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Editorial: Recording victim statements could aid justice

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Suppose you are serving on a jury that must decide the guilt or innocence of a man charged with murder and aggravated criminal sexual assault.

Casting doubt on the man’s guilt is the fact that neither blood nor hairs found on the victim match those of the suspect. There is, in fact, no evidence at all except for an unsigned confession the suspect gave after being held and questioned by detectives for 60 straight hours. And one of those detectives had been accused in other cases of abusing suspects.

Wouldn’t you want to see a videotape of that interrogation? We sure would.

But under today’s rules, there would be no recording if the person was considered a witness, not a suspect.

EDITORIAL

Follow @csteditorialsThe Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, which just handled a case where a video could have prevented the wrong man from going to prison for 22 years, wants the Chicago Police Department, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and the Independent Police Review Authority to make sure nothing like that happens again. TIRC wants those agencies to consider video recording witness statements and other measures, such as ensuring no one intentionally inserts errors into statements so that when suspects correct them, it makes the statements appear voluntary.

TIRC is correct. Videotaping is so easily and conveniently done nowadays. And when an innocent person has spent more than two decades in prison, it’s time for a thorough vetting of the rules.

The TIRC proposals followed the recent closing of its case involving Mark Maxson, whose conviction was overturned after he spent 22 years behind bars. In 2005, police began videotaping interrogations of murder suspects, but Maxson was interrogated as a witness during an investigation into the 1992 murder of a 6-year-old boy, so even today his interrogation would not have been recorded prior to the point where he officially became a suspect.

With 20/20 hindsight, it’s hard to see how Maxson was convicted, even though he had a previous gang-rape conviction. The forensic evidence didn’t match him. And he was at the police station for 60 hours. Does that sound like a witness voluntarily telling what he knows? Eventually, DNA linked the blood and hairs on the victim to another man and TIRC found “more than sufficient evidence of torture” in Maxson’s case.

We understand TIRC’s proposal needs careful thinking out. Witnesses may hesitate to be videotaped if they fear later retaliation. Investigators in a hurry won’t always have time to get out recording equipment.

But when we find we’ve sent an innocent man to prison for 22 years, it’s time, as TIRC suggests, to review key policies to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

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