In one of the Kankakee County sheriff's first attempts at videotaping an interrogation, suspect Christopher Connery was led into a small room. It was bare but for two chairs, a table and a wall thermostat the size of a cigarette pack.
Detectives listened intently to Connery's repeated denials that he had raped and stabbed Melissa Osman to death. By the time investigators left the room to interview another witness, though, Connery appeared to have forgotten something--he had agreed that his interview could be videotaped. A tiny camera was perched behind the thermostat.
Alone in the room, Connery started singing, "Ding, dong, the wicked witch is dead . . . ."
Connery has now taken up lifetime residence at the Pontiac Correctional Center.
For a sheriff's department full of cynics, that marked a conversion to the value of videotaping. Today their basement offices in downtown Kankakee are teeming with converts.
Detectives assert that their community reputation has improved since they started videotaping felony interrogations and confessions in 1996. Serious police brutality challenges have become almost non-existent. Prosecutors rarely lose on a motion to suppress a confession before trial. The police have learned new techniques by watching each other on tape.
Undersheriff Bradley O'Keefe notes another unexpected bonus: The valuable information they learn when the suspect thinks he's alone in the room.
Videotaping interrogations and confessions stood among the major recommendations issued last week by the Governor's Commission on Capital Punishment. The respected panel spent two years meticulously examining the system and issued 85 suggestions to make it better. Videotaping is one of the more controversial proposals, even though the idea has also been endorsed by a state Supreme Court committee that issued an earlier set of reforms.
The states of Minnesota and Alaska require videotaped interrogations and confessions. An increasing number of police departments around the country have adopted it on their own.
So why is it that so many law enforcement officials in Illinois still regard videotaping as a neutron bomb to effective policing? Why do places like Kankakee remain lonely islands of reason in a combative sea?
Mere hours after Monday's press conference to announce the commission's report, spitballs started flying. Why? Because too many cops want to serve and protect the status quo. Because they see it as a knock to their credibility rather than as a tool to help build strong cases while protecting the rights of the accused.
Law enforcement folks have plenty of reasons to worry about credibility, but this isn't one of them. The reasons they should be focused on include Ronald Jones, Corethian Bell, Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez--not to mention the 7- and 8-year-old boys who were wrongly accused of murdering 11-year-old Ryan Harris.
All were Death Row inmates or murder defendants who eventually were released because police took bad confessions from them. That means DNA or someone else's confession exonerated them from the crime they "confessed" to police. Had their interrogations been videotaped, that might have been discovered weeks, rather than months or years, later.
Ronald Jones confessed to murder. But he later claimed at trial that he had been interrogated for eight hours and brought to the crime scene to enhance the detail and accuracy of his statement. A videotape, with a date and time stamp on it, would have resolved that issue years ago.
A Tribune series published in December illustrated that it's not hard to extract a false confession from someone who, like Jones, has a low IQ or who is an alcoholic or a drug addict.
So taping only murder confessions, as is the practice in Cook County, doesn't go far enough. Corethian Bell confessed on videotape that he murdered his mother. But DNA tests later linked someone else to the crime. After 17 months in jail, Bell was released in January. A video of his interrogation leading up to the false confession would have shed light on what happened here.
Another Death Row inmate, Aaron Patterson, for years has maintained he confessed to a crime he did not commit because he was subjected to police torture. Given that he was interrogated by officers working under notorious Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, his claims may have credibility. A videotape would have resolved the issue years ago.
Dozens of excuses, from the picayune to the far-fetched, have been thrown out by police departments terrified by the idea of pulling back the curtain to the interrogation room.