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Fri December 30, 2011
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How A Teen's Coerced Confession Set Her Free

Originally published on Mon January 2, 2012 6:53 pm

It's Dec. 1, 2008, a couple of days before Nga Truong's 17th birthday. Truong is in "the box," a tiny interrogation room at the Worcester, Mass., police department.

The day before, Worcester 911 had received a hysterical call for help from the apartment where the Vietnamese-American teenager lived with her 13-month-old son, Khyle; her boyfriend; her mother; and her younger brothers. Khyle wasn't breathing, and an hour and a half later, a doctor at a nearby hospital pronounced him dead.

Back in the interrogation room, Sgt. Kevin Pageau presses in on the sobbing teenager.

"Somebody hurt that baby, and we need to know who it was, and we're going to find out who it was," Pageau says.

"I'm telling you everything," Truong replies.

"No you're not. Stop. Don't lie to me," Pageau says.

In that room, Truong will admit to suffocating her son. She'll be arrested and she'll spend almost three years awaiting trial for murder. But a videotape that police made of that interrogation, which NPR member station WBUR fought in court to obtain, will eventually set her free.

That videotape provides a rare look into the interrogation room, and the potential power it gives detectives to coerce false confessions.

'The Worst Luck In The World'

Much of the recording shows Pageau and Detective John Doherty sitting across the table from a distraught Truong. The room is gray, and Truong wears a black and white sweatshirt.

"That baby was smothered. Somebody smothered him," Pageau says. "You have some bad luck watching kids."

That "bad luck" refers to the death, years ago, of Truong's 3-month-old brother, Hein. Truong's mother left her alone with the infant when she was only 8 years old. When Hein suddenly became unconscious, Truong brought him to a neighbor who called 911. But it was too late.

After an investigation and an autopsy, the medical examiner determined that Hein had died of sudden infant death syndrome. But when the two detectives learn of Hein's death, they quickly decide that Truong had killed her brother and now she's killed her baby, too.

"Sudden death syndrome? How about big sister syndrome?" Pageau says in the recording. "That baby mysteriously dies. And now Khyle's in your care, and he mysteriously dies. Either you're a liar or you just got the worst luck in the world."

Lies In The Interrogation Room

Homicide detectives are often required to confront the people they question. But in the case of a teenage girl whose baby has been dead for 27 hours and who pleads and cries through much of the interview, Truong's attorney, Ed Ryan, says this is psychological torture.

"Their interrogation was designed not to determine the truth, not to get at the facts," says Ryan, who wasn't present for the interrogation, when Truong didn't yet have a lawyer. "Their intention was designed to force her to confess to doing it in the way they figure she did it. They are the ones that force-fed her the word 'suffocation.' "

Pageau also fed her the word "smother," saying the medical examiner had determined Khyle had been smothered to death. But, in fact, the medical examiner said no such thing. Pageau was lying to Truong.

According to conventional training manuals, the purpose of interrogation is to get the suspect to incriminate themselves or, better yet, make a full confession. Confessions are considered the queen of criminal evidence, so in that room, Pageau does what he can to get the evidence he's looking for.

The detective knows, as he will later acknowledge in court, that the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy a few hours earlier has not yet discovered a cause of death. But in the box, he betrays no doubt.

"I know how he died, which is why we are here," Pageau tells Truong.

In fact, at this point, Pageau does not know how Khyle died. William Powers, a former Massachusetts State Police detective who has interviewed thousands of suspects and trained countless detectives, watched the videotape. He says that in Massachusetts, courts and judges take a particularly dim view of false statements by detectives.

According to Powers, "While they have never said flat out, 'You cannot lie,' it's a real negative factor with the courts."

The Worcester detectives continually lie to Truong while at the same time accusing her of lying to them every time she says she didn't kill her baby.

The Confession

"Maximization" is a technique detectives use to convey to the suspect the hopelessness of their situation. It's meant to give the impression that continued denials will fail and that confession is an easier way out. And that's just what Pageau does when he tells Truong, "If you think this is going to be like that other baby you were watching so well, you're sadly mistaken."

Eventually, the detectives switch from "maximization" to "minimization." Pageau's partner, John Doherty, offers Truong sympathy and plays down her responsibility for what they accuse her of doing. After all, Doherty tells her, "you're just a kid."

