Robert Gonzales of Albuquerque, New Mexico is a lucky man. Robert, who is mentally retarded, was locked up for nearly three years, having confessed to raping and killing a young girl in 2005. Then came a cold hit on CODIS, identifying the rapist and killer -- Israel Diaz. When the cops and prosecutor could find no link between Robert and Diaz, the capital murder and rape charges were dismissed--with the prosecutor continuing to insist that Robert's confession is "credible" and they're keeping the door open to re-charging. So, yes, Robert is lucky. Without the CODIS cold hit, he would have been fast-tracked to Death Row.
Instead, a mirror has been held up to Albuquerque's criminal legal system. The local newspaper, the Albquerque Journal, and Jeff Buckels of the New Mexico Public Defender Department, are doing their parts to get everyone to take a long, uncomfortable look.
Wednesday, July 02, 2008
APD, DA Must Answer Some Hard Question
It's a case ripped right from the pages of John Grisham's “An Innocent Man.” A mentally retarded young man confesses to the brutal Halloween rape and murder of a young girl. More than 60 pieces of evidence point to someone other than him. But cops and prosecutors charge ahead, and the guy with the IQ below 65 spends more than two years in jail, afraid and awaiting trial — until a national DNA database links another man to the crime.
It's sickening such an injustice was done to 22-year-old Robert Gonzales. It's terrifying he could have been wrongly convicted. It's maddening the man now tied to the crime by physical evidence might never have faced prosecution. But all are outweighed by Albuquerque police and prosecutors' apparent blind, nightmarish determination to stick to a script of least resistance rather than search for real justice.
The Albuquerque Police Department questioned Gonzales for more than two hours. They used the same interrogation techniques they would have used on a career criminal or a nuclear physicist. They ignored two of their own officers who said 11-year-old Victoria Sandoval wasn't even at a local pool on the day in 2005 where she reportedly met him.
The Bernalillo County District Attorney's Office prosecuted Gonzales for more than two years, despite a pile of physical evidence pointing to anyone but him, conflicting opinions on his competency to stand trial and his confession being thrown out as unconstitutional. In fact, District Attorney Kari Brandenburg says Gonzales could still be prosecuted: “We still believe there are many credible parts of that confession, but we can't find anything linking Gonzales to (Israel Diaz, a 20-year-old Mexican national who came up a match with DNA evidence from the murder scene). ... we're not closing the door 100 percent.”
Brandenburg may be right that early on it was “a situation where everyone was doing the best job they could with the information they had.” But that stopped being the case long before the 60th piece of evidence excluded Gonzales. Richard Leo, a University of San Francisco School of Law professor, reviewed the transcript of Gonzales' interrogations. “This was like leading a child, the person was so suggestible,” he says. “I had in my notes that it looked like he was ... easily led ... into accepting responsibility because he was eager to please.”
Jeff Buckels, Gonzales' lawyer and director of the capital crimes unit of the New Mexico Public Defender Office, says “sometimes people confess to things they didn't do. And people with vulnerabilities, like people with mental retardation, are more likely to.”
Steve Drizin, legal director of the Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions, says juveniles and people with mental retardation are more highly suggestible and eager to please. “You have a classic double whammy in the case of Robert Gonzales. Police officers aren't trained to interrogate juveniles or people with mental retardation any differently from the rest of the population.”
That makes them easy pickin's for trained interrogators. And perhaps behind bars, as well, where Gonzales was from Nov. 1, 2005, until June 27, save for the time he was being evaluated at a psychiatric hospital. He remained in jail two weeks after Diaz was charged in Sandoval's death.
Thirty-two months is a long time for an innocent man — and he is presumed innocent until proven otherwise — to spend behind bars. This case cries out for review of how police interrogate suspects, especially the young and mentally retarded. The public must have confidence the system is searching for justice, not just churning out a story in which a vulnerable suspect becomes a vulnerable victim.
