Dodgy confessions and the ‘rape threat’
Published Thursday, 13-May-2004 in issue 855
by Robert DeKoven
The murder of Stephanie Crowe in Escondido has made headlines for the last five years. Former District Attorney Paul Pfingst initially charged Stephanie’s brother, Michael, and two of his friends with the murder. A stunned nation watched as police interrogators produced confessions from the three teens.
Now, five years later during the recent trial of Richard Tuite, we learn how police were able to extract those confessions, which a Superior Court judge tossed out. Boys may confess after interrogators tell them they are going to prison, where, because of their youthfulness, good looks, size and race, they will be gang raped, sexually enslaved and, perhaps, murdered.
One of the boys charged with Stephanie’s murder, Joshua Treadway, testified that one of the reasons he confessed to Stephanie’s murder was because Detective Ralph Claytor “graphically described what prison was like for a 15-year-old. He illustrated this prison society where the strong oppress the weak, where there all types of physical and sexual slavery, beatings and rapes, and people are sold for cartons of cigarettes.”
Claytor denied telling Treadway what prison life is like.
Prison rape is real. That’s why Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003. Congressional findings indicated that at least 25 percent of prison inmates report sexual coercion, and around 12 percent reported being raped. (Sexual assault in women’s prisons – woman on woman – is more myth. Virtually all sexual assaults in women’s facilities are male guards attacking women.) But police interrogators shouldn’t use prison rape as a threat to extract a confession. By raising the specter of prison rape in an interrogation, the police are intimating that if the suspect doesn’t cooperate and confess, he’s likely headed to a prison, where police will ensure he’s housed with rapists.
I think that’s called extortion.
Take kids to prisons, show them shows like ‘Oz’ and ‘Scared Straight’ and let ex-cons talk about life in prison. But don’t do this during police interrogations.
But police argue that they should tell suspects about prison life, so they know the consequences of their actions. Yes, but not in the context of an interrogation – especially with juveniles. Take kids to prisons, show them shows like “Oz” and “Scared Straight” and let ex-cons talk about life in prison. But don’t do this during police interrogations. Police interrogations are inherently coercive, even without the threat of physical force.
First, interrogators lie by suggesting that they have proof of the suspect’s guilt. In the Crowe case, interrogators told each that the other implicated him in the murder. (How “NYPD Blue”.) Then, one of the interrogators plays good guy and tells the suspect what will happen if the suspect goes to prison. In the Tuite case, Joshua Treadway testified that an interrogator told him boys like him would become someone’s punk, and traded out for sex, often for cigarettes. One wonders if the interrogators have “Bubba” present during the interrogation.
The Bill of Rights prohibits the use of coerced confessions. That’s the idea behind the Fifth Amendment’s privilege against self-incrimination. It’s also the idea behind the right to counsel at police interrogations. Every lawyer tells clients not to talk to police without a lawyer’s presence, especially after arrest and during an interrogation.
The reality is that our legal system is an adversary system. We teach police to interrogate suspects to produce evidence for trials. Confessions are nice. But our legal history is replete with examples of coerced confessions just like the one in the Crowe case.
Innocent people, and some not-so-innocent people, end up making admissions and incriminating themselves into crimes they may not have committed. In the past, suspects admitted to crimes after police used physical abuse – even torture. But the Supreme Court held that those were unreliable and violated due process. Yet the court has allowed police lots of leeway with regard to psychological coercion. And police know nothing scares young men more, especially first-time arrestees, than rape.
San Diego Superior Court judges who reviewed the “taped confessions” in the Crowe case concluded that the boys’ confessions were tainted by psychological coercion. This was without testimony of the “rape threat”.
Times have changed since those interrogations took place. The voters ousted the district attorney, largely for his handling of the Crowe case. The Crowe family has sued the police involved in the interrogation. The voters elected Bonnie Dumanis because she promised fairness in the handling of cases. Dumanis can make clear to police that discussion of jail and prison rape in the context of a police interrogation is unacceptable.
Robert DeKoven is a professor at California Western School of Law.

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