"People will be much more understanding if you come forward and say, 'I'm a 16-year-old girl. I lost it, this is what happened,' " Doherty says.

The detectives exploit the antagonism between Truong and her mother, who is only 14 years older than Truong. They say the house is a mess and that Truong's mother is unfit. While offering Truong an excuse, they dangle a motive for why she did what they accuse her of doing.

"It's not fair to you," Pageau says. "You're a kid. You should be able to be a kid, right?"

He continues, "We know you're pissed because you have to keep taking care of your mother's kids, and you didn't have a chance to be a kid. That's why you smothered Khyle, didn't you?"

"I did not," Truong replies.

"That's why you smothered him, didn't you?"

"I would never kill him."

That's when the detectives turn to another method of extracting a confession: making promises and offering inducements. They say they can get Truong help if she confesses.

"All everyone's waiting for today is for you to admit to what you did so that we can start the process of getting you some help," Pageau says, "getting your brothers out of that house and getting them in a better home, where there's a mom that gets up in the morning and takes care of them."

A few minutes later, Truong asks, "What kind of help am I going to get?" That's when the detectives know they're getting close. Pageau tells her there are women on the other side of the door who help children "like you." But there are no women on the other side of the door.

He tells her that if she confesses, she will get help and leniency in the juvenile court, saying, "Keep it in the juvenile court. Keep it in the juvenile system, where punishment is minimal, if any — let's say there is any."

Bill Powers, who trains detectives through Boston University, says that's where the Worcester cops cross a big, bright line of the law.

"We can't make promises. We can't say we will do things that we can't do," Powers says. "To say she will be tried as a juvenile versus as an adult, that's not our call. That's the call of the [district attorney's] office."

But Truong buys their promises.

"Do I have to say it?" she whispers.

"You do," Pageau replies, in an even lower voice.

Truong sobs for a whole minute, then delivers her confession: "I smothered Khyle."

When the detectives ask if she knows why she smothered Khyle, she says no and drops her head.

Later, she asks, "Is it OK if I leave now?" and "Will me and my brothers get to go to foster care?" Powers says those questions point to how clueless Truong was.

"[That] shows what was going on in her mind at the time," he says. " 'I will make the admission, and I can go forward in my life and my brothers can go forward in their lives,' not processing at 16 years old that she's just admitted to homicide."

The detectives tell Truong they're putting her under arrest.

"This has to be today?" she asks.

"It has to be today," Pageau says.

"Is it going to be more than a day?"

In fact, it was more than a day — it was two years and eight months.

Making The Case For A Bad Confession

On the tapes, the detectives promise Truong that she would go into the juvenile system if she confessed, but the teenager was charged as an adult with murder. Denied the right to attend her son's funeral, she was sent to jail where she spent her first four months in solitary confinement and on suicide watch.

"This entire case went off the rails from the moment these two officers decided that Nga Truong was guilty," says attorney Ed Ryan.

Truong had been locked up for two years when Worcester Superior Court Judge Janet Kenton-Walker heard Ryan's motion to suppress the confession. At center stage was the police videotape, and problems filled the screen as soon as Kenton-Walker started watching.

In the first three minutes of the recording, it becomes clear that the detectives don't even know how old their suspect is.

"You're going to be 18 in a couple days?" Doherty asks.

"I'm going to turn 17 in a couple days," Truong replies.

"Oh, you're not 17 yet," Pageau says, surprised.

At 16, Truong is still a juvenile, and as a juvenile she's entitled to special Miranda rights that the cops have failed to give her. That was the first reason the judge gave for throwing out the confession.

Kenton-Walker also concluded that Truong was "a frightened, meek, emotionally compromised teenager who never understood the implications of her statements."

In other words, Truong's statements weren't voluntary. That was the second reason Kenton-Walker gave for ruling in February 2011 that the confession was inadmissible and could not be used at trial.

Kenton-Walker also found that the detectives' use of false statements, deception, trickery and implied promises led to Truong's confession.

Six months later, Worcester County District Attorney Joe Early was forced to drop the case.

"There was no longer a confession in the case, nor any physical evidence," he says.

