OPD homicide detectives focus on interrogation, sometimes at expense of other investigation
By Mary Fricker, The Chauncey Bailey Project
Oakland Police Department investigators often rely on interrogation rather than investigation to solve the city’s homicides, the Bailey Project has found.
In a review of 38 controversial murder prosecutions in the past five years – more than 20 percent of the 182 cases filed – the project found a pattern of homicide detectives using the fastest investigation techniques, such as secret interrogations, instead of the most thorough.
Among the issues raised in the cases The Bailey Project reviewed were complaints from suspects and witnesses that their confession or their statement was coerced, that police ignored clues that didn’t fit their theory of the crime and acted like prosecutors instead of investigators, and that police kept people in interrogation rooms for many hours, risking exhaustion, confusion and false confessions.
All of these factors have also become issues in Sgt. Derwin Longmire’s controversial investigation of the 2007 slaying of journalist Chauncey Bailey.
Police vigorously deny coercing anyone, but the only record of what happens in an interrogation room has usually been a few pages of handwritten notes by the homicide detectives and a brief recorded closing statement.
This became an issue in the Bailey slaying case, when suspect Devaughndre Broussard confessed to killing Bailey after detective Longmire let him have six unrecorded minutes alone in an interrogation room with his employer and spiritual adviser Yusuf Bey IV. Broussard later recanted his confession, claiming Bey IV coerced him into confessing.
“Most defense lawyers have stories about cases where they are convinced that their clients have falsely confessed under police interrogation,” said former Alameda County assistant public defender William Locke.
–Understaffed Oakland department behind other cities in solving homicides
–Oakland homicide clearance numbers vary
–OPD homicide detectives focus on interrogation, sometimes at expense of other investigation
–Law enforcement reports and statistics are available on the Internet
– CHARTS: Homicides in California’s largest cities; Oakland homicide detectives’ case loads, wages, overtime
Locke represented the defendant in Oakland’s best known such case, when an Oakland jury in 2000 found Kenneth Cowling not guilty of murdering James Carter. Police notes, recordings, and their testimony in court showed that lead homicide detective Ed Hollomon and his back-up Ersie Joyner III, who is now the department’s homicide chief, kept Dowling, a heroin addict, in an interrogation room 14 hours without treatment, interrogated him after he twice invoked his Miranda right to remain silent and had no evidence against him except his confession, which the judge barred because of the Miranda violations. Then-Assistant Attorney General Jerry Curtis, on loan to Alameda County, prosecuted the bitterly fought case.
Questions about interrogations came up again two years ago when Alameda County deputy district attorneys abruptly dismissed charges in four murder cases within 12 months in part because suspects or key witnesses were shown to have lied during interrogation and there wasn’t enough other evidence to continue.
— In the 2004 slaying of Joe Furch, the prosecutor discovered that a witness — who had persuaded Sgt. Louis Cruz of his reliability by describing the murder scene in great detail, in exchange for release from jail in on an auto theft charge — had been in a Los Angeles jail at the time of the murder. The case was dismissed against the two defendants in August 2005 and February 2006, according to court records.
— In the 2004 slaying of Jondrea Jones, a store video camera proved that the cops had built their case on the detailed testimony of a witness who wasn’t telling the truth, according to the prosecutor and defense attorney. The witness later claimed she lied because there was a warrant out for her arrest in another matter and Longmire implied hewould help her if she told him what he wanted to hear, the prosecutor and public defender said in an interview. The case was dismissed in October 2005.
— A juvenile told Cruz during interrogation that he accompanied his cousin Ramon Sanchez to shoot Antonio Ramirez on 20th Avenue in 2005, court records show. Sanchez was charged with murder. But later, a deputy district attorney discovered that the juvenile had been in custody at the time of the shooting. The case was dismissed in January 2006.
— In August 2006, murder charges against two men were dismissed after a video camera proved that an eyewitness was wrong, according to Assistant District Attorney Rogers. The witness had said he saw the two men kill Lath La earlier that year. But a video camera at the apartment house where one of the men lived later proved he was home at the time of the slaying.
The Oakland Police Department is developing a new interrogation policy that may require homicide detectives to record all interrogations of suspects start to finish, using the video cameras the department has recently installed in its interrogation rooms.
