For decades, State Law Enforcement Division agents have done most of their interviews of crime suspects without any recording equipment. After the interview, agents would write a summary of what the suspect said.
But that’s changing fast.
“We know jurors expect more now. They can take a picture or a video on their cellphone, and they think, ‘Why can’t you do that?’ ” said SLED chief Mark Keel.
In the past eight months, SLED has bought 14 audio-video laptop digital recorders and four stationary recording systems to use while interviewing suspects and witnesses. Made by Case Cracker – a Colorado company that has sold its systems to some 500 state, local and federal agencies – the equipment cost SLED about $166,000.
“They’re not cheap,” said Keel, who wants to buy about 40 more laptop recorders to be used by agents in the field. But, he added, “As technology has changed, SLED has changed with it.”
SLED’s 320-plus agents operate in all 46 S.C. counties, often helping smaller law enforcement departments.
But when a case makes its way to a courtroom, video-recorded interviews can be powerful.
In December 2016, for instance, federal prosecutors showed a jury the nearly two-hour videotaped confession of Charleston church massacre killer Dylann Roof. The video, made by FBI agents, left jurors with no doubt about Roof’s guilt or his lack of remorse.
The lack of a video also can create doubt in court.
For example, in 2015, SLED agents did not videotape their initial interview with former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager. Instead, agents wrote up what Slager told them about how he killed an unarmed African-American man.
At Slager’s 2016 state trial, his attorney quizzed SLED agent Charles Ghent about why SLED didn’t videotape Slager’s interview. That trial ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict.
The ‘CSI effect’
Across South Carolina, law agencies are moving toward more videotaping of interviews.
“I don’t know if you want to call it the ‘CSI effect’ or what,” said Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the S.C. Sheriffs’ Association, referring to a TV crime show that highlights the use of technology in law enforcement.
Sometimes, if there’s only a written statement, “the jury looks at it as if we’ve done something wrong,” Bruder said. “A lot of agencies, SLED included, are trying to move towards the standard that you try to get as much recorded as you can.”
Defense attorneys say the move is long overdue.
“It’s beyond time we started doing this,” said Columbia defense attorney Bill Nettles, a former U.S. attorney for South Carolina. “I applaud SLED. This is going to be good for everybody. At the end of the day, it removes the doubt.”
Columbia defense attorney Joe McCulloch said a videotaped interview “protects the innocent through an accurate portrayal of what was said. It protects a guilty person from having statements attributed to them they didn’t make. Capturing things in real time in audio and video ... is the best evidence there can be.”
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said his department has been videotaping interviews in serious crimes for months. “This is the world we live in now. Everything is videotaped. The public demands it, and it helps us whenever we go to court.”
Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook said his department has been using five video recording interview rooms – three at the department’s downtown headquarters and two at its Bluff Road annex – for about two years.
“Unfortunately, the days of a police officer being able to say, ‘This is what happened, and this is what he did’ – not every citizen trusts that,” Holbrook said. “Videoed interviews keep everybody honest. Tapes don’t lie.”
‘An eye-opener for the jurors’
Videos also can show something more, said 11th Circuit Solicitor Rick Hubbard.
“I’ve had a number of murders where the video not only captures what somebody says, but how they say it,” said Hubbard. “It’s an eye-opener for the jurors to see someone talk about killing people, and it doesn’t seem to register an emotional effect in their voice or expression.”
Mark Huguley, a former SLED agent who has written a book about the agency’s origins and history, praised the new interview cameras.
“It’s a good move,” said Huguley, who worked for SLED 30 years and retired as a major. “Every investigator has had a suspect say, ‘That’s not what I said’ or ‘I didn’t say it that way.’
“But when you have a video where jurors can hear and see the suspect making the statement, it is powerful evidence and hard for the suspect to deny.”