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Police interrogators need clear guidelines on when sleep deprivation amounts to torture

Research shows sleep deprivation can lead to false confessions. Excessive sleep deprivation, a technique that has been used by the CIA, can amount to torture.

Jesus Morales in an undated photo.
Provided photo

The International Association of Chiefs of Police recommends that police officers get at least 48 hours to rest up before they are interviewed about an incident in which they were involved.

But that standard does not apply to crime suspects and witnesses, who often are interrogated for many hours while in a state of extreme sleep deprivation. In the interest of true justice, Illinois should set a clear standard for how long witnesses and suspects can be questioned before they are allowed to get some rest.

On Aug. 19, the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission referred a sleep deprivation case to the Cook County Circuit Court for a fresh look because a diabetic suspect had been kept awake for 27 to 28 hours before signing a confession. The commission had found credible evidence that the sleep deprivation amounted to torture and sent the case to the Circuit Court to see if the conviction should be overturned. TIRC also has referred the case to the Cook County state’s attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit.

In 1998, Jesus Morales got a life sentence for the 1995 contract killing of Kedric Bell, who had been sent to Chicago by a Miami drug dealer to collect $200,000. After 27 to 28 hours of being kept awake, with a nap of less than an hour, Morales signed a lengthy confession.

One of the detectives who arrested Morales had worked under former Police Cmdr. Jon Burge for a portion of his career and has been accused of misconduct 18 times, including a court finding that he was among detectives who tortured now-exonerated murder suspect Darrell Cannon and then lied about it under oath. Although Morales had made two self-incriminating statements earlier in his interrogation, a Circuit Court judge will have to decide whether the signed confession itself is valid.

The evidence is in

Research has shown that sleep deprivation can lead to false confessions. Excessive sleep deprivation, a technique that has been used by the CIA, can amount to torture.

“The research has shown for years that the longer one interrogates a suspect the higher the risk of false confessions,” said Steven A. Drizin, a Northwestern University law professor and editor of the book “True Stories of False Confessions.”

That’s not to say police should send witnesses and suspects home for a good night’s sleep before interrogating them right after a crime has occurred. Police need the freshest interview they can get can before memories fade and before witnesses or suspects can be influenced, knowingly or not, by external sources.

But suspects often are arrested well after a crime has taken place. Keeping them awake for the sole purpose of eliciting a confession runs the risk, at minimum, that the confession will be unreliable. A 2016 experiment showed people were who were up for more than 24 hours were 4½ times more likely to sign a false confession than people who had slept eight hours.

“I think [the study] showed [people] are more impulsive in their decision-making when they have less sleep,” said Shari R. Berkowitz, an associate professor of criminal justice administration at California State University, Dominguez Hills, who was one of the study’s authors. “They are going to be more quick to waive rights, more quick to agree to sign a statement and affirm what an interrogator says. … There should not be any intentional use of sleep deprivation as a tactic for interrogation.”

Define ‘sleep deprivation’

Police need clear standards. Letting police make their own judgments can lead to bad outcomes in some cases. Sleep deprivation plays a big role during lengthy interrogations, and police departments know this.

The Chicago Police Department prohibits unnecessary sleep deprivation, but doesn’t define what that is. TIRC recommended that the police department clarify its regulations and also recommended the Cook County state’s attorney’s office clarify its practices.

Case law is all over the map. In 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court said 36 hours of sleep deprivation was “inherently coercive” and that it is “the most effective [method of] torture.” But in a different case in 1968, the court said 14¼ hours, combined with other factors, was coercive. Illinois appellate courts have sometimes ruled 24-hour interrogations without sleep were coercive, but sometimes the courts said they weren’t.

The police department, state’s attorney’s office and Illinois Legislature need to provide guidance on this issue.

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