Part 1 of a series (See more recent reports)
Introduction: A Stunning Real-Life Drama
WORCESTER, Mass. — The world has always had its ways of extracting confessions. The rack, the screw, dunking — a method applied to suspected witches in Salem — the old, recently revived art of waterboarding and the simple rubber hose that gave menace to “the third degree” in the black and white heyday of police detectives have all proven their worth in winning confessions. It was only in 1936 that the common practices of hanging suspects out of windows, hitting them with hoses, and plunging their heads under water were effectively outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Nowadays, police departments mainly rely upon psychological tools to extract confessions. If these methods seem less brutal in comparison, they can be even more effective, as a growing number of scientifically proven false confessions have demonstrated.
“Now you said to me earlier you were going to tell the truth,” a cop barks from across one side of the table to the young girl on the other side. “I’m waiting.”
“I did,” she pleads, and you can feel the air go out of the cramped room.
You’ve probably seen this confrontation before. Stark room, tense cops, taut lines. And based on the popularity of TV cop dramas over the years, including “Law & Order,” “CSI” and “Homicide,” you’ve probably seen it pretty often.
“No you didn’t,” the detective snaps back.
“Oh my God,” the suspect groans in sobbing denial.
“That baby was smothered. Somebody smothered him,” snaps the relentless detective.
The quality of the video isn’t as good as the hi-def fiction I can see any night of the week, but I am watching a DVD of a two-hour-plus interrogation that the Worcester Police recorded on Dec. 1, 2008. It’s the real thing. And the target is a 16-year-old girl, Nga Truong, who is accused of murdering her baby son the day before.
Eventually she agrees with the detectives that she smothered her baby. It’s stunning to watch, and though it takes longer than the standard 60-minute TV formula, the DVD demonstrates the dramatic psychological power of police to coerce confessions. In the case of Truong, it may also document a false confession.
I got the DVD by going to court and filing motions — the first one by myself and the rest with a WBUR lawyer — and then appeals and more motions.
That videotape was of crucial significance to the case. The police had no other evidence other than the confession. There were no witnesses, the autopsy report was inconclusive, and the 13-month-old boy, Khyle, had strep throat, tracheobronchitis, indications of a fever and a history of respiratory problems, including asthma, at the time of his death. When the judge, Janet Kenton-Walker, threw out Truong’s statements to police, she wrote that Truong “was a frightened, meek, emotionally compromised teenager who never understood the implications of her statements [to police].”
The judge reached that conclusion after watching the same videotape made by the in-accordance-with-Worcester-Police-Department policy.
Which was why we were determined to obtain the video. Meanwhile, Truong remained in jail awaiting trial, even though the judge had ruled that the girl’s confession and her other statements were inadmissible.
Truong would eventually win her freedom. The Worcester district attorney dropped the case against her in August of this year. And WBUR won the right to copy the interrogation, which demonstrates the brute force of psychological pressure detectives can apply against suspects, especially when they cross the line established by the courts.
‘Either You’re A Liar Or You Just Got The Worst Luck In The World’
The scene is a tight gray room in the Worcester Police Department. The door closes with the clang of a jail cell. On the other side of the table sits a Vietnamese-American girl. She’s 5-foot-3 and looks like a child. On the other side of the table are two cops. The camera on the wall behind them makes them seem taller. The one on the right is Sgt. Kevin Pageau, of the Worcester PD.
“Somebody hurt that baby and we need to know who it was and we’re going to find out who it was,” he tells her.
He’s moved beyond the introductory stages and niceties. His tone, his aggression and his body language indicate Truong is clearly his suspect.
“I’m telling you everything,” Truong responds.
But Pageau is having none of it.
“No, you’re not. Stop. Don’t lie to me, because that baby’s dead and there’s no reason for him to be dead.”
She’s only a couple of days short of her 17th birthday, but Nga Truong is in “the box.”
The 8-by-10 room has quickly gotten smaller. If this were a game of good cop/bad cop, Pageau would be the bad cop. He presses in on the sobbing teenager. “Now you said earlier you were going to tell me the truth. I’m waiting.”
“I did,” Truong insists, her voice small but emphatic here.
“No you didn’t,” Pageau jumps.
“Oh my God,” she sobs, her voice catching.
Only a day has passed since Worcester 911 got a pleading, hysterical call for help from the apartment where the teenager lived with her 13-month-old son, her boyfriend, her mother and her younger brothers. Khyle wasn’t breathing. An hour and a half later, a doctor at nearby Saint Vincent Hospital pronounced him dead.
Pageau punches the point. “That baby was smothered. Somebody smothered him… you have some bad luck watching kids.”
“Bad luck” is Pageau’s stinging reference to another death where Truong was present. Eight years earlier, when she was only 8 years old, her mother, Van Truong, left town and left her alone to look after her 3-month-old brother, Hein. When Hein suddenly became unconscious, his sister brought the infant to a downstairs neighbor. A call went out to 911, but it was too late. Hein could not be revived. The cause of death, ruled the medical examiner, was sudden infant death syndrome.
