Martin Tankleff speaks during a press conference on March 8, 2023 Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Connecticut would prohibit police from lying to minors while attempting to secure a confession under a bill promoted Wednesday by lawmakers and advocates including men who served more than a decade in prison due to false confessions. 

Standing in a conference room of the Legislative Office Building, Martin Tankleff, a New York man who was exonerated after 17 years in prison recalled a series of lies, which police told him when he was accused of murdering his parents at 17 years old. The psychological pressure of those falsities wore him down and eventually he confessed, he said.

“What happened that day was something that no child should ever go through because that was the last day of freedom for me for 6,338 days,” Tankleff said. “That’s because law enforcement was allowed to lie and get away with it.”

Terrill Swift, an Illinois man who spent more than 14 years behind bars on rape and murder charges before being exonerated by DNA evidence in 2012, brought a similar story.

“As a kid at 17 years of age, I was arrested, taken into custody, questioned for a crime I had absolutely no knowledge of,” Swift said. “[I] was threatened that I was going to die in jail, that I was never going to see my mother again.”

Both men spoke during an event held by the ACLU of Connecticut, the Innocence Project, and the co-chairmen of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. They sought to build support for legislation intended to prevent false confessions like the ones extracted from Swift and Tankleff. 

The bill, raised by the committee and scheduled to receive a public hearing next week, adds a number of restrictions to co-called “deceptive or coercive interrogation tactics,” but the most sweeping changes would apply to minors, who could no longer be subjected to “false facts” during a police investigation.

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The proposal would prohibit police officers from lying about evidence, the law, or making misleading promises in exchange for leniency. Any confession by a minor who had been lied to or an adult subjected to a number of harsher tactics like sleep deprivation or threats would generally be unusable in court. 

The proposal would result in a somewhat unusual law. Like Connecticut, most states permit police to present false information during an interrogation. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the legality of deceptive interrogations back in 1969. However, a handful of states including Illinois and Oregon have since taken steps to rein in the practice. 

Terrill Swift discussing his wrongful conviction on March 8, 2023 Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

According to the Innocence Project, interrogation lies have resulted in wrongful convictions that have cost the state of Connecticut $37.5 million in compensation for cases like Bobby Johnson, who was exonerated after serving eight years in prison for a 2006 New Haven murder he did not commit. At the time of his interrogation, Johnson was only 16. 

Lawmakers in Connecticut raised a similar bill last year. It passed the state Senate late in the legislative session but was never acted upon by the House. Judiciary co-chairs Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, and Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, said they hope to advance the bill soon enough that both chambers would have adequate time to pass it this year.

Last year, the proposal was opposed by the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, which said that recent Connecticut laws already required that all interrogations be recorded and that new restrictions would only serve to further limit the tools available to investigators during interrogations.

In an interview Wednesday, Rep. Greg Howard, a police officer and Republican from Stonington, said that there are times when an investigator may need to present false information. For instance, a detective may ask a suspect about an accident at a specific intersection in an effort to catch that person in a lie.

“The suspect may say, ‘Yeah I saw a red car, I saw the police activity.’ And then you say, ‘Actually you couldn’t have because there really was no accident,” Howard said. “We use those tools to let the suspect know that we know you’re lying to us and that changes the flow of the interrogation.”

Howard argued that police interrogation training had undergone a shift in recent years and the state already disqualified confessions that are coerced from suspects. Howard said he was not yet ready to commit to a position on this year’s bill, but suggested there were times when deceptive interrogation tactics may be needed in cases involving minors. 

“When you have certain 16, 17-year-olds that are committing various offenses like murders, shootings, sex assaults, armed robberies– you might have to employ some of these tactics,” Howard said. “But again, you have to be very careful about it because if any part of that confession was coerced — at all — it’s out.”

During the press conference, Winfield said that none of the arguments against the bill made much sense to him. 

“If we have evidence, we have evidence. If we don’t, we don’t. We do not need to lie to children,” Winfield said. “We do not need to scare children into saying things that aren’t true and we find out later — and sometimes decades later — after these children have spent their time in our criminal justice system and gotten deeping into our justice system and become all of that that we thought they were in that moment.”

The Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear public testimony on the bill on Monday.