injusticebusters logo

Benton Butler case news

Duval will videotape homicide confessions:
Teen's case prompts sheriff's decision

Benton ButlerJacksonville police will begin videotaping homicide confessions, Sheriff Nat Glover announced yesterday, a day after an Oscar-winning documentary about a local teenager falsely accused of murder premiered nationally.

Despite the timing, Glover said he decided about a month ago to begin videotaping the confessions but initially not the interrogations that lead to them. He said he didn't know when the videotaping would start.

"I wasn't certain that we needed videotaped confessions, but I've come to the conclusion that we need to try it," Glover said during a news conference.

Videotaped interrogations were a chief recommendation in August by a Duval County grand jury that probed the arrest and prosecution of Brenton Butler, a 16-year-old acquitted in the 2000 slaying of a Georgia tourist at a Southside motel. The teen testified detectives, including Glover's son Michael, beat a confession from him. Two men were later arrested in the shooting and are awaiting trial.

Brenton Butler's case was the subject of "Murder on a Sunday Morning", which won the Academy Award for best feature documentary last month and premiered Sunday on HBO.

Chief Assistant Public Defender Bill White said Sheriff Glover's action doesn't go nearly far enough because the risk remains that something improper will be done outside the public eye.

"It may even end up making the Sheriff's Office look worse," said White, whose office represented Butler. "They need to tape the interrogations. I don't think it's a step forward."

Chief Circuit Judge Donald Moran said videotaping will help judges decide whether confessions were freely and voluntarily given.

"For a judge, it's always better to have more evidence, and I don't think you can have more evidence than that," Moran said. "I don't see a downside."

Prosecutors said videotaping would strengthen their cases but warned that recording defendants' confessions could still leave room for allegations of abuse or coercion during times when the camera was off.

"Sometimes the best statements are made spontaneously," said Assistant State Attorney Angela Corey. "You can't have a cameraman running behind the suspect all the time."

Chief Assistant State Attorney Jay Plotkin said police have been moving toward videotaping since well before Butler's arrest.

"What the Butler case did was it gave the public some concerns about practices during interviews by the Sheriff's Office," he said. "By having this on videotape, the belief is this takes care of the public's concern."

Prosecutors worry that videotaping confessions will capture police interrogation tactics that, while legal, might appear unsavory to jurors.

"There are certain things that the U.S. Supreme Court has said are all right to do in an investigation," Corey said. "It's OK to lie to a defendant to test their story. ... But that's something that might be hard for a jury to see on a tape and understand."

Glover said he took prosecutors' concerns into account.

"Ultimately that's my call to make," he said.

Wiring the two homicide interview rooms at the Police Memorial Building will cost about $38,000, and Glover said police are just beginning the process. Chief of Detectives Frank Mackesy said he polled detectives in the homicide unit and most favor videotaping.

Glover said he also will review how detectives are scheduled, to ensure that none works extremely long hours without a break, and has established a process where cases are reviewed every 15 days by detectives and supervisors "to make certain that nothing was left undone."

Both were issues in the Brenton Butler case; the lead detectives had been on duty 16 hours when assigned the case and were criticized for never searching the contents of the victim's purse.

As for the documentary, the sheriff said it was difficult to watch because "it focused on an investigation I called woefully inadequate." He said he taped it and watched it yesterday morning.

"It's not indicative of the caliber of work, the caliber of officers, we have down here," Glover said. "The documentary did not spend much time on subsequent events," such as the grand jury probe or his apology to the Butler family.

The film already was affecting jurisprudence in the courthouse yesterday morning. In the same courtroom where Butler was acquitted, prosecutor Rich Mantei asked a group of prospective jurors for a drug trial if they had seen the documentary.

A few hands went up and most jurors said they had heard about the case.

"It was something I sort of had to ask," Mantei said. "We need to see what kind of exposure jurors have had."


Some wary of videotaping confessions:
Watching tactics may disturb jurors

Whether he put cameras in interrogation rooms or not, Jacksonville Sheriff Nat Glover knew he was going to make people unhappy. So he made a compromise.

And in the weeks since he announced his plan to tape only homicide confessions, critics of the policy have accused Glover of going only halfway. They say his failure to order complete video records of the entire interrogation process leaves the door open for police abuse.

Videotaping became an issue mostly because of the Brenton Butler case, in which the Jacksonville teen said he was beaten by police during a murder investigation in May 2000. As a result of his allegations, the grand jury recommended the Sheriff's Office consider videotaping.

Glover says taping only confessions is the logical first step.

"What's best for Jacksonville now is to start at this level," he said. "This decision was made consciously."

Jacksonville is one of a growing number of American cities dabbling in taping confessions. But even as technology becomes increasingly central to law enforcement, cameras in interrogation rooms still are viewed warily by police and prosecutors.

Only two states -- Minnesota and Alaska -- mandate interrogations be recorded from start to finish. In Florida, a handful of police departments have formal policies requiring officers to tape.

The hesitation comes from concern that a videotaped confession may be more vulnerable to attack by defense lawyers than one that is written and signed but unrecorded.

