Drawing Upon Its Extensive Experience In Litigating False And Involuntary Confession Cases, Legal Aid's Criminal Appeals Bureau Submitted Amicus Brief In Landmark Thomas Case

In People v. Thomas, a landmark decision issued February 20, 2014, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, writing for a unanimous New York Court of Appeals, concluded that the confession that the police had elicited from Adrian Thomas after a 9 ½-hour interrogation was involuntary and had to be suppressed. In 2009, Thomas had been convicted of second-degree murder in connection with the death of his four-month old son and had been sentenced to a prison term of 25-years to life. His conviction was affirmed by the Appellate Division, Third Department. Because the case presented critical issues regarding the kinds of tactics that may be permissibly employed by the police in interrogating suspects, the Criminal Appeals Bureau of The Legal Aid Society, drawing upon its extensive experience in litigating false and involuntary confession cases, submitted a comprehensive amicus brief on Thomas’s behalf.

From the outset, the medical evidence in the case was highly equivocal. The prosecution contended that the child had died from intracranial injuries. Defense experts, in contrast, in line with the original emergency room diagnosis, testified that the child, who had been born prematurely, had died of sepsis. In the absence of any other significant witnesses, Thomas’s confession was the centerpiece of the prosecution’s case.

Much of Thomas’s interrogation was videotaped, enabling the Court to examine the police tactics first hand. The Court identified three such tactics that, in combination, served to render Thomas’s statements involuntary and to create a significant danger that Thomas had confessed falsely. First, the Court condemned the police for threatening Thomas that they would arrest his wife if Thomas did not take responsibility for his actions. It was in response to these threats that Thomas initially agreed to “take the fall.” Next, the Court deemed improper police statements to Thomas that his full account was necessary to provide information critical to physicians who were struggling to save his child’s life. In fact, the police were well aware that, by this time, the child had already died. Finally, the Court took issue with the detectives’ repeated false assurances that they understood that the child’s injuries had been inflicted accidentally and that, if Thomas revealed how it had happened, he would not be arrested. These tactics, the Court concluded, rendered the ensuing statements constitutionally involuntary and, because they also created the danger of a false confession violated Criminal Procedure Law Section 60.45.

The Thomas case is the subject of a full-length documentary feature, “Scenes of a Crime.”