Saturday, 11 September 2010

Confession: The Down-Under Style

Fabricating evidence, bashing a suspect. Victoria's police have been known to bend the rules to get a conviction. But all that is about to change, writes John Silvester.
THE interview room in a police station is a very private place where truths and lies are told in equal measure. For something so pivotal to the criminal justice process it is depressingly mundane - usually filled with basic chairs, a small, nondescript desk and a video camera to record events as they unfold.
In the movies the suspect is the smart, cool dude with slicked-down hair who knows his rights and is determined to play the system. Or on rare occasions a Sharon Stone type emerges to prove that cases may be either open or shut - or sometimes both.
In reality, most suspects are sad or stupid, drugged or daft, and way out of their depth. Some are just a little bit mentally unstable.
Experienced police have heard all the excuses in the world, and have come to believe that most individuals on the opposite side of the desk are born liars. As such, those being interviewed are reminded immediately who is the boss and, if necessary, vigorously reminded of the need to tell the truth.
For decades, the secrets of interviewing were passed from senior police to their juniors through (mis) trial and error rather than formal tutoring. Some were naturals, such as the homicide investigator who became known as ''The Pope'' because suspects in his company were struck with an overwhelming desire to confess.
Now police interview methods are to change, with police being taught that nice guys do indeed finish first. No longer will police interrogate; instead they will initiate conversations with suspects while keeping intimidating formalities to a minimum. It will be more like Cheers - where everyone knows your name - than The Untouchables with its traditional third-degree questioning under a bright, intimidating light.
No doubt some will regard these changes as police going soft and will hanker for the good old days. But the truth is the good old days were never that good; in fact they were often rotten.
Not that long ago police relied on bluff and bad manners to get a version of the truth. They bent the rules to make an unworkable system work, and judges, lawyers and politicians who knew of the widespread illegalities remained part of a silent conspiracy.
Back then police could not even compel suspects to provide fingerprints and could not tap telephones (at least legally). DNA was a science fiction fantasy.
So how did police compensate? For some, it was the bash or the brick. The bash is self-explanatory. A suspect would be beaten until he saw the light (often just before it went out) and confessed. This could be done in a variety of ways. Popular methods included the ''chicken'', and much later the ''jet ski'', details of which have no place in a family newspaper.
In one Melbourne police station there was a sign near the interview room that read, ''You enter here with good looks and the truth. You can't leave with both.''
Sometimes the innocent suffered. In February 1966 Shepparton teenagers Garry Heywood and Abina Madill were abducted and murdered and police immediately suspected Abina's former boyfriend, Ian Urquhart. Urquhart was interviewed and although he was repeatedly bashed he refused to confess, leading police to grumble that he was too tough to crack. They ignored the bleeding obvious: he was innocent.
Urquhart left Shepparton, and later Australia, to escape rumours he was the double killer. He eventually died in a Singapore car crash on the sixth anniversary of the murders. The real killer, Raymond ''Mr Stinky'' Edmunds, was arrested in 1985, much to the embarrassment of several ''old-style'' detectives who had maintained Urquhart's guilt for years, much the way some Neanderthals still insist Lindy Chamberlain killed her baby.
A painstaking reinvestigation by a taskforce provided the evidence - the fluke arrest of a flasher in NSW provided the suspect: Edmunds.
The brick was the process of fabricating evidence to make sure a jury agreed with the investigators' conclusion over the suspect's guilt. One of the most notorious was the unsigned statement. This was where a suspect was happy to make admissions but then, for some reason, would refuse to sign the typed confession.
In these question and answer documents even the most stupid suspect would be remarkably lucid, and although the investigators were two-fingered typists and not acquainted with the ancient art of shorthand, the statements were always in pristine condition and in perfect English.
If a suspect had the temerity to want to ring a lawyer an investigator would sometimes dial an internal extension where another policeman would pretend to be the on-duty legal aid solicitor. The advice would always be the same. ''Son, just tell the truth and we'll try and get you a deal.'' It was the police version of phone a friend.
One respected policeman of the time reflected that fabricated evidence was the domain of the stupid and the lazy investigator. ''Most of them were driven by ego. They couldn't bear to think they had been beaten by a crook.''
This all changed in 1975 when Barry Beach, QC, headed an inquiry into police that exposed many illegal practices used to gain convictions. Thirty-three police were charged and all were acquitted. Police hated Beach because of the inquiry. Years later they learned to love him when he became a Supreme Court judge with a no-nonsense approach to sentencing.
Since then police (with some notorious exceptions) have become more subtle and investigative techniques more sophisticated. Unsworn statements have been replaced with audio and video recordings of interviews; DNA testing helps clear suspects as well as implicate them and phone taps mean many crooks end up being convicted out of their own mouths.
For many years, hard police tried to terrorise crooks into submission. Since the Squizzy Taylor era detectives used rough-house tactics to try to solve underworld murders - failing dismally nearly every time.
In recent years the Purana taskforce used modern police methods with spectacularly successful results, and without resorting to illegal tactics.
Police cold-case murder investigations have led to many suspects, some of whom have lived for years with suggestions they are killers, being cleared on DNA evidence. This shows that police suspicions are not always right and not everyone who enters an interview room is guilty. As police are taught at detective training school, ''The mind is like a parachute. It only works when it is open.''
Under new methods being taught to police, they will be told that intimidation and tough guy tactics actually hinder the interview process, encouraging suspects to shut up or lie.
One veteran detective says the interview should not be approached as a contest. ''Most people deep down want to talk. Never underestimate the need for people to confess and unburden themselves.''
Just ask ''The Pope''.

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