Robert Rios, a retired Broward County police officer who authored a textbook on interrogation techniques, said in cases with taped confessions defendants can cite specific actions by police and argue those actions made them feel coerced. Such accusations can lead to confessions being thrown out so juries never hear about them.

And even if the judge allows a taped confession into evidence, harsh but legal interrogation room tactics often do not play well to jurors.

"The things police do may be legal, but they shock most people," Rios said. "They see the yelling, the intimidation. To the average person, this tends to be revelation."

Rios said any taping is a hindrance for law enforcement, whether of the confession or of the entire interrogation.

Jacksonville prosecutors expressed similar concerns about taping. Besides alarming jurors, taping entire interrogations would lengthen trials because juries would have to watch the tapes from start to finish, prosecutors said.

"Criminal trials are about momentum," said Chief Assistant State Attorney Jay Plotkin. "Making a jury watch several hours of interrogation can destroy that momentum very quickly."

Plotkin said the nature of conversations in the interrogation room makes videotaping impractical because interrogations rarely are sequential discussions.

Instead, they often are meandering conversations where, at least initially, the suspect tells more lies than truths. In addition, suspects or police may make reference to things juries cannot hear, such as prior convictions, which are typically inadmissible during trials.

Plotkin said such realities of interrogations can be confusing to jurors and damaging to the state's case.

But in Minneapolis, where police videotape interrogations in their entirety, prosecutors say the process moves smoothly. Though juries sometimes have to sit through long videos, pretrial agreements between the state and the defense eliminate many such lags. And inadmissible statements made during the interrogation are edited out so the jury cannot hear.

"When it first came into effect there was concern from police and prosecutors alike, but to the contrary, we've found it very helpful," said Amy Klobuchar, Minneapolis' head prosecutor. "It allows juries to see the demeanor of the suspect immediately after the crime and protects the police from claims of coercion or abuse."

Richard Ofshe, a social psychologist and national expert on confessions and interrogation, said juries can get a complete picture of the interrogation only if it is recorded from start to finish.

"The only reason not to tape the entirety of the interrogation is to preserve for the interrogator the ability to break the law and use dangerous and improper methods," Ofshe said.

Glover said the decision to tape only confessions is not grounded in any desire to conceal how police conduct interrogations.

He said taping the summaries will accomplish the same thing as recording the whole interrogation because jurors will see a defendant's mood and judge for themselves if the confession was voluntary.

Glover hopes to implement the new videotaping policy in three to four months.

But State Attorney Harry Shorstein is skeptical about how much good taping will do.

"In the end, it's still going to come down to how much credibility the officer has in the eyes of the jury," Shorstein said. "Videotape is not going to change that."


Riveting tale, but questions linger

This year's Oscar-winning documentary feature, which plays on HBO Sunday, begins with a scene of The Jacksonville Landing and the downtown skyline.

Then come the words, in big white print: "The following events took place in Jacksonville, Florida."

The city looks great, like a beauty shot in a Monday Night Football broadcast. But what happens next in Murder on a Sunday Morning, which follows the 2000 murder trial of 15-year-old Brenton Butler, isn't exactly Chamber of Commerce material.

In fact, it paints the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, in its handling of this particular case, at least, in a decidedly uncomplimentary way.

Under the courtroom questioning of public defenders, the documentary forcefully reaches this conclusion: The police in this case were almost mind-bogglingly inept.

Granted, Murder on a Sunday Morning is advocacy filmmaking, told from a one-sided perspective. That's both its strength and its weakness: It becomes gripping as we watch Butler's public defenders rise to his defense, but something nags. What's the other side thinking? Are we getting the whole picture? Murder would have been a better film if it had tried to tell the story more completely -- or at least told us why it couldn't.

But it does have a plot fit for a paperback best-seller. And it does finds a couple of real-life heroes in two Duval County public defenders, Patrick McGuinness and Ann Finnell -- along with jurors who eventually did the right thing.

McGuinness and Finnell defended Butler, who was charged with killing Mary Ann Stephens, a Georgia tourist, outside her Southside motel room. The victim's husband identified Butler, who later signed a confession. The documentary tracks the trial to its conclusion, when jurors decided the eyewitness was wrong -- and that the confession had been beaten out of Butler by detectives, including Sheriff Nat Glover's son, Michael.

Butler was acquitted in less than an hour.

Murder on a Sunday Morning was made by a French film crew led by director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and producer Denis Poncet. They were in Jacksonville making a documentary on the American legal system when the Butler case came along. Displaying good instincts, they jumped all over it and stuck to it doggedly.

Murder on a Sunday Morning benefits from great access to the courtroom maneuverings of the case, in which the public defenders were able to dismantle much of the testimony of police.

The filmmakers had access to Butler's family, who are shown as they pray at home and as they pray at the jail with their son. But the bespectacled 15-year-old at the heart of the trial remains an enigma: He is not interviewed by the filmmakers. (In fact, he's declined comment on the case since his acquittal.)

It also goes behind the scenes to show the two public defenders doing their legwork in Butler's defense: talking to police, talking to Butler's family, walking the crime scene, planning their courtroom moves.

The documentary closes with a wicked twist to the case that looks as if it's right out of a good crime novel. But this, as it makes clear, really happened.