Justice watch: Keeping an eye on the law.

The case for taping interrogations

CHICAGO - It may be hard to imagine people confessing to crimes they didn't commit, but experts say police interrogation tactics - even perfectly legal, nonviolent tactics - can be so powerful that they trap the innocent as well as the guilty.

In Illinois, it happened recently in the case of Riley Fox, a 3-year-old whose body was found in a creek last summer. After hours of interrogation, her father confessed to raping and murdering the girl, but DNA evidence showed he was not the culprit. He was jailed for eight months before charges were dropped.

Illinois's new requirement that police record interrogations in homicide cases can't ensure that every confession is the truth. But it will give judges and juries the chance to see how the confession emerged and whether it was the product of coaching by police.

Violence and threats already are barred, as are direct promises of leniency in exchange for a confession. But police can lie to suspects,claiming to have physical evidence or witnesses that don't exist.

Police Cmdr. Neil Nelson of St. Paul, Minn., says he once elicited a false confession, but reviewing the interrogation on tape made him doubt the confession, so the suspect wasn't charged. "You realize maybe you gave too much detail as you tried to encourage him, and he just regurgitated it back," Nelson says.

Protection for female inmates

NEW YORK - The city has agreed to start telling female jail inmates they can refuse gynecological exams without fear of being placed in isolation, ending a longstanding policy that inmates' lawyers claimed resulted in tens of thousands of coerced exams.

The city for years had told every woman admitted to the Rikers Island jail that she had to undergo a pelvic exam, a Pap smear, and a breast exam or be placed in medical isolation, says Richard Cardinale, the lead attorney in a class-action lawsuit filed in 2002. The suit charged that the city violated inmates' rights by requiring strip-searches of even minor alleged offenders, and by coercing the gynecological exams.

Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the Corrections Department began limiting strip-searches to a smaller group of inmates, including those suspected of felonies, drug crimes, and weapons-related crimes, a Corrections spokesman says. As part of the June 21 settlement, the city agreed to pay millions of dollars to as many as 40,000 of the inmates who were strip-searched in city jails after arrests on suspicion of misdemeanor charges or violations such as traffic infractions.

Plans for Afghan war-crimes court

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - Afghanistan's government is considering setting up a special war-crimes court and a truth commission to document atrocities, an official said on July 18. The news follows a comprehensive report on human rights abuses, the first since the late 1970s, which blames some of the worst atrocities on several top officials and candidates in coming legislative elections.

The government is expected to decide in coming weeks on a proposal to deal with crimes committed during years of warfare, according to Ahmad Nader Nadery of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. The plan, drawn up by the state-sponsored commission and UN human rights officials, calls for an immediate "vetting process" to remove officials from government if there is war-crime evidence against them, he said. Trials would be unlikely to start for another five years, when a special war-crimes court would be set up with international and Afghan judges for those facing the most serious charges.

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