But Assistant Chief Jordan said the policy changes are still under review and he doesn’t know what the final terms of the policy will be or when it may be implemented.
Supporters believe the policy could build trust in the community and protect suspects and detectives from false charges. But for years Oakland homicide detectives have resisted the growing national trend to full recording, saying that even surreptitious taping will leak out to the street and could cause people to stop talking.
Richard Leo, University of San Francisco professor of law and author of the just released book, “Police interrogation and American Justice,” thinks that’s ridiculous.
“If word on the street made any difference, then everyone walking into the interrogation room would walk in and say, ‘I want a lawyer,'” Leo said. Instead, many suspects waive their so-called Miranda rights during questioning by a skilled interrogator.
“I believe Oakland police are creating and perpetuating falsehoods because they don’t want to be scrutinized. In this day and age, that is unprofessional,” Leo said.
Ray Keller, trial staff supervisor for the Alameda County Public Defender, said he knows Bay Area police departments that are so comfortable keeping tape recorders on all the time that he has a recording of an investigator who forgot to turn off the recorder in his pocket while he was standing at a urinal.
Certainly, a recording of Broussard’s six minutes with Bey IV could have been critical evidence in the case.
“If you’re interested in solving crimes and getting at the truth, it’s the solution,” Leo said.
Another common complaint from defense attorneys and public defenders is that sometimes Oakland police believe they can tell when a person is lying or guilty, even though virtually all the published scientific research debunks that notion, according to Leo.
This attitude can lead police to focus on a suspect, dismiss clues that don’t fit their theory and start acting like prosecutors instead of investigators, critics claim.
In 2004, Sgt. Jim Rullamas told the court that he could tell when the three young witnesses in the slaying of Tamellia Cobbs were lying or telling the truth, transcripts show. He believed them when they identified Eric Williams, 28, and Keddrick Darrough, 25, as the killers, even though court records show the teens gave conflicting information to police, the defense attorney said the FBI had an informant who claimed someone else was the murderer and Williams turned himself in with a detailed alibi. The prosecutor disputed the alibi, and jurors weren’t so sure about it, but they decided the three young witnesses weren’t trustworthy, the prosecutor told the Bailey Project. They acquitted Darrough and deadlocked on Williams. So the District Attorney tried Williams again, and the jury acquitted him, too, after he had spent more than two years in jail.
In the 2006 slaying of Farris Patrick, police heard there was a witness to the murder, so they arrested him on trumped-up drug charges, Sgt. Jim Morris later testified. They offered to put him in a witness protection program, set him up with a job and help him find and finance some property, the prosecutor confirmed in court. The witness said John Sloan, 19, and Davon Jackson, 26, killed Patrick. But he said they shot him in the back. That was wrong. At the preliminary hearing, the witness said he lied when he fingered Sloan and Jackson, so he could escape drug charges, a transcript shows. He said he was always high and intoxicated. The deputy district attorney told the Bailey Project he believedthe witness recanted because he was afraid of being a snitch, but the judge discharged the case.
In a 2005 armed robbery case, investigators Morris and Caesar Basa Jr. were convinced that 18-year-old Brittany McDonald stole $10 from an elderly Chinese lady and threatened her with a knife, even though the victim had said her assailant was a slightly built man with a natural Afro hairdo and McDonald was a large girl with an orange Afro, according to police and defense reports in the court file. During interrogation, a sobbing McDonald confessed, but she got key facts wrong. The victim had said she could identify her assailant, but police didn’t arrange a lineup until McDonald’s attorney Locke called for it, according to the court file. The Chinese lady said no one in the lineup attacked her. The case was dismissed.
In the 2002 slaying of Roland Ross, Sgt. Gus Galindo said in court that suspect Michael Moore appeared guilty because he put his head down on the interrogation table, he was shaking his head, he was sweating and he had tears in his eyes. Galindo said he could tell from his experience talking to people that a key witness against Moore was telling the truth. But Moore, 29, claimed to have an alibi, and the prosecutor and defense attorney told the Bailey Project the jury wasn’t convinced by a prosecution witness and there wasn’t much other evidence. The jury acquitted Moore in just a few hours.
