June 18, 2006

The confession of Adam Gray

Out in the lonely forensic linguistics wing of Language Log Plaza I've been busy recently trying to help with a case that began all the way back in 1993. A house on Chicago's south side was torched with gasoline and Adam Gray, who had just turned 14, was brought in for questionning, mostly because his former girlfriend lived in that house. At the time of the fire, the two were at serious odds with each other and so the police considered Adam a logical suspect and hauled him in for questionning. For whatever reasons, the police did not tape-record the interrogation, leaving few traces of what actually was said and done that day. Police departments that fail to make a verifiable record of what they do and say was the subject of a previous Language Log post (see here).

Adam was quickly charged with the crime, interrogated for four hours, tried and convicted of arson leading to death, and has spent the past 13 years serving a life sentence in prison. Recently the  Youth Network Coucil in Chicago has been trying to get the courts to reassess the evidence, especially the damaging confession that Adam made in a nine minute recap of those four hours in the police department. Confessions are made in language; thus their request for linguistic help. Unfortunately, since no tape-recording was made of any part of the interrogation, there isn't a lot for a linguist to work with. Adam reports that he denied committing the arson many times but the police continued to accuse him of it anyway. You wouldn't learn this from the police reports and testimony, however. They denied using any inappropriate tactics, of course, and the stenographic record of those last nine minutes doesn't reveal much to support the claim that Adam was coerced. But even with the fragmented record left by the police, the following questions remain:

1. As a juvenile suspect, why wasn't Adam allowed to see his mother during the interrogation?
Adam had slept over at his adult brother's house on the night of the fire. At 5 a.m. the police first went to Adam's house and his mother told them where they could find him. They then went to his brother's house and told Adam to come to the station with them for questionning. They told his brother not to hurry because it would be two hours before the questionning actually started. The brother testified that he then got dressed, ate breakfast, called Adam's mother and told her what happened, and arrived at the station before 7 a.m. He asked to see Adam and they took him to the room where he was sitting alone. The brother could see him through the one-way window but he wasn't allowed to talk with him. Adam's mother and sister arrived shortly after. Between seven and noon they asked to see Adam over and over again but were told that they could not do this. Adam reports that he asked to see his mother and brother but was told that they weren't present at the station at any time. Adam claims that the police told him that his mother didn't care what happened to him and that she refused to come to the station for him. The police testified that they didn't tell him this. All that is questionable here could have been avoided by tape-recording the entire process.

2. Was Adam questioned without concern for his well-being and health?
The interrogation actually started at about 8 a.m and lasted until noon. Adam reports that they gave him two cups of coffee that morning but didn't offer him anything  to eat until after  they got his confession. Different police gave conflicting stories about this but one of them testified that Adam was given a McDonalds sandwich BEFORE the stenographer was brought in to record his statement, at about 11 a.m.  Adam says that he wasn't given anything to eat until AFTER he agreed to give his confession statement.

3. Was Adam coerced or harassed while he was being questioned?
Adam's account of the interrogation was  remarkably different from the way the police described it. He said that every time he denied setting the fire the police kept accusing him of it anyway. He reported that he cried frequently as he tried desparately to convince them of his innocence. He claimed that they told him he would get the electric chair unless he confessed. As for tactics, the police are allowed to lie to suspects and one detective admitted that they concocted several lies to get him to admit setting the fatal fire. One story was that Adam's best  friend had turned on him, telling the police that Adam had planned to kill his ex-girlfriend (his friend subsequently denied that he ever said this). Another story was that his mother and family didn't care enough about him to come to the station for him. His mother testified that she and other family members were in the waiting area all the time but were never permitted to see Adam. Finally, the interrogator got Adam to place his hand on a copy machine to take its image, claiming that it would show any traces of gasoline. After Adam agreed to do this, they informed him there was gasoline all over his handprint.

Adam reports that he eventually cracked under the pressure, believing that his only way out of this was to dream up a story that the police might believe. So he told them how he took an empty gallon milk jug to a local gas station and purchased three-fourths of a gallon of gas. He then went to the house and poured the gas from the outside stairway of the house, starting at the top floor and ending at the bottom. Then he used his lighter to set it afire. That was enough for the police. They called in the court stenographer and got Adam to recap the story in her presence.

4. What did the confession say?
From letters that Adam wrote within a week of the fire, it is clear that he could write English sentences in a way that is pretty normal for a 14 year-old boy.  Most were simple sentences but a few contained embeddings and multiple clauses. This contrasted with his syntax in the stenographically recorded nine minutes of the interrogation, where his sentence length was 3.9 words per response. By far the majority of his answers consisted of either one word or two word phrases. One can never know for sure what was  on his mind at that time but clamming up like this at least suggests that he had given up and agreed to everything the Assistant State's Attorney asked him.

This stenographic record became the "confession" that sent Adam Gray to prison for life. It consisted of 78 questions, mostly answered by "yes." Adam didn't narrate or explain. He just responded to questions briefly in a way that looked very much like a well-rehearsed scenario.
Adam signed it at the bottom but, oddly enough, added a sentence in his own handwriting, possibly because the police remembered a loose end for which Adam hadn't accounted. They had quickly scoured the area for an empty milk jug and finally found one that seemed suitable as evidence (no mention was made about whether it had gas traces). But they still had the problem of the missing lighter. So they got Adam to add that he had broken it up and flushed it down a toilet. Case closed as far as the police were concerned.

5. How could these questionable issues have been avoided?
All of the reasonable doubt in this case could have been resolved if the police had tape-recorded the entire interrogation. All we have is a stenographic record of nine of the 240 minutes that Adam was in custody. And there is no way to verify the accuracy of this record, since they didn't tape-record it either. As a result, we can never know for sure what was said leading up to the recapped confession statement or, for that matter, during it. An  unimpeachable record (audio or video) of the entire interrogation (not just the recap) could  have justified every step in the process. More and more police departments around the country are reaping the benefits of such procedure. It eliminates challenges of police coercion, provides good training protocols for new detectives, and has been found to be cost-effective. The true offenders are caught and the tactics  are observable to all who may be concerned about such things. Perhaps most of all, subsequent trials could avoid the "he said, she said" battle between the prosecution and the defense. It eliminates the reasonable doubt and relieves jurors of the need to make inferences based on second-hand information and the self-reports of the police.

In Adam Gray's case we can't know for sure whether or not the police coerced him to invent a false confession so that he could go free. It might seem unbelievable that anyone would naively create a false confession but it's quite likely that a child could submit to the influence of strong authority figures such as law enforcement officers and state's attorneys. We can't know what was going through the mind of a 14 year-old child who becomes subjected to the frightening experience of a police interrogation. For that matter, we can't even know how frequently adults actually act rationally under the power and pressure of  being interrogated at the police station. But a verifiable record would certainly help relieve the onus of some of these questions.

Posted by Roger Shuy at June 18, 2006 07:49 PM