The lack of any physical evidence raises the question of why the two detectives presumed Truong to be guilty in the first place.

The official autopsy states the manner of Khyle's death to be "undetermined," and the death certificate describes the cause of death as "asphyxial death consistent with but not exclusively diagnostic of suffocation." Contributing factors, it says, were strep throat and tracheobronchitis. That's all on top of a history of asthma. Finally, the boy's body temperature was 101 degrees an hour after he died, suggesting he had a fever.

Whatever else may have happened to Khyle Truong, there's no doubt he was a sick boy.

"Mistakes were made," Early says, but he won't say anything critical about the Worcester Police Department.

Three Years Later And Trying To Move On

When I ask Nga Truong what is was like to get out of jail, she says she can't even explain it.

"I got into school, I got a job," she says. "It's been great."

In December 2011, just after the third anniversary of Khyle's death, Truong turned 20.

The Worcester Police Department never responded to repeated requests for interviews, and Sgt. Kevin Pageau says department policy prevents him from commenting.

But the department did release a written statement saying that Pageau and Doherty "continue to perform their duties as investigators with the full support and confidence of the police administration."

Truong has been free for just four months. She says she's struggling to rebuild her life, but she's no longer angry at the police — they were just doing their job.

I finally get to ask her why, three years ago, she confessed to something she didn't do.

"It was a pretty long two hours, and all I could hear throughout those two hours was that they were going to give me help if I confessed," she replies. Then she apologizes, bows her head and starts crying.

"I never thought of the consequences."

Copyright 2014 WBUR. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

Now a rare glimpse into police interrogation techniques and the power that detectives wield that can result in false confessions. Our story began in Worchester, Massachusetts, where a teenaged mother was accused of killing her toddler. Nga Troung repeatedly told police she did not do it. But under aggressive questioning, she admitted to suffocating her son. She was arrested and spent almost three years awaiting trial for murder. Finally, a judge reviewed a videotape of her confession and ruled that it had been coerced.

Reporter David Boeri, of member station WBUR, fought in court to get access to that videotape. And he put together this anatomy of an interrogation gone wrong.

SERGEANT KEVIN PAGEAU: Somebody hurt that baby and we need to know who it was. And we're going to find out who it was.

DAVID BOERI, BYLINE: She's a couple days short of her 17th birthday, but Nga Troung is in the box; a tiny interrogation room at the Worchester Police Department.

NGA TROUNG: I'm telling you everything.

PAGEAU: No, you're not. Stop. Don't lie to me.

BOERI: Sergeant Kevin Pageau of the Worcester Police Department presses in on the sobbing teenager.

PAGEAU: Now, you said earlier you were going to tell me the truth. I'm waiting.

TROUNG: I did.

PAGEAU: No you didn't.

TROUNG: Oh, my God.]

(SOUNDBITE OF SOBBING)

BOERI: Only a day has passed since Worcester 911 got a pleading hysterical call for help from the apartment, where the Vietnamese-American teenager lived with her 13-month-old son, Khyle, her boyfriend, her mother and her younger brothers. Khyle wasn't breathing. An hour and a half later, a doctor at a nearby hospital pronounced him dead.

PAGEAU: That baby was smothered. Somebody smothered him. You have some bad luck watching kids. But not really.

BOERI: Bad luck is a stinging reference to another death, that of Truong's brother. When Truong was only eight years old, her mother left her alone with her three-month-old brother, Hein. When Hein suddenly became unconscious, Truong brought him to a neighbor who called 911. But it was too late.

After an autopsy and investigation, the medical examiner ruled that the cause of Hein's death was sudden infant death syndrome. But now, after the Worcester detectives learn about Hein's death eight years later, they've quickly that Truong killed her brother and has killed her baby, too.

PAGEAU: There's no sudden death syndrome. Sudden death syndrome? How about big sister syndrome? You were watching him when he died, right? And now, Khyle is in your care and he mysteriously dies. Either you're a liar or you just got the worst luck in the world.

BOERI: Homicide detectives are often required to confront the people they question. But in the case of a teenage girl whose baby has been dead for 27 hours, who pleads and cries through much of the interview, her attorney, Ed Ryan, says this is psychological torture.

