BOSTON — A 21-year-old woman is suing the city of Worcester after she spent almost three years in jail before being freed on a charge of murdering her toddler son.
As a teenager in 2008, Nga Truong, a Vietnamese-American, was sent to jail to await trial after she allegedly confessed to detectives that she had smothered her 13-month-old son.
But videotape of the police interrogation convinced a judge that Truong’s so-called confession was the product of coercive police tactics. WBUR first reported this story last year after WBUR successfully fought in court to obtain sound and video of the entire interrogation.
Truong was released from jail after the prosecution acknowledged it had no evidence of a crime other than her so-called confession. Now, the heart of Truong’s lawsuit is what the police themselves videotaped in a room called “the box.”
Back To 2008
Four years and three days ago, Truong sat in a cramped room that kept getting smaller. She was 16 years old and her baby, Khyle, had died the day before. Worcester Police Sgt. Kevin Pageau and his partner were convinced she’d killed him:
Pageau: “Somebody hurt that baby, and we need to know who it was, and we’re going to find out who it was — either the hard way or the easy way.”
Truong: “I’m telling you everything.”
Pageau: “No, you’re not. Stop. Don’t lie to me.”
The detectives had no evidence. And the autopsy stated no cause of death. But the two detectives knowingly and deliberately told the teenager otherwise:
Pageau: “‘Cause that medical examiner told me that that baby was smothered. Does that change your story? We have scientific evidence that that boy was smothered to death.”
Pageau was not telling the truth, as he later testified. Lying to witnesses is often part of the playbook for detectives. But Superior Court Judge Janet Kenton-Walker would later rule that the detectives went beyond making knowingly false statements. She found they engaged in a pattern of deception, trickery and implied promises targeting “a frightened, meek, emotionally compromised teenager who never understood the implications of her statements.”
“They literally tortured her psychologically into admitting something that she didn’t do,” said Truong’s lawyer, Edward Ryan. “And as a result of that she was deprived of her freedom for nearly three years.”
Truong’s Federal Lawsuit
The federal lawsuit (PDF), filed last Friday, alleges that police arrested Truong without probable cause, ignored her Miranda rights, coerced her into confession, and prosecuted her maliciously.
“This is an example of horrible police practice, horrible police investigation, poor training, poor supervision,” Ryan said. “It’s terrible.”
After the judge threw out Truong’s confession in February 2011, Worcester Police Chief Gary Gemme expressed full confidence in his detectives.
He did so again Monday, saying “I believe … the allegations … are unfounded and that the officers will be vindicated.”
Gemme also says that District Attorney Joseph Early validated both the interrogation and the arrest. But Early never appealed the judge’s order to throw out the confession, and he dropped the charges against Truong in August 2011, saying he had no other evidence against her.
“The chief is responsible personally,” said John Reinstein, a legal counsel to the Massachusetts ACLU, who is also representing Truong. The suit claims the chief didn’t provide proper training or supervision to Pageau, who testified before the judge that he didn’t know the age that defined a juvenile.
“He acknowledged on the stand that he had a little bit of training when he first became a police officer and nothing since then. He was essentially left on his own by the city,” Reinstein said.
Worcester City Manager Michael O’Brien said the city hadn’t received a copy of the suit, which also names him as a defendant, and would not comment.
But former Worcester Mayor and current City Councilor Joe O’Brien said, “the city’s response to this case has been disappointing. And I have been surprised that there has not been more concern expressed in the community.”
O’Brien added: “It is regrettable that often the change only happens because of litigation.”
The Video’s Role In A New Case
The interrogation video shows that the detectives told Truong they could help her and her brothers get away from her dysfunctional mother and into good homes if she “admitted what she did.”
After she was released from jail, I asked Truong why she had confessed:
Truong: “I would never, ever in a million years hurt my own child. I wanted to leave. I felt like the only way to leave was to tell them what they wanted to hear. So I just told them I did it.”
But instead of letting her go, the Worcester Police arrested her. Instead of treating her as a juvenile, as they promised, they charged her as an adult. Monday was her 21st birthday and the fourth anniversary of going to jail, and to solitary at that, without the chance to bury her son.
“She suffered enormously. She lost three years of her life,” her attorney, Ryan, said. “Her family was ultimately decimated. The emotional horrors that she’s undergone will stay with her for the rest of her life.”
It was the interrogation tape that convinced a judge that Truong’s confession was coerced and false. If the case ever goes to trial, Truong’s lawyers hope the video will have the same effect on the jury.