By Seth McLaughlin
Journal Springfield Bureau
SPRINGFIELD -- For years, cops, attorneys and lawmakers have squabbled over whether videotaping murder interrogations helps or hampers the state's criminal justice system.
But emerging cases of alleged crooked police interrogation tactics may motivate the General Assembly to approve a measure this spring.
Aaron Patterson, one of the four death row inmates completely pardoned by former Gov. George Ryan, said Chicago police coerced his 1986 confession by threatening him with a gun, beating him, and trying to suffocate him with a plastic typewriter cover to force a false confession in the killings of a South Side Chicago couple.
"I never confessed,'' Patterson, 38, said. "Alls I said was 'whatever you say. That's my confession. If you say so.' ''
The case has helped spark legislative action.
Rep. Monique Davis, D-Chicago, and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Chicago, are spearheading efforts to require law enforcement officials to videotape interrogations and confessions of suspects in homicide cases and certain sex crimes.
"We know that in the state of Illinois 16 or 17 people have been released from death row,'' Davis said. "One of the remedies (is) to videotape confessions in capital offenses to eliminate some of those erroneous convictions for those where people are incarcerated 15, 20 and 25 years only to be found later that they were innocent ... That is the purpose of this legislation, to halt or prevent those kinds of instances.''
If his interrogation had been videotaped there is "no doubt'' he would not have been wrongly convicted, Patterson said.
Bill backers say the measure would help eliminate coercion claims and prevent a suspect's rights from being violated.
Most law enforcement organizations argue that the state should pick up the tab for the additional costs of purchasing video equipment and in some cases building interrogation rooms.
"I would challenge the Legislature that if you want this program, and I think it is a good program, then fund it,'' said Laimutis Nargelenas, lobbyist for the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.
Revamping facilities to include interrogation rooms and buying video equipment carries a price tag of $13.4 million, according to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.
Law enforcement organizations also say that the legislation could leave too many legal loopholes, and bog down investigations. They want the legislators to slash a continual recording provision in the bill, and tack on practical exceptions, such as allowing spontaneous confessions that may occur when the equipment is not available.
"We are not opposed to a videotaping bill as long as the kinks are taken out,'' Nargelenas said.
Kankakee Police Chief Mike Kinkade, who has used videotaped interrogations since 1996, said he understands the association's concerns.
"You just can't videotape all confessions,'' Kinkade said. "It's just not practical in all occasions, but I think it should be encouraged to use it, because it is the best evidence.''
Kinkade said he was wary when he began videotaping interrogations because he feared it could be a speed bump in some investigations.
"Initially there is apprehension,'' Kinkade said. "I had apprehension in '96. But once we got used to it we realized it did not hinder us.''
Kankakee State's Attorney Ed Smith said that taping the questioning process helps protect the rights of the suspect and helps shield police and prosecutors from coercion charges that can persuade juries into tossing out a case.
"We are satisfied that entire interrogations actually assist police and attorneys in getting convictions,'' Smith said. "I feel it facilitates the plea bargain process.''
In Minnesota, where the Supreme Court mandated police interrogations of all people who were in custody, Hennepin County Prosecutor Amy Klobuchar said that most law enforcement officials, judges and attorneys support the videotaping of custodial interrogations.
"Most important for us is jurors are able to see the defendant right after the crime is committed and they are able to get a better sense of the defendant a short time after the crime,'' Klobuchar, who oversees prosecutions in Minneapolis and 35 surrounding suburbs, said.
Plus, most police brutality claims are quashed because the jury can watch the interrogation and judge the merit of the claim, she said.
Videotaping interrogations also gives the criminal justice system added credibility, Klobuchar said.
"At times when trust has broken down time to time in the system this really helps,'' she said.
Ironically, on a few occasions officials have been able to gain confessions when they were not even in the room. One man claimed he could not have committed a murder because he was blind. But once officials left the room he pulled out some papers from his pocket and started reading them, she said.
On another occasion, while police were out of the room, a man said aloud that there was blood on his shoe. The blood matched that of the murder victim.