Lawsuit Filed In Thrown-Out Worcester Confession

Worcester Police Sgt. Kevin Pageau, right, and Det. John Doherty interrogate Nga Truong, 16, following the 2008 death of her baby boy. (WBUR screenshot)

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

Truong and her son Khyle in 2008 (Courtesy)

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.”

Truong, in a 2011 interview with WBUR (screenshot)

Truong, in a 2011 interview with WBUR

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.

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  • Eric Herot

    Mr. Boeri,

    As always, thank you so much for putting so much time and energy into this story and for keeping it on the front page. Your eloquent and emotionally charged reporting single-handedly raises the standard of journalism the world over. Please keep talking about this.

  • ScrappyT

    Explosive and touching story. Thank you. Something that really needs to be covered.
    Many people find it hard to believe that someone could confess to a crime that the did not commit, but it happens in many cases.
    Of course, these cases often do not get covered. For example while most people remember the “Central Park Jogger Case” and how it stood for “out of control urban youth,” very few realize the 5 boys who confessed and were convicted later had their convictions overturned (hopefully Ken Burns’ new doc will rectify this).

  • Euphoriologist

    Thank you David Boeri and WBUR for the continuing investigation into this tragic incident. Great journalism like this is how wrongs are exposed and hopefully righted, making our community a better place to live in.

  • Marc

    Thank you for your relentless work on this sad story.

  • Anonymous

    Another reason to be careful when dealing with police. Current day law enforcement lacks honor. I hope the woman wins the law suit and the officers are terminated.

  • http://www.facebook.com/barnaby.wallace.1 Barnaby Wallace

    F cops.

  • Chris

    They’ve always lacked honor, this is nothing new. What’s horrible is that even in the face of this evidence, these guys have the full backing of their superiors. These men won’t face time, there will be no repercussions for them, aside from them learning to be craftier when pinning crimes on people they “know” are guilty. Next time they’ll just “lose” the tape.

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      one has already been promoted

  • Emilywaitress

    Those dectives should be drawn and quartered and then put in prison for the rest of thier miserable lives.

    • mooster

      You obviously don’t know what drawn and quartered means…

  • Kerthunk

    Even as the son of a cop, I have to say this: never say anything, ever, without your legal council present. They can prevent stuff like this from happening.

  • Worcester Resident

    As a Worcester resident – thank you Mr. Boeri. The work you have done in this case is remarkable.

  • Neena

    Worcester should settle this and fire these detectives.

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      instead gary gemme has promoted one of them

  • http://www.facebook.com/shannon.gardner.7165 Shannon Gardner

    …..aaaand this happened in Massachusetts. Such a shock. That place is a rot-hole of corruption and douchebaggery. I hope she wins.

    That said the likelihood of these Masshole cops losing their jobs is REALLY SLIM for the reasons mentioned above.

  • Davein

    Don’t EVER speak to the police without your attorney present! EVER!

  • SueLuttner

    Thank you for sticking with this important but unsettling story. I’m so glad this interview was taped, and that you forced its release.

    I would never have believed it before I started researching shaken baby syndrome 15 years ago, but a shocking number of “confessions” in infant-death cases come from confused, disoriented, and grieving parents, many of whom do in fact feel guilty, because they were in charge, and they let something happen to their baby. I’ve seen over-zealous prosecutions compound the tragedy for everyone, including the officers, who at some point need to re-think their strategies.

    For the story of a family torn apart when their son’s genetic disorder was misdiagnosed as shaking, please see http://onsbs.com/prologue/

  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    please keep digging david there are plenty more stories of Gemme’s corruption and O’brian it seems wont fire him for anything. maybe enough of a spotlight will finally rid of of these corrupt officials who destroy people’s lives

  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    david can we get some follow up? someone needs to put the screws to gary gemme and he has intimidated anyone here who is supposed to. we need a brave outsider to shed light on his injustices

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