Questions on video assisting justice


With the courtroom lights dimmed, the jury intently watched the black-and-white images of the defendant crying and saying, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm a bad person."

Afterward, the jury rejected the pleadings of prosecutors to convict Melissa Burch Harton, 26, of murder and instead found her guilty of involuntary manslaughter for strangling a friend during a drunken argument in Ellicott City.

Juror David Kilpatrick said he might have held out for an acquittal had he not seen the videotaped confession, which left him convinced that Harton killed the woman, though not with the intent that prosecutors alleged.

"I don't know where we would have gone if we didn't have that video and the transcript," he said.

After resisting the practice for years, a growing number of police agencies nationwide are videotaping interviews with suspects, sometimes with surprising results.

In Baltimore County, prosecutors gained a first-degree murder conviction last year after a suspect in the shotgun killing of an educator at Towson Town Center confessed in a taped interview. However, his attorney says prosecutors dropped efforts to secure the death penalty after he argued that his client's obvious remorse on the video would arouse the sympathies of jurors.

Overall, police departments are losing their aversion to videotaping, said Thomas P. Sullivan, an attorney and former co-chairman of a commission on capital punishment appointed by then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan.

Among the large police departments that use video recording are Los Angeles, Denver and Washington. Of the more than 450 law enforcement agencies in 43 states interviewed for a study by Sullivan, the overwhelming consensus is "they absolutely love it."

Sullivan said the only agencies he has spoken with that oppose recording interviews are those that haven't tried it.

"It is a reform whose time has come," he said. "It's just so good for everybody. ... Like, if you watch a football game and want to see if the guy went over the line, you don't have to argue about it - you have a replay."

Locally, police in Howard and Baltimore counties and the Harford County sheriff's office make video recordings of interrogations. Harford records most interviews in criminal investigations, and Howard and Baltimore counties do so on a case-by-case basis. Baltimore police, Anne Arundel County, Westminster and state police do not record at all.

Video legislation

Sullivan is scheduled to testify in support of a bill in the House of Delegates that would make the statement of a defendant in a violent crime inadmissible unless it is electronically recorded.

Del. John S. Arnick, who is sponsoring a separate bill that would require the recording of interrogations in death penalty cases, said the procedure would help ensure justice.

"There are a lot of cases that are thrown out or reversed because of what allegedly happened in the interrogations," he said.

The Baltimore County Democrat, who sponsored a bill in 2003 that would have required videotaping of all interrogations, said he believes his current bill stands a better chance of passing because it is limited to capital cases.

But some police remain leery of having their work taped and replayed for jurors and others.

"It sounds idyllic, a prosecutor's dream," said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office. "But it would probably be very difficult to implement in the city."

She said it is unclear how useful videotaping would be because most violent offenders in the city "know it's to their advantage not to say anything."

Burns said her office, which prosecutes about 115 homicide cases a year, doesn't have the resources to deal with video recordings.

The cost of videotaping would vary, according to legislative analysts, who estimate that it would cost about $87,000 for video equipment for the state police alone.

The Maryland Chiefs of Police Association is not against electronic video recording but opposes mandatory taping, said Bernadette DiPino, who chairs the group's legislative committee.

"We're just opposed to the legislature dictating what processes are used for criminal investigations," said DiPino, who is Ocean City's police chief. "Each individual agency has its own policies."

Agencies that don't want to tape interrogations might not want someone "looking over their shoulders when a confession is extracted," said Michael Greenberger, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.

"We all would rather do our jobs without having our activities videotaped," Greenberger said.

But he said videotaped interrogations generally make police cases stronger, if the interrogations are conducted properly, without "trickery and browbeating."

"The confession has that much more weight for either compelling the defendant to plead ... or it should be persuasive to a jury that there should be a conviction," he said. "By and large, it ensures that we are convicting people who are really guilty."

Baltimore County police have been videotaping suspect interviews primarily for more serious crimes, with good results, said spokesman Bill Toohey.

"It shows the detectives doing their job, doing it properly," Toohey said.

He said it eliminates a common defense strategy of claiming that a defendant was not properly informed of his rights. "There can be no doubt about a Miranda warning, for example."

Taping in action

A videotaped interview of a teen accused of shooting a private school teacher at a parking garage at Towson Town Center played a role as his lawyer was negotiating a plea deal.

F. Spencer Gordon, an assistant Baltimore County public defender, said he argued to prosecutors that John Edward Kennedy Jr., 19, would come across in the videotape as a person for whom jurors could feel sympathy.

In the interview, Gordon said, Kennedy can be seen crying, dabbing his eyes, blowing his nose, pounding his hands on the desk, obviously in distress.

Kennedy said, "I would just like to apologize to his family. I didn't mean for that to happen. A man's life was took. A man's life was took for no reason."

Then he asked permission to put his head down on the table.

"It made him appear very small, very weak and very human, in a childlike way," Gordon said.

Kennedy escaped a possible death sentence by pleading guilty to first-degree felony murder in December in the death of William A. Bassett.

In the Harton case, her attorneys attempted to suppress the videotape, arguing unsuccessfully that she should have been advised of her Miranda rights before the interview began.

However, the tape worked in Harton's favor. Kilpatrick believed it showed jurors that she was telling police the truth - after initially lying to authorities for about three hours, defense attorneys and prosecutors agreed - about what happened to fellow clinical psychology doctoral student Natasha Bacchus Magee last March.

I realized she really was telling the truth" that Magee's death was an accident, Kilpatrick said. "You can't see that on a [police] report. ... It's much more evident when you watch the tape."

Despite being dissatisfied with the verdict, Howard County State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone said he still believes that such visual aids are a "healthy part of the process."

McCrone contends that the tape showed someone who lied repeatedly with little concern for the victim.

"It is a little hard to accept that someone who had lied so frequently would tell the entire truth in the final version that she provided," he said. "We never did get the whole truth from Ms. Harton."

Sun reporter Jennifer McMenamin contributed to this article.

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