In the drive-by killing of Clayton Bolds in 2006, suspect Theodore Lee told Sgt. Dominique Arotzarena and Cruz he had been at an A’s game with a church group, but the time he said he arrived at the game was wrong, the defense attorney said. That put police on alert. A surviving victim told police that Lee did it, court records show.s The police believed him. When Lee argued that he had attended a pre-game party and rode to the game with an IRS agent, the police didn’t believe him. But the case against him was later dismissed when technical experts consulted by the deputy district attorney determined Lee’s cell phone records showed his alibi could have been true, the prosecutor said
Jurors convicted Lionel Shell, senior captain of the 2003 McClymonds High School football team, of the drive-by killing of Gamel Attayeb in January 2006 on the basis of his confession, which he recanted, and the testimony of co-defendants who cut deals for themselves. Testimony at trial showed that a surviving victim and a confidential police informant said a different man was the likely shooter, and Shell’s confession got key facts wrong, like where he was sitting in the car and what kind of gun he used. But Sgt. Tony Jones testified he didn’t test Shell’s confession by asking to see the gun, and he didn’t check phone records to see if Shell communicated with co-defendants. Shell’s attorney told the Bailey Project that Jones walked out of the interrogation room when Shell asked for an attorney and that Jones told Shell he had to choose between confession or the death penalty.
In its study of homicide cases, the Bailey Project found that Oakland police sometimes kept suspects in interrogation rooms for many hours, risking exhaustion, confusion and false confessions.
“You put a young man potentially facing the rest of his life in prison or the death penalty, put him in a little room and they feel they have no way out,” said Oakland defense attorney Anne Beles.
Joseph Buckley, president of John E. Reid & Associates and an author of the nation’s top police manual on interrogations, said he recommends that police who aren’t making significant progress after four hours of interrogation should consider another approach.
Oakland police argue that even long stays in interrogation rooms are not coercive because actual interrogation time is much less and because police check suspects frequently and provide food and bathrooms as needed.
In the 2006 slaying of Antonio Quintero, detectives Tony Jones and Bruce Brock kept Brinks truck driver Clifton Wherry Jr., 28, in an interrogation room almost 22 hours, interviewing him off and on for nine hours, according to police logs — — even though his mother and other family members say they were asking to see him and wanted to get an attorney for him — until he said he planned the robbery that ended in Quintero’s death. Wherry’s attorneys told the Bailey Project he wasn’t given his Miranda rights for 11 hours and was promised a two-year sentence if he talked. His attorneys, J. Tony Serra and Shari L. White, called the interrogation ruthless, rogue and unlawful in court documents. Wherry’s trial is pending.
In the 2004 slaying of Jondrea Jones, police logs show Longmire kept suspect Twynisha Ashley, 26, in an interrogation room for 24 hours — from 5 p.m. to 4 a.m. one night and from noon to 1 a.m. a month later — even though he only questioned her for 2 ½ hours. Ashley’s public defender Susan Sawyer told the court that Longmire threatened to take away Ashley’s three children if she didn’t implicate a co-defendant.
After 20 hours in an interrogation room, eventually crying and distraught, Fritz Paige finally said he planned the 2005 robbery where Michael Doss was shot. He was charged with murder, even though detective Jones said in court that cell phone records didn’t match Paige’s story and his statements about the type of gun, sequence of events and identification of his accomplice turned out to be wrong.
Deputy public defender Jody Nunez was outraged by the interrogation.
“It is clear from the number and duration of the interrogations that Sgts. Jones and Cruz were not going to stop until the defendant confessed to the crime,” Nunez argued in court documents. She questioned why Jones and Cruz taped three brief statements but turned the tape recorder off for long periods in between. She noted that her client obviously did not mind being taped.
“The only logical conclusion for the deliberate failure to tape record the interrogations is that Sgt. Jones … did not want his superiors or the court to hear how he used coercive techniques to break down (the) defendant’s will,” Nunez argued.
Judge Barbara Miller disagreed, saying the interrogation was “fairly standard” for the Oakland Police Department and Jones was an “extremely credible witness.” But she discharged the case because the officer who arrested Paige and turned him over to Jones “apparently” arrested Paige illegally and lied about it in court, she said. A department spokesman declined to comment, citing personnel confidentiality issues.
MediaNews investigative reporter Thomas Peele and independent reporters Bob Butler and A.C. Thompson contributed to this report.