November 20, 2007
EYEWITNESS HOLDS UP WELL UNDER CROSS EXAMINATION
To say Michael Dillon is understated is an understatement. He comes off as one guy who gives you nothing but the truth. No more, no less. Today, like yesterday, he was meticulous and consistent in his answers, always careful to distinguish between his state of mind at various points in time. If he doesn't remember something, he says he doesn't remember. At times the truth seemed like his life raft, the one thing he could rely on to get him through a relentless and adversarial cross-examination that was more like a game of gotcha than a search for the truth.
In his understated way, Dillon described today’s cross-examination, as well as the police who interviewed him for hours on three or four separate occasions in ‘96, as “businesslike.” But Dillon was clear that he found the process and the setting, both of the ’96 interviews and today’s cross-examination, “intimidating.”
The question is: what made Dillon change his story 180 degrees after those interviews with the police in ‘96? The more you know about it, the more the episode reminds you of a false confession, which we know takes place in one-fourth of wrongful convictions. Just ask Westchester's own Jeffrey Deskovic, a false-confession exoneree who has attended this week’s hearings. To learn how false confessions happen, read the report Westchester Distric Attorney Janet DiFiore ordered on the Deskovic case.
Imagine the scene with the sound off, when police went unannounced to pick up the 20-year-old Dillon, escorting him into the back of a patrol car and taking him down to the police station and sitting him across from detectives in what ADA Tim Ward took great care to call an “interview” room, but which we know is an interrogation room. In an interrogation, the goal is to get a suspect to say he’s guilty. The goal of today’s cross-examination clearly was to get Dillon to state that his October 3rd statement was false and his testimony was true. What was the goal of the police in their interviews of Dillon in the interrogation room? Was it to seek the truth or to win the answer the DA was going for today?
Among the lessons of false confessions are that they don’t require physical force to be coerced, that there are all sorts of psychological ways they can happen, and that we all have our limits, beyond which we’ll tell anyone what they want to hear. It stands to reason it would take less to influence an eyewitness to change his story than a suspect to implicate himself, because there's less directly at stake for the eyewitness. As to the question of whether an answer was forced in a specific instance, as Judge Bellantoni said in an exchange with ADA Ward, “It depends how you use the word ‘force.’” What would seem to matter more than what police did or didn’t do is whether Dillon is believable when he says he felt influenced by police into changing his story, to say nothing of the legal and ethical questions of whether these interviews should have been disclosed to the defense prior to trial.
In this context, Dillon’s unusual answer--"Not yes or no."-- to the question of whether his testimony was truthful makes perfect sense. Because, as a lot of false confession exonerees will tell you, Dillon says that following the multiple interviews with police he became at times unsure of what was true, acknowledging also that he may have felt “locked into” his testimony.
Immediately after the shooting, Dillon was sure what had happened, when he told the media and the police, "The black male was still swinging the bat at the older male" and "It's self-defense from what I saw." After hours of testimony, Dillon’s demeanor, as much as his answers, convinces you he told it as he saw it immediately after the incident on October 3rd, 1996.