Then, eight years later, in 2008, when detectives look through police files and discover the earlier death, they have jumped to the conclusion: Truong has killed both her baby and her brother. Pageau’s voice turns into a snarl. Here’s the transcript:
“Your brother, how did he pass away?”
“Sudden death syndrome.”
“There’s no sudden death syndrome. Sudden death syndrome… how about big sister syndrome?
“You were watching him when he died … in your care. That baby mysteriously dies. And now, Khyle’s in your care, and he mysteriously dies. Either you’re a liar or you just got the worst luck in the world. How do you think a jury’s going to see that?”
A detective’s job is to collect facts. And of necessity that often puts them in confrontation with the people they question. “We represent the victims” is how homicide detectives often describe their role.
But for a teenage girl whose baby has been dead for no more than a day and a couple of hours, who pleads and cries through much of the interview, her attorney, Ed Ryan, has another description of what the cops are doing.
“This was psychological torture, is the best way to describe what they did to this young woman,” Ryan says. “This video should be used as an example of what not to do.”
Ryan, a past president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, calls this the worst case of coercion he’s seen in 35 years.
“Their interrogation was designed not to determine the truth, not to get at the facts,” he says. “Their intention was designed to force her to confess to doing it in the way they figure she did it. They are the ones that force-fed her the word ‘suffocation’ ” — and the word “smother.”
“It’s shocking that they didn’t take the time to consider there may have been an alternative reason for the child’s death,” Ryan says.
But Ryan is not present for the girl’s interrogation. Though the detectives have read Truong her right to have a lawyer present, they have failed to follow proper procedures, a judge later will later rule. So Truong has waived the rights she does not understand — and therefore hasn’t waived her rights at all.
Here in the interrogation room with the door closed, the detectives press on, intending to isolate Truong even further from denial or escape.
“‘Cause that medical examiner told me that that baby was smothered,” Pageau informs Truong. “Does that change your story? We have scientific evidence — one day after his death and believe me we’re still doing tests — I can tell you that that boy was smothered.” Then he adds with a punctuation point: “To death.”
In fact, none of that statement is true. Doctors and the medical examiner have told Pageau no such thing. In the courtroom language of black robes, his statements are “knowingly false.” In the language Pageau uses in the box with Truong, he is “lying.” But that too is part of the playbook. According to conventional training manuals for detectives, the purpose of interrogation is to get the suspect to incriminate herself or, better yet, make a full confession. Confessions are considered the queen of criminal evidence.
“Please believe me,“ comes the plea from the other side of the table.
“I don’t believe you,” Pageau retorts, “because I believe the scientists, I believe the doctors.”
Pageau knows, as he will later testify, that at the time of this interrogation the manner of Khyle’s death is “undetermined.” The medical examiner who conducted the autopsy just a few hours earlier has stated no cause of death. The child has shown no sign of injuries and his elevated body temperature after death (101 degrees Fahrenheit one hour after being declared dead) indicates, as Truong said, that her baby had a fever. And Khyle had a history of asthma. But in the box, the detectives betray no doubt.
“And I know how he died, which is why we are here,” Pageau continues.
I played those false statements and the rest of the tape for William Powers, a retired state detective who’s interviewed thousands of suspects and has trained countless detectives, as he now does at the Boston University School of Medicine.
“The court views all statements as to whether they were given voluntarily or coerced or not,” Powers explains. “One of the main factors that they look at is lying. And while they have never said flat out, ‘You cannot lie,’ it’s a real negative factor with the courts.”
Worse than one lie, Powers says, is two lies. In the case of Pageau and his fellow detective, John Doherty, the quiet man here who largely plays the role of good cop, the lies come in a stream. Yet they accuse Truong of lying to them every time she says she didn’t kill her baby.
“Cut the [expletive],” Pageau shouts at her at one point, to which Truong cries, “I‘m not lying.”
I also played the videotape for retired state Superior Court Judge Robert Barton, who in his long career presided over 150 murder trials and had the no-nonsense reputation of a former Marine.
“It was amazing to see that videotape and to see how they operated,” Barton said. “They started off with the presumption she was guilty, it was as simple as that. And therefore that’s how they operated.”
The detectives are as closed as the door is to alternative explanations.
Returning to Truong’s dead brother, Pageau tells her, “If you think this is going to be like that other baby that you were watching so well, you’re sadly mistaken. And you may have gotten away with it once. But you ain’t getting away with it this time.”
Detective manuals call this theme “maximization.” It’s meant to convey to the suspect the hopelessness of her situation. Continued denials will fail. Continued denials may even bring harsher consequences, as the detective warns his suspect. Detectives employ a veritable bullpen of interview themes. They’re like managers with relief pitchers — when one doesn’t work, they call in another.
Pageau’s partner, Detective Doherty, now switches from “maximization” to “minimization.” He offers Truong sympathy and plays down her responsibility. After all, he tells her, “you’re just a kid.”
“People will be much more understanding if you come forward and say, ‘I’m a 16-year-old girl, I lost it, this is what happened,’ than if the medical examiner has to get up there and testify, ‘This is what happened,’ and you’re still saying, ‘I don’t know what happened,’ OK?”
