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NY court rules police can lie to suspects, only to a point

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman delivers his State of

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman delivers his State of the Judiciary address at the Court of Appeals on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, in Albany, N.Y. Credit: AP / Mike Groll

ALBANY -- New York's highest court ruled Thursday that although police can lie while interrogating a homicide suspect, they can't lie too much.

As a result, two defendants in two cases won challenges to throw out their statements used as confessions because they were based on lies by police, the Court of Appeals stated.

In one case from 2009, a homicide suspect was told that his girlfriend, a New Rochelle woman who died of an overdose, was still alive. Police told the suspect, Paul Aveni, who denied involvement, that they needed to know what drugs she'd taken to avoid medications in the hospital that might create an adverse reaction.

She's "OK now, but if you lie to me and don't tell me the truth now and they give her medication, it could be a problem," one detective said, according to the court record.

Aveni immediately said he injected her with heroin and gave her Xanax.

He was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. His case goes back to the appellate division for reconsideration.

In a case in 2008, police told a father, Adrian Thomas of Troy, that they knew he wasn't responsible for seriously injuring his 4-month-old son, Matthew. But police told Thomas he had to explain how he accidentally dropped the boy so doctors could save his life.

Thomas was interrogated for more than nine hours. At one point he was involuntarily hospitalized for talking about committing suicide. When he returned, the interrogation resumed.

"The doctors need to know this," a sergeant said, "Do you want to save your baby's life or do you want your baby to die tonight?"

"I want to save his life," Thomas said.

"Maybe if we get this information, OK, maybe he's able to save your son's life," the sergeant continued later. "Maybe your wife forgives you for what happened. Maybe your family lives happier ever after . . . [but] what's going to happen if Matthew dies in that hospital tonight, man?"

The boy was already dead of head injuries, which a doctor said were consistent with being in a car crash at 60 mph.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman wrote the unanimous decision in the Thomas case.

"Had there been only a few such deceptive assurances, perhaps they might be deemed insufficient to raise a question as to whether the defendant's confession had been obtained in violation of due process," Lippman wrote.

"Defendant was told 67 times that what had been done to his son was an accident, 14 times that he would not be arrested, and eight times that he would be going home," the court record stated. "These representations were, moreover, undeniably instrumental in the extraction of a defendant's most damaging admissions."

Rensselaer County Acting District Attorney Art Glass said he didn't think the decision against his office creates a chilling effect that will hinder law enforcement.

"But I certainly think it's a wake-up call for investigators to be much more cautious in interrogation techniques . . . and in the types of deceit and trickery they use, permissibly," Glass said in an interview. He is preparing a retrial of Thomas, who is serving 25 years to life in prison for convictions including murder by depraved indifference to life.

A similar argument was used in the Aveni decision in which the court found lies by police could "overwhelm [a] defendant's free will."

The Westchester County district attorney's office declined to comment.

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