ED RYAN: Their interrogation was designed not to determine the truth, not to get at the facts, their interrogation was designed to force her to confess to doing it in the way they figure she did it.

BOERI: But attorney Ryan was not present for the girl's interrogation. She had no lawyer.

PAGEAU: That medical examiner told me that that baby was smothered.

BOERI: Doctors and the medical examiner have told Sergeant Pageau no such thing. He's lying to Truong.

According to conventional training manuals, the purpose of interrogation is to get the suspect to incriminate herself or, better yet, make a full confession. Confessions are considered the queen of criminal evidence.

TROUNG: Please believe me.

PAGEAU: I don't believe you, because I believe the scientists. I believe the doctors.

BOERI: Sergeant Pageau knows, as he will later acknowledge in court, that the manner of Khyle's death is undetermined. And that the medical examiner - who conducted the autopsy a few hours earlier - has not yet discovered a cause of death. But in the box, the detectives betray no doubt.

PAGEAU: I know how he died, which is why we are in here.

BOERI: In fact, at this point, he does not know how he died.

I played those false statements and the rest of the tape for William Powers, a retired Massachusetts detective who's interviewed thousands of suspects and has trained countless detectives.

In Massachusetts, he says, courts and judges take a particularly dim view of false statements by detectives.

WILLIAM POWERS: And while they have never flat out said: You cannot lie, it's a real negative factor with the courts.

BOERI: The Worcester detectives continually lie to Truong, while at the same time, accusing her of lying to them every time she says she didn't kill her baby.

PAGEAU: Yeah, we're going to go now. Cut the (CENSORED)

TROUNG: I'm not lying.

PAGEAU: If you think this is going to be like that other baby that you were watching so well, you're sadly mistaken.

BOERI: Detectives call this theme maximization. It's meant to convey to the suspect the hopelessness of her situation. Continued denials will fail.

Sergeant Pageau's partner, detective John Doherty, now switches from maximization to minimization. He offers Truong sympathy and plays down her responsibility. After all, he says, you're just a kid.

DETECTIVE JOHN DOHERTY: People will be much more understanding if you come forward and say: I'm a 16-year-old girl and I lost it, this is what happened.

BOERI: The detectives exploit the antagonism between the girl and her mother, who is only 14 years older. They say the house is a mess and that the mother is unfit.

DOHERTY: That would make anybody angry. Your mother is laying in bed, telling you to go get a diaper and put a diaper on her kid.

PAGEAU: Do this, do that. Feed him, take care of him.

BOERI: While offering Truong an excuse, they dangle a motive for why she did what they accuse her of doing.

PAGEAU: It's not fair to you. It's not fair to you. You're a kid. You should be able to be a kid. Right? And that's why you smothered Khyle, didn't you?

TROUNG: I did not.

PAGEAU: That's why you smothered him, didn't you?

TROUNG: I would never kill.

PAGEAU: Really?

BOERI: One way to extract a confession is to make it seem an easier way of escaping the stress than to go on denying. The detectives also make an offer of help if she does confess.

PAGEAU: All everyone's waiting for today is for you to admit to what you did, so that we can start the process of getting you some help, getting your brothers out of that house and get them in a better home.

BOERI: What kind of help am I going to get, Truong asks a few minutes later. It's the sign that tells detectives they are close. Pageau tells her there are women on the other side of the door who help children like you.

There are no women on the other side of the door. But Pageau tells Truong she will get help and leniency in the juvenile court. Listen carefully.

PAGEAU: In the juvenile courts, juvenile system, that's where punishment is minimal if any.

BOERI: Confess and you go to juvenile, he's promising, where punishment is minimal if any.

Our expert detective, William Powers, says the Worcester cops have crossed a big, bright line of the law.

POWERS: We can't make promises. We can't say we can do things that we can't do. To say that she'll be tried as a juvenile versus an adult, that's not our call. That's the call of the district attorney's office.

BOERI: But Troung buys their promises.

TROUNG: Do I have to say it?

PAGEAU: You do.

BOERI: Do I have to say it, she whispers? You do, the sergeant says in an even lower voice. She sobs for a whole minute, then...

(SOUNDBITE OF SOBBING)

TROUNG: I smothered...

PAGEAU: You smothered Khyle?

