated,” Riley wrote.

Thomas’ trial resumed on Monday.

Andrew Scot Bolsinger won more than two dozen press awards during his journalism career. He is a freelance writer, author and operates www.criminalu.co, which is focused on prison reform. He can reached at Andrew.Bolsinger@gmail.com and can be followed @CriminalUniv on Twitter.


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