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Preventing wrongful convictions from false confessions at heart of new law

Gov. Jay Inslee signs a dozen police accountability measures into law Tuesday at the Eastside Community Center in Tacoma.
Kari Plog
Gov. Jay Inslee signs a dozen police accountability measures into law Tuesday at the Eastside Community Center in Tacoma.

If you’re arrested in this country, you have the right to remain silent. Beginning next year in Washington state, you’ll also have the right to have a video and audio recording of what you say to police.The law requiring that there be an electronic record of interrogations conducted while someone is detained or in custody was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday as part of a broad package of police reform laws.


The mandatory recording of police interrogations applies to juveniles in all cases and to adults facing felonies. Proponents say it will provide a level of protection for people being questioned and help prevent wrongful convictions due to false confessions.


During a legislative hearing earlier this year, Lara Zarowsky, executive director of Washington Innocence Project, said while it might be hard to imagine, false confessions are a huge problem.


“They are a factor in 30 percent of DNA exonerations nationally, so this is something that’s happening,” she said.


In Washington, she said, two men who falsely confessed have been exonerated with the help of DNA evidence. In one case, 19-year-old Donovan Allen confessed to murdering his mother after police interrogated him multiple times over several days. He spent 16 years in prison before his innocence was proven through DNA evidence. 


In the other case, a Yakima man, Ted Bradford, went to prison after falsely confessing to sexual assault. He said after hours and hours of interrogation he told police what they wanted to hear. He said they had also told him DNA would clear him if he was innocent. He spent 14 years behind bars before being exonerated.


The mandatory recording law will give jurors a more complete picture of what happened leading up to a confession, according to Washington Court of Appeals Judge Marlin Appelwick, who testified before lawmakers when the law was being considered.


Appelwick said seeing and hearing an entire interrogation is different than just hearing a recorded confession.


“You know, you’ve seen in television and the movies, you take one little snippet and you go, ‘Oh, that’s what happened,’ and five minutes later, they show you the rest of the footage, the flashback and you go, ‘Whoa, I got misled on that,' ” he said.


Washington is not a leader on this issue. Twenty-seven other states and federal law enforcement already require that interrogations be recorded. The law will take effect Jan. 1, 2022.


Paula reports on groundbreaking legal decisions in Washington State and on trends in crime and law enforcement. She’s been at KNKX since 1989 and has covered the Law and Justice beat for the past 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.