(SOUNDBITE OF SOBBING)

BOERI: When he asks her if she knows why she smothered Khyle, she says no. Her head drops. Is it okay if I leave now, she later asks the detectives.

She seems clueless, I point out to William Powers. She then asks the cops...

TROUNG: Will me and my brothers get to a foster care?

BOERI: The first thing she asks when they come back is: Will me and my brothers get to go to foster care?

POWERS: Right, which is thinking this is - I'll make the admission and I can go forward in my life and my brothers can go forward in their lives, not processing at 16 years old that she has just admitted to homicide.

BOERI: The detectives tell Truong they are putting her under arrest.

PAGEAU: OK.

TROUNG: This has to be today?

PAGEAU: It has to be today.

TROUNG: Is it going to be more than a day?

BOERI: It was more than a day. It was two years and eight months.

Remember the detectives' promises she would go into the juvenile system if she confessed? Nga Truong was charged as an adult with murder. Denied the right to attend her son's funeral, she was sent to jail, where she spent her first four months in solitary on suicide watch.

RYAN: This interrogation, this entire case went off the rails from the moment these two officers decided that Nga Truong was guilty.

BOERI: That's Ed Ryan, who became her attorney.

Truong had been locked up for two years before Worcester Superior Court judge Janet Kenton-Walker heard Ryan's motion to suppress the confession. At center stage was the police videotape. And problems starting filling the screen as soon as the judge started watching.

PAGEAU: You have the right to remain silent. Do you understand this right?

TROUNG: Yes.

BOERI: As the judge saw in the first three minutes, these detectives don't even know how old the suspect is.

PAGEAU: You're going to be 18 in a couple days.

TROUNG: I'm going to turn 17.

PAGEAU: Oh, you're going to turn 17 in a couple of days?

DOHERTY: Oh, you're not 17 yet?

TROUNG: No.

BOERI: Here's problem number one. Truong is still a juvenile and, as a juvenile, she's entitled to special Miranda rights that the cops have failed to give her. And here's problem number two, and another set of grounds on which the judge threw out Truong's confession last February.

PAGEAU: Are we going to keep doing this? Or are you going to tell me what happened?

NGA TRUONG: I don't know.

BOERI: After watching the tape, the judge concluded that Truong was a frightened, meek, emotionally compromised teenager who never understood the implications of her statements. The judge also found that the detective's use of false statements, deception, trickery and implied promises led to Truong's confession.

Because Truong's statements were not voluntary, the judge ruled they were inadmissible. Six months later, in August, Worcester County district attorney Joe Early dropped the murder charge.

JOSEPH EARLY: There was no longer a confession in the case, nor any physical evidence.

BOERI: No physical evidence, which raises the question of why the two detectives presumed Truong guilty in the first place. The official autopsy states that the cause of death is undetermined and the death certificate reads, asphyxial death consistent with but not exclusively diagnostic of suffocation. Contributing factors, it says, are strep throat and trachea bronchitis. This was on top of a history of asthma.

And the boy's body temperature was 101 degrees an hour after he died. Whatever else may have happened to Khyle Truong, he was a sick boy.

What's it like to get out?

TRUONG: I can't even explain it. Like, I got into school. I got a job, but it's been great.

BOERI: I'm sitting across from Nga Truong. She turned 20 just after the third anniversary of Khyle's death.

Of course, the tape shows that you told them you smothered Khyle, so why would you confess to committing something that you didn't do?

TRUONG: It was a pretty long two hours and all I heard throughout those two hours is that they're going to give me help if I confess. I'm sorry.

BOERI: Truong apologizes for breaking down. She's been free for just four months. She's struggling to rebuild her life, but she's no longer angry at the police, she says. They were just doing their job.

The Worcester, Massachusetts Police Department never responded to our repeated requests for interviews and detective Pageau said department policy prevents him from commenting.

District attorney Joe Early acknowledges that mistakes were made, but he will say nothing more critical than that about the Worcester police.

EARLY: They do very good work and we have a great working relationship with them.

BOERI: The police department released a written statement saying that the detectives in the case continue to perform their duties as investigators with the full support and confidence of the police administration.

For NPR News, I'm David Boeri.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You can watch video of Nga Truong's interrogation at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.