Stone Argues for Recording Criminal Confessions

A Sure Way to Improve Criminal Justice: Record Confessions

In 2003, following an exposé of several questionable "confessions" obtained by Illinois police which resulted in murder convictions and in some cases death sentences for persons who were later exonerated, legislation was proposed in the Illinois legislature to require custodial interrogations in homicide investigations to be electronically recorded. Barack Obama, then a little-known member of the Illinois Senate, took the lead in negotiating with members of the law enforcement community who opposed electronic recording.

After lengthy give and take, Illinois enacted a law requiring that custodial interrogations of individuals suspected of murder must be recorded from beginning to end. This was the first law of its kind in this country. Now, ten years later, legislation and court rules provide for electronic recording of custodial interviews in Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, and Wisconsin. Other state legislatures and supreme courts are considering adopting similar laws. And exercising sound judgment, many police and sheriff departments throughout the nation now electronically record custodial interviews even when they are not legally required to do so.

The particular requirements vary somewhat from state to state. There are differences, for example, as to which suspected felonies trigger the recording requirement, what exigent circumstances can excuse non-recording, whether the recording must be audio or video, and whether a violation of the requirement mandates the presumed inadmissibility of the confession or merely a cautionary jury instruction. Although there may be one, uniform, ideal approach to these questions, there are also reasonable arguments to support the different approaches taken in various states.

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