From their visit to the Truongs’ apartment and a check with the Department of Children and Families, the police have come to the opinion that the family is “dysfunctional.” The house is a mess. The police call Truong’s mother, who is only 14 years older, unfit. The state found she was neglectful after Truong’s brother died, and Truong, who ran away from home a year before, has had to do the work of not only caring for her baby but raising her four brothers and even changing her baby brother’s diapers.
“That ain’t right,” Doherty tells her. “That would make anybody angry, your mother’s laying in bed and telling you to go get a diaper, put a diaper on her kid,” to which Pageau adds: “Do this, do that. Feed ‘em. Take care of them.”
He continues to exploit the antagonism between Truong and her mother.
“It’s not fair to you,” Pageau says, softening his tone. “It’s not fair to you. You’re a kid. You should be able to be a kid. Right?”
By blaming Truong’s mother, the detectives make it seem they are giving Truong an excuse — this is part of the “minimization” — while at the same time they are dangling a motive for why she did what they accuse her of doing. Here’s more of the transcript:
Pageau: “‘Cause we know you’re pissed because you have to keep taking care of your mother’s kids, and you didn’t have a chance to be a kid. That’s why you smothered Khyle, didn’t you?”
“I did not.”
“That’s why you smothered him, didn’t you?”
“I would never kill him.”
The Inducements, And The Interrogation Turns
One way to extract a confession is to make it seem like an easier way of escaping the anxiety and stress of interrogation than continued denial. Once again the detectives pick up on the “you’re only a kid” theme. This time, Pageau makes an offer of help if she does confess.
“All everyone’s waiting for today is for you to admit to what you did so that we can start the process of getting you some help, getting your brothers out of that house, and getting them in a better home, where there’s a mom that gets up in the morning and takes care of them,” Pageau says.
“What kind of help am I going to get?” Truong asks a few minutes later.
It’s the sign that tells detectives they are close. Pageau tells her there are women on the other side of the door who help children “like you.” There are no women on the other side of the door. But Pageau presses closer.
“Tell us what happened,” he says, so “we can get help for your brothers [and you].”
And quietly, like sharing a confidence, he tells Truong she will get help and leniency in the juvenile court.
“Keep it in the juvenile court. Keep it in the juvenile system, where punishment is minimal, if any, let’s say there is any.” Confess and you will go into the juvenile system, he’s promising, where “punishment is minimal, if any.”
Powers, our expert detective, says the Worcester cops have crossed a big, bright line of the law.
“We can’t make promises. We can’t say we will do things that we can’t do,” Powers states. “When it comes to where children will wind up or where she’ll end up, that’s not our call. To say she will be tried as a juvenile versus as an adult, that’s not our call, that’s the call of the DA’s office.”
In the Worcester Police Department on Dec. 1, 2008, lies, promises and inducements — as they will later be called — now lead to a dramatic moment for a grieving teenage juvenile who doesn’t have an attorney and doesn’t understand her right to have one, as a judge will later rule.
“Do I have to say it?” she asks in a whisper.
“You do,” the sergeant says in an even lower voice.
Thirteen times she has said she didn’t kill her son. Sixty seconds of quiet sobbing transfix the room.
“I smothered Khyle,” comes the barely audible response.
“You smothered Khyle,” Pageau repeats.
When he asks her if she knows why she smothered Khyle, she says “no.” Her head drops.
“What did you smother him with?” Doherty asks. One of the stuffed bears, she says, but she can’t identify which one.
Shortly after, she asks, “Is it OK if I leave now?”
Of course, it has been her right to leave at any point during the interrogation, though the detectives haven’t told her that since the start, when by failing to give her proper Miranda warnings, they gave her warnings she did not understand, the judge will later rule.
“Sit tight,” they tell her. They leave her alone for 18 minutes.
When the detectives come back, she asks, “Will me and my brothers get to go to foster care?” That had been the promise she heard them make before she told them what they had pressed her to say.
Instead, they tell her they’re taking her upstairs and putting her under arrest. She looks at them in surprise; she’s already told them she has to leave to plan her son’s funeral.
“[That] shows what was going on in her mind at the time,” says Powers, the trainer of detectives. “Which is: ‘I will make the admission and I can go forward in my life and my brothers can go forward in their lives,’ not processing at 16 years old that she’s just admitted to a homicide.”
Truong is clueless.
“This has to be today?” she asks.
“It has to be today,” Pageau responds.
She becomes upset. “Is it going to be more than a day?”
It was more than a day. It was two and a half years.
She never got to her baby’s funeral. And remember the detectives’ promises that if she confessed she would go into the juvenile system? Nga Truong was charged as an adult — with murder.
We now know, because a Superior Court judge has so ruled, that her statements were involuntary. They were the product of coercion. So Truong’s statements were suppressed. But on the day of her arraignment on Dec. 2, 2008, reporters focused on her alleged confession, which, according to Worcester Police, only came after initial denials.
That confession may be the only lie she told.
So far, there’s been no comment from Worcester Police. There’ll be more on that Thursday. On Thursday, David interviews Nga Truong, explores how the case fell apart, and considers what, if anything, has changed in the Worcester Police Department and the DA’s office.