People v. Thomas

Brief Filed: 11/13
Court: State of New York Court of Appeals
Year of Decision: 2014

Read the full-text amicus brief (PDF, 218KB)

Issue

At issue in the appeal is whether the State of New York should allow expert testimony on the body of research addressing risk factors for false confessions.

Index Topic

False Confessions

Facts

Adrian Thomas was convicted of murdering his child based solely on his confession which was obtained in a lengthy interrogation over two days during which he was briefly admitted to a mental institution suffering emotional distress over his son's injuries. In fact, the autopsy revealed the child died of an infection, not any trauma, but the prosecutors pursued the case based on the confession that was obtained during the interrogation. Thomas's confession was videotaped, which has been cited as a reason why expert testimony was not needed. The police also engaged in minimization, and made false offers of leniency as well as factual misstatements, and the interrogation took place over many hours while Thomas was in emotional distress. New York uses the "Frye" standard (a test for determining the admissibility of scientific evidence) for determining whether expert testimony should be admitted and the trial court had excluded the defense expert's witness testimony applying that rule.

At the time of this request, APA had already filed a number of amicus briefs in various state courts presenting the research on risk factors for false confessions — which included peer reviewed articles, book chapters, etc., as well as a summary of the research published as a white paper by Division 41 (American Psychology-Law Society).

APA's Position

As in prior APA briefs addressing false confessions, this brief states that the scientific research on false confessions provides a strong empirical foundation for the admission of expert testimony on the subject and that it should be admitted as evidence. Admission of such evidence can 1) dispel the common misperception that a person would not confess to a crime he did not commit, and 2) explain the psychological and personality factors that may have made Thomas suggestible to police interrogation. The brief further addresses how lawful policy interrogation processes and tactics can sometimes produce false confessions, that dispositional factors can produce false confessions, and that most jurors do not understand the connection between false confessions and these interrogation and dispositional factors. APA also states how allowing jurors to view an interrogation videotape is not an adequate substitute because such observations do not inform jurors about the fact of false confessions or the relevant risk factors. Finally, APA's brief explains how expert testimony about false confessions is particularly critical where there is a lack of corroborating evidence.

Results

On Feb. 20, 2014, the New York Court of Appeals unanimously suppressed Adrian Thomas’s confession statements as coerced and involuntary, and ordered a new trial.