Nearly 2 1/2 years after Chicago police and Cook County prosecutors began videotaping murder confessions, the unraveling of a murder case with a taped confession underscores why some lawmakers and advocates have called for further reform, including recording entire interrogations.
Although police in Chicago and elsewhere have vigorously opposed taping interrogations, some legal experts said the case--in which a man who had been held for 50 hours falsely confessed to killing his mother--exposes the limits of taping only the confession.
"If you don't see the interrogation, you're missing almost everything," said Welsh White, law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "You don't see the questions the police ask, the tactics they use, the pressures they might exert."
Even before Friday's release of Corethian Bell--the first time in Cook County that a videotaped confession has come undone--there had been limited efforts to expand taping.
Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), the legislature's leading advocate of videotaping, is expected to renew his push for a law that would require authorities to videotape interrogations in major violent crimes.
And Cook County State's Atty. Richard Devine, whose office led the prosecution of Bell for the 17 months he was in jail, has said that he would support a pilot program to test the videotaping of interrogations.
The problems in the Bell case were detailed in the Tribune investigation, "Cops and Confessions," which showed how dubious confessions had marred hundreds of Cook County cases. The series found that police tactics ranging from coercion and brutality to illegal arrests had produced confessions so tainted that they were thrown out or defendants were acquitted.
Because the interrogation process takes place behind closed doors, legal battles over the validity of confessions often boil down to the word of police versus the word of the suspect.
But videotaping, some advocates say, could help clarify those issues because the tape could answer what really went on during the interrogation. In that way, taping might help police and prosecutors as much as it aids defendants--and police departments that regularly tape interrogations report that the change was for the better.
"If you're really in a quest for justice, you ought to be continually looking for superior ways of determining the truth," said William Geller, a national expert on police practices and the author of a U.S. Justice Department report on videotaping interrogations. "And taping the interrogation is superior."
Critics, though, say videotaping interrogations would be costly and that it would impede investigators as they try to get legitimate statements.
Chicago police and Cook County prosecutors began videotaping murder confessions--but not interrogations--in August 1999, nearly a year after they were forced to drop charges against two young boys accused of the murder of 11-year-old Ryan Harris. Since then, they have taken more than 400 video confessions in murder cases.
Bell, 25, was charged with the July 2000 murder of his mother, Netta, after he made a videotaped confession in which he said he stabbed her to death because she had resumed her cocaine habit.
Bell, who is mildly mentally retarded and has a long history of mental illness, said in court documents that he confessed because police hit him so hard that he was knocked off a chair and because he grew weary and hopeless after being in custody for more than two days.
He said he believed that once in front of a judge he could explain that he was innocent and the judge would set him free. Instead, he was prosecuted and jailed.
Cook County prosecutors dropped charges Friday after a final round of DNA testing failed to link him to the crime. Instead, the tests have connected another man already in jail for a crime similar to Netta Bell's murder. That man, prosecutors said, remains under investigation, although he has not been charged in Netta Bell's murder.
One of Bell's lawyers, Herschella Conyers, said videotaping the interrogations that produce confessions is a crucial step in preventing false admissions.
"You can't not tape the 50 hours of denials, and not tape the time the police strike someone in the head, and not tape the way the person is coached into saying whatever he says, and then only flip on the camera for the actual confession," said Conyers of the University of Chicago's Mandel Legal Aid Clinic.
"You have to tape everything that leads up to it."
According to Geller's study of departments that tape interrogations, it cuts down on claims of coercion and abuse and often leads to guilty pleas because a videotape of an interrogation and confession is powerful evidence.
Police in Kankakee have taped their interrogations in serious felony crimes, including murder, armed robbery and home invasion, since 1996.
In 2001, about 45 cases fell into that category, said Cmdr. Larry Osenga, who supervises interrogations. He said about 60 percent of defendants agreed to be videotaped, 30 refused but gave written statements and 10 percent refused to talk at all.