APD Must 'fess Up, Revise Interrogation Procedures
By Jeff Buckels
New Mexico Public Defender Department
Journal readers can't have missed Saturday's front-page story about how DNA evidence cleared my client Robert Gonzales of murder after two and a half years in jail. And you can't have missed that Robert confessed to the murder at the time.
It was a false confession, and it's not that rare. Nearly a fourth of 218 DNA exonerations documented by the national Innocence Project have involved false confessions.
Police use sophisticated techniques to get confessions. They start by putting the suspect off-guard with friendly chitchat, visiting about the suspect's school, family, favorite TV shows.
Having established that they are the suspect's pal, interrogators put the confession machinery in gear. They accuse the suspect of the crime and refuse to credit his denials. To make resistance seem pointless, they exaggerate or simply lie about the evidence they already have (“You were seen with the victim!”). In virtually every case of false confession involving compliant suspects, the interrogators minimize the suspect's blameworthiness (“I'd have done the same thing!”) and offer face-saving excuses which seem to promise leniency (“We know you were provoked!”). If the suspect still resists, they tell him that confessing is the only way to make the interrogation ordeal come to an end (“You've got to help us if you want to get this over with!”). If he still resists, the interrogators say he's wrong, and insist again and again that the only way to make the ordeal end is to get it right.
These techniques and others are mixed and repeated over and over, for hours if necessary. Every one was used on Robert Gonzales, who stopped resisting and confessed to a murder he didn't commit.
I expect this reaction from many readers: “If I were accused of a crime I didn't commit, nothing, except maybe torture, would make me confess.” I don't doubt it. But while you are enjoying your morning coffee and newspaper, consider whether you are not different from Robert Gonzales in at least two important ways.
First, you are not unusually vulnerable to manipulation and suggestion. Even persons of normal and high intelligence have succumbed to the interrogator's bag of tricks. Retarded and youthful suspects are like putty in a trained interrogator's hands.
Second, you have not been arrested, shackled and stuffed in the back seat of a police car. You are not surrounded by armed police in an interrogation room. Your mug shot will not be on the six o'clock news. You are not scared out of your wits. You are not easy pickings.
Robert Gonzales was. And it took a double-whammy of DNA evidence to stop what interrogation procedure and a false confession started.
More than two years ago, the police learned that scores of scientific tests — DNA evidence, fingerprints, hair samples, fiber evidence — had failed to place Robert at the scene of the crime or connect him to the victim in any way. The DNA pointed consistently to a single unknown person — not Robert. But in the teeth of the scientific evidence, the prosecution pushed on, relying on Robert's “confession” alone.
Two weeks ago, the other shoe fell. The DNA taken from the victim matched a prisoner at the federal lockdown outside Estancia. Then and only then did the prosecution throw in the towel.
I am not writing to vent or to celebrate (“All's well that ends well!”). I am writing to call attention to police policy and training — or rather the lack of it.
The two senior APD officers who interrogated Robert Gonzales knew they were dealing with a suspect who was young and probably retarded in some degree. He told them he was in special education classes in school. Yet they admitted in pretrial interviews and under oath at a hearing that they didn't even consider handling Robert's interrogation differently than any other. The fact is, APD had provided them with no training in interrogating developmentally disabled suspects.
Such training and policies exist and are in effect in other police departments. This specialized training helps officers recognize suspects who are retarded and requires them to make sure the suspects really do understand Miranda warnings. They are to curtail the usual tricks to elicit confessions, treat confessions skeptically, and do double duty corroborating such confessions before committing to prosecution.
Maybe if procedures like this had been in place at APD when Robert Gonzales was arrested, Robert wouldn't have given a false confession or maybe the police wouldn't have believed it. Failing that, maybe they would have gotten the message when the DNA evidence came in over two years ago and pointed to somebody else. This would have saved the prosecuting authorities, the court system and the taxpayers a lot of time, trouble and money.
And it would have saved a vulnerable young man from serving thirty-two months in jail for a horrific crime he did not commit.
Jeff Buckels is the supervising attorney of the Capital Crimes Unit of the Public Defender Department.