Man coerced to confess awarded $75,000 in damages

Joseph Masterpol was charged with a felony for making a bomb threat against his school when he was sixteen. Fast forward to today and he’s getting $75,000 in damages. A jury believes he was coerced to confess to a crime he didn’t commit.
Syracuse (WSYR-TV) -- Joe Masterpol still remembers his interrogation room vividly, because he still has nightmares that he's trapped there.

Masterpol was in tenth grade when a detective showed up at his school eight years ago, asking for help with a case at the Onondaga County Sheriff's Office. Joe says he had no idea he was about to be charged for a crime that he knew nothing about.

"He told me that my parents already knew what was going on. They were informed and on their way there and that we were going there to meet them...which was not true,” Mastepol said.

Masterpol, who was 16 at the time, says he was led to a small room with a mirror on the wall, a phone book on the floor and some chairs. He was offered a drink and a candy bar, but declined. During two and a half hours of questioning, Masterpol claims he repeatedly told detectives he wanted to see his parents.

“He would nod his head and say, ‘No, not until we know the truth,’” Masterpol continued.

Joe says detectives lied, claiming they had pictures of him leaving a bomb threat note in a bathroom days earlier at C-NS High School and that his best friend had confessed to their involvement. After his Miranda Rights were read, Masterpol says he told the detective he didn't understand what his rights were.

"He told me it was normal protocol and that he has to do that with everybody and that I was just there to help him and that I probably wouldn't need them anyway," Masterpol recalled.

Joe said he was raised to trust detectives. Now he fears them. The confusion on that day in January 2005 slowly chipped away at Masterpol's psyche. The interrogators never physically harmed him, but he began to fear they would.

"He did put his hands on me during the interview and that very much opened the door for me in my mind. I didn't know police could touch you and that very much intimidated me, Masterpol recalled. "Once the deputy got up, I flinched because I was under the impression that I was about to get hit, so I said, 'Okay, okay. I did it.'"

Masterpol said he didn't have time to regret his confession. He was eager to get home and claims he was told he would be allowed to leave with no consequences if he admitted to making the bomb threat.

Masterpol's Defense Attorney Kevin Kuehner was inspired to begin teaching a class on interrogations at SU. He discovered that few people believe they'd admit to a crime they didn't commit, but data shows many do.

"They confess because they get into a situation where they believe the penalty for confessing is lower than the penalty they're facing by continuing the interrogation,” Kuehner said. "I've had conversations with very skilled prosecutors who say in recent years or recent months, confessions are becoming less effective because people are starting to realize that it is not uncommon for a false confession to exist."

Kuehner says at one time, having a confession was considered a "done deal" for prosecutors. A push to videotape complete interrogations has altered the landscape in recent years.  

Masterpol's confession was not videotaped in 2005.  He called the process a guessing game, as he was fed information until he said exactly what interrogators needed to hear.

"I would then say, 'Okay, I put it in the first urinal near the wall.' He would yell and scream at me and say, 'No, no, that’s not where you put it. Come on. Tell me.' I said, 'Okay, the third urinal.' 'No, no Joey, you're lying,'" Masterpol said of the day he was interrogated. "He got into my mind and really just broke me."

After four days in jail, Masterpol finally did go home. Months later, the charges were dropped after another teen was arrested for the crime. Prosecutors say Joseph Larocca's fingerprint was found on the bomb threat note. Joe was relieved that he no longer faced a prison sentence, but says many people still don't realize he was never convicted. He had not been allowed to return to school for several months.

Kuehner took the case to court and a jury agreed his client was coerced to make a confession. Today, the Onondaga County Sheriff's Office tapes some interrogations for cases including homicide, rape, and robbery.

"I think the changes that have been made here are hugely effective and ironically, I believe that they’re going to save the taxpayers a lot of money,” Kuehner said. "If there is a videotape of the whole interrogation process, it makes the challenge much easier for a judge to rule on. There won't be much of a question. Judges will be able to review it and know whether the rules were followed or not."

Masterpol hopes his case will spare another teen from a lifetime of nightmares.

"No amount of money will ever take back what has been done to me and what I will be going through for the rest of my life." Masterpol said. "I have been waiting eight years, which is one-third of my life, to release these invisible shackles off of me and finally have my story be told.”

A county attorney told NewsChannel 9 that he may appeal the jury’s award to Masterpol for the time he spent in jail.

The Sheriff’s Office referred comment to the county's attorney.  When asked about their policy regarding videotaping of interrogations, a spokesperson said they are currently developing a new policy. In the meantime they are following guidelines set by the Onondaga County District Attorney's Office and the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.
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