When the policy was new, "the guys were a little apprehensive because they didn't know how it was going to work out in court," Osenga said. Now, he said, they are pleased with the results--the convictions the videotaped confessions help secure.
Osenga said that he can recall just one case in which a judge ruled that a videotaped statement was inadmissible. In that case, a judge found that a defendant had expressed a desire to end the interview and that police should have honored that request and stopped the questioning, he said.
Kankakee County State's Atty. Edward Smith said a videotape of an interrogation can help in the courtroom, especially given the growing popularity of home video-recorders.
"We feel a common question in a juror's mind might be: Why didn't they tape it, if it's so important?" said Smith. "I think the law enforcement community is, on the whole, satisfied" with the videotaping policy.
Minnesota and Alaska are the only states that require police to videotape interrogations.
Police in Alaska began recording and videotaping interrogations as a result of a 1985 Alaska Supreme Court ruling that said electronically recording the police interrogation was "essential to the adequate protection of the accused's ... right to a fair trial."
All Anchorage police officers are issued tape recorders and furnished with batteries and tapes, said Sgt. Steve Elkins of Anchorage's Police Department.
"If it's a criminal case, they turn it on as soon as they pick up the suspect, before reading him his Miranda rights," said Elkins. After the field officers hand the suspect over to detectives, he added, the rest of the process is videotaped.
"Tape recorders are there to protect the officer as well as the suspect," Elkins said. "They protect the integrity of the case."
Chicago police have been reluctant to videotape interrogations, just as they were reluctant to begin to videotape confessions. But their experience with taping confessions, officials have said, has turned out to be positive, and detectives now openly support the process.
Nationally, few, if any, cases with videotaped confessions have unraveled. In Alaska, a defendant was acquitted at his 1997 trial even though he made a videotaped confession to rape and murder. Jurors took into account that the man was an alcoholic who occasionally blacked out, possibly impairing his ability to understand police.
The interrogation process is, by design, intimidating. Detectives are trained to wear down suspects, making the evidence against them seem overwhelming and the consequences of refusing to make a confession appear grave, said White and Yale Kamisar, a law professor at the University of Michigan.
But in some cases, those tactics can cause even innocent suspects to confess. The suspects come to believe that currying favor with the police, at whatever cost, is their only hope. And watching a tape of the suspect's confession isn't likely to reveal that process, the law professors said.
Suspects who are mentally ill or mentally retarded can be especially vulnerable. Under pressure, "the mentally retarded person is going to look more at: Can I get this [police officer] to like me? Can I please him right now?" White said. "If confessing will do that, some mentally retarded suspects are likely to do that rather than weigh the consequences."
Dave Bayless, a Chicago police spokesman, said the department's position on videotaping interrogations had not shifted.
"We're taking a look at that issue, but this one case won't push us one way or another," said Bayless. "This case won't have a dramatic impact."
In fact, Chicago police will make no effort to determine where the Bell case went wrong--unless Bell files a complaint with the department's Office of Professional Standards, the civilian arm of the department that investigates brutality.
"The onus is on him to file a complaint," said Bayless. "If Mr. Bell thinks we mistreated him--physically, mentally or in any way--then he needs to let us know so we can formally look into the matter."
House Speaker Madigan intends to renew his push for a law requiring that some interrogations be videotaped. In prior attempts over the last three years, the legislation has encountered resistance from various prosecutors, chiefs of police and top law enforcement officials who have feared that spontaneous admissions could be thrown out if the person confesses to police before sitting down behind a video camera. And they worry that defense attorneys would flood the courts with motions to suppress evidence and win technical points because of ambiguous points of law.
"Madigan remains committed to trying to make that the law of the land," said Steve Brown, the speaker's spokesman. "It's an important tool in both avoiding coerced confessions of allegations or coerced confessions, and we think it would be important for both law enforcement and prosecutors to have this additional hard evidence to make their case."
Tribune staff reporters Ray Long, Judy Peres and Kirsten Scharnberg contributed to this report.