ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER: Video-interrogation bill merits support

June 07, 2013

 

The state Senate's recent passage, 36-0, of a bill requiring videotaping of interrogations of minors accused of murder is a welcome measure in keeping with the highest ideals of the American justice system.

Our founders believed that it is better to let a guilty person go free than to convict someone who is innocent. Senate Bill 569 will help reduce chances of a wrongful conviction while making it easier for prosecutors to convict the guilty.

The bill's author, Ted Lieu , D-Torrance, is a longtime ally of law-enforcement unions. Yet he has been concerned by recent research by the University of Michigan showing that false confessions are the second-leading cause of wrongful convictions. This is an especially big problem among young people, who are particularly vulnerable during long police-interview sessions.

The California Innocence Project, which has done yeoman's work helping free people wrongly convicted of serious crimes, published an article about Brian Banks. When he was 17 years old, he was accused of raping a classmate. Authorities gave him the choice of pleading no-contest to rape and accepting a six-year term or facing a trial and a chance of spending the next four decades in the state penitentiary. This is a common tactic by prosecutors. He pled guilty and served five years in prison, then was exonerated by DNA evidence.

Requiring the recording of interrogations imposes no burden on law enforcement. They should be more than happy to conduct the public's business in a way that can sustain public scrutiny, and such a proposal can actually help them obtain convictions of those who are guilty of crimes.

Mr. Lieu's fact sheet notes that SB569's reforms are part of a broader effort to "develop policies that enhance the fact-finding power of the criminal justice system through procedures designed to present the best quality of evidence possible in the courtroom." Mr. Lieu notes that this bill will also assure that the best-possible evidence is presented to courts and will help secure convictions.

In previous years, legitimate fear of violent crime has spawned law-and-order policies that make it increasingly tough for the wrongly accused to get their voices heard. It's hard to imagine a worse scenario than for someone to face decades in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Granted, many of the guilty claim otherwise – and we understand that the jobs of police and prosecutors are not always easy on this score.

As Mr. Lieu's office notes, DNA technology has helped exonerate more than 200 people in the U.S. This reminds us that mistakes happen, and that it's wise, just and in keeping with the nature of our society to take every step to ensure that only the guilty are convicted. His bill takes a step in that important direction.