The Case of Khemwatie Bedessie
June 25, 2007
Day Care Accusation: Is Khemwatie Bedessie Innocent?
National Center for Reason and Justice (NCRJ) board member Emily Horowitz and Debbie Nathan attended the New York City trial earlier this month of an immigrant woman who supposedly confessed to raping a preschooler. Shades of the old McMartin panic of the 1980s…with the issue of coerced confessions thrown in the mix. They wrote this op-ed piece, which was published in the City section of the New York Times. They will be writing more, and letting readers know when they're published at greater length, with deeper analysis.
June 24, 2007
New York City Section
Watching the Detectives
By DEBBIE NATHAN and EMILY HOROWITZ
THIS month, a jury convicted Khemwatie Bedessie, a 38-year-old day care worker, of raping and sexually abusing a 4-year-old boy she had been babysitting - crimes she confessed to committing. She faces 25 years in prison.
But the basis for her conviction, a videotaped confession, is highly dubious. Indeed the Bedessie case, like so many others before it, points out the need for legislation that would prevent confessions from being the sole reason for a conviction and that would require the police to videotape all parts of an interrogation, including the lead-up to a confession that could have been obtained by coercion.
The chilling charges against Ms. Bedessie have a suspect origin. In the Queens courtroom, the boy's mother testified that after she enrolled her son at Veda's Learning Center - where Ms. Bedessie worked - when he was 2, she frequently asked him, “at random,” if anyone was sexually abusing him.
Last year, he developed a rash on his buttocks. Again the mother asked if he'd been abused at Veda's. This time he said yes and named Ms. Bedessie as the perpetrator, even though when he was later examined at a hospital, no connection was found between the rash and sexual abuse. The child said nothing about Ms. Bedessie when questioned by the police. Still, Ms. Bedessie was arrested.
Aside from the fact that she does not fit the profile of someone who would sexually abuse children - most offenders are men; and female offenders are almost all teenagers, women who were egged on by men, drug and alcohol abusers, or young teachers dallying with adolescent students - there was no physical evidence of abuse and no direct accusation by the boy.
It makes far more sense to attribute the boy's accusations to suggestive questioning and false memory than to an actual crime. The case against Ms. Bedessie was weak since the police had no physical evidence of abuse. Indeed, it would probably have gone nowhere if she'd insisted on her innocence.
Instead, she confessed, after three hours in custody. On videotape she's calm and gives details like how the child touched her on her breast; how she took him to a bathroom; and that the sex she had with him lasted seven minutes.
But shortly after videotaping the confession, Ms. Bedessie said she'd been coerced into making it. Is this claim believable, given the graphic and convincing nature of her statement admitting to the crime? Yes, just look at the false confession videos recorded in the Central Park jogger case almost two decades ago.
The jogger tapes, too, are jaw-droppingly credible. The teenage boys, who were convicted and imprisoned before a single assailant came forward 13 years later and his DNA corroborated the claim, don't just say they committed rape in their taped confessions. They describe the color and texture of the victim's clothing. They quote insults they uttered while attacking her. They list who raped her first, and who went second and third. Meanwhile they calmly sip soda.
Who could imagine they weren't telling the truth? But, as experts point out, false confessions can appear very real. And the techniques used to produce them don't have to take much time. “I've seen interrogations that led to false confessions which lasted less than one hour,” says a Northwestern University law professor, Steven Drizin. In such a situation, he says, the defendant tends to be “highly vulnerable or suggestible.”
Ms. Bedessie fits the bill. An immigrant from Guyana, she's been in the United States for only six years, and she has only a fifth-grade education. Her language is Guyanese creole, and she struggles with American English. The police detective, she said, told her he had a tape of her assaulting the child. He told her she could go free if she confessed, but if she didn't, she would be brutalized at Rikers.
“I will do anything he want so he will send me home,” Ms. Bedessie testified, recalling the interrogation.
The detective, in fact, did not have a tape of her assaulting the child. Unfortunately, jurors take confessions at face value. They simply cannot fathom that someone would say they committed a heinous crime if they didn't.
Ms. Bedessie's conviction will probably be appealed. But however her case is ultimately resolved in the courts, we'll likely never know whether or not she was coerced.
There's a clear way to avoid confusion in the future: start videotaping as soon as police questioning begins. The New York County Lawyers' Association and the American Bar Association Section of Criminal Justice recommends it. This is policy in many European countries and the law in Illinois, Maine, New Mexico, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia, and has been voluntarily adopted in 500 jurisdictions. But not in New York.
Albany is considering a bill to mandate videotaping of interrogations. The Assembly has passed it; the Senate should as well. Why? Because false confessions are real and innocent people are jailed as a result. The evidence is overwhelming.
--Debbie Nathan is a journalist and book author. Emily Horowitz is a member of the board of the National Center for Reason and Justice.