Martin H. Tankleff in August, 2017 in Garden City.

Martin H. Tankleff in August, 2017 in Garden City. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Being a teenager is tough. But imagine being a teenager, having no prior contact with the criminal justice system, sitting in a small windowless room, being interrogated for a crime you did not commit. Unbeknownst to you, the seasoned detectives questioning you are legally allowed to tell you lies. What if you had no way to defend yourself except the truth? When I was just 17 years old, this happened to me.

On Sept. 7, 1988, police questioned me for hours without an attorney, without electronically recording the interrogation. They insisted I was guilty of attacking my beloved parents. They falsely claimed that my father had implicated me before dying and that my hair had been found in my mother’s hands. These were lies. After hours of psychological torture, detectives said they obtained an oral confession. Immediately, I rescinded the confession and signed nothing; the damage was done. I wrongly spent nearly 18 years in prison for my parents’ murder because of the coercive lies police told me.

Why do we still allow police to deceive suspects, especially young and vulnerable suspects, to extract a confession? Under the United States Supreme Court’s constitutional interpretation of a "false evidence ploy," psychologically coercive techniques are permissible. This means law enforcement can lie to a suspect to get a confession. Yet in more than 60% of exonerations in homicide cases, there was a false confession. In New York State alone, there have been 43 known wrongful conviction cases with a false confession since 1989.

The Innocence Project has proposed legislation, sponsored by State Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn), to ban police deception outright and to establish the reliability of a confession before it can be admitted into evidence. This legislation is a necessary reform, not only to prevent wrongful convictions, but to promote police transparency. This opportunity arises at a time of widespread unrest with law enforcement and much-needed police accountability.

This bill would establish a pretrial assessment of the confession’s reliability to determine admissibility in court, which is done for other types of evidence, to safeguard against wrongful convictions. This assessment would take place at the same admissibility hearing that evaluates whether a confession is indeed voluntary. A confession could be found reliable if it leads to the discovery of new evidence previously unknown to the police, such as the murder weapon, or in the case of multiple defendants, if the co-defendants’ statements are consistent with one another.

Social science and empirical evidence have also established that youth are even more likely to falsely confess due to their brains not being fully developed. Nearly half of DNA-based wrongful convictions stemming from a false confession are of those under 21. As a result, another pending bill would ensure youth are given the opportunity to obtain an attorney prior to any police questioning, which the law does not provide now.

Had they been law at the time, these two bills could have prevented the loss of 18 years of my life. By passing them, New York can curb a major contributing factor to wrongful convictions and employ techniques rooted in the presumption of innocence, a pillar of our justice system. Improving the practices and procedures of law enforcement benefits and protects everyone — particularly the innocent, like me. No other teenager should have to stand in my shoes again.

Martin H. Tankleff served 17 years in prison in his parents's slaying before his conviction was overturned. A criminal defense and civil attorney, he is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and Touro Law School.

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