Several days ago, a highly respected Superior Court Judge in Guelph, Ontario, Canada handed down a scathing decision in a Second Degree Murder case, denouncing, in no uncertain terms, the high-handed tactics of a police officer who was involved in the taking of a “ confession “ from the individual charged with this offense.
Mr. Justice Kenneth Langdon was giving his judgment in the matter of Mr. Armishaw, who was charged with causing the death of a three month old toddler by shaking him to the point of inflicting fatal brain damage.
The judge in this case pointed out that Mr. Armishaw was psychologically tested and shown to be functioning intellectually in the extremely low to borderline range, possessing an IQ of about 70. In analyzing the evidence that was presented before him, Mr. Justice Langdon essentially concluded that the officer who conducted the interview, took full advantage of this accused persons limitations and specifically noted that he overwhelmed him in his “ quietly relentless “ manner of interrogation.
This interrogation employed, among other things, some of the psychological tricks of the trade, such as implying that Mr. Armishaw was basically just a “ nice guy that snapped “ as a means of pressuring him to change his repeated denials into an admission that he had, in fact, committed the crime.
The pressure, according to the judge in this case, included lying to this disadvantage person about the existence of forensic evidence that would conclusively prove his guilt. This incriminating evidence, unbeknownst to the accused, simply did not exist.
In addition, in admonishing this police officer and another officer closely involved in the investigation, Mr. Justice Langdon suggested that one or more of them had actually overlooked or failed to understand the inconsistencies in the statement of the victim`s mother, that if accepted, would have provided ( along with other available scientific evidence ) an airtight alibi for Mr. Armishaw. Simply put, this alibi would establish that he was not in the basement of the home at the time the crime was committed.
This case clearly highlights the very real danger that extracting admissions of guilt in such “ circumstances of oppression “ can produce false confessions and can potentially lead to the wrongful convictions of completely innocent individuals.
The judge in this particular matter suggested that the totality of the circumstances of such interrogations, including the possible limitations of the accused person, must be considered in determining whether the statement was voluntarily given and therefore admissible in evidence against him.
The danger in cases involving psychologically disadvantaged people, such as Mr. Armishaw, is, of course, even greater and Judge Langdon therefore reviewed and expanded on past decisions in similar matters of oppressive police conduct, in order to lay down acceptable guidelines for such interrogations. The criminal lawyer acting as defense counsel for Mr. Armishaw, no doubt played a critical role in reviewing the relevant law and extracting the facts that supported his position that the statement of his client was not voluntarily obtained.
The net result in this case was that the fundamental rights of this accused person, charged with the crime of murder, were successfully protected, the incriminating statement he made was not allowed into evidence and the Prosecuting Attorney was then forced to simply withdraw the charge against him since there was no other evidence pointing to him as the perpetrator of this very serious criminal offense.. The case remains unsolved, to this day.
The decision in Armishaw raises the larger issue ( which the judgment doesn`t really address ) as to whether some psychological techniques are simply too brutal for any otherwise innocent accused person to withstand, regardless of his or her mental capabilities and also, whether or not the police should be allowed to confront such persons with incriminating evidence which they know to be totally false.
Bruce Karten is an experienced Toronto criminal lawyerwho has been practicing for 40 years in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), and has successfully defended countless cases where questionable police interrogation tactics have been used to obtain a confession – if you feel