7th Circuit Recognizes Irrelevance of Shaken Baby Confession

Aleman v. Village of Hanover Park (2011)

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has held a confession made in a shaken baby case legally useless. The court’s analysis could apply to other confessions that also come in response to inaccurate technical information.

The court’s opinion was written by Judge Richard Posner. Posner is perhaps the most eminent American judge not sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court. His role will enhance the decision’s persuasive impact on other courts.

The confession came to the court via an unusual route. Rick Aleman had been prosecuted for the first-degree murder of a baby boy at his day-care service. The prosecutor dismissed the charge before trial. Aleman then sued several police officers and the village employing some of them for violations of his civil rights. The district court granted the defendants summary judgment—victory without trial—and Aleman appealed that judgment to the Seventh Circuit.

On facts that were in dispute, the Seventh Circuit accepted Aleman’s version. (The law requires courts to do so when deciding whether summary judgment, rather than trial, is the way to decide a case.) Likewise, here I assume Aleman’s evidence is accurate as I report the facts of the case.

Eleven-month-old Joshua Schrik was lethargic and feverish both of his first two days at Aleman’s day-care. Shortly after arriving for his third day, he began gasping for air. Then he collapsed. Aleman picked him up and, because he was showing no signs of life, shook him gently to get some response. He got none. Aleman performed CPR and called 911.

After the baby had gone to the hospital, police interrogated Aleman. They told him all three doctors treating the baby had said he had been shaken in a way that would render him unconscious immediately. In fact, the doctors had not said this; the police lied when they said the doctors had.

The doctors’ purported opinion meant Aleman’s shaking must have caused the baby’s injury, since he had been conscious when he arrived at the day-care. Aleman’s response to the police lie was to confess: “I know in my heart that if the only way to cause [the injuries] is to shake that baby, then, when I shook that baby, I hurt that baby…. I admit it. I did shake the baby too hard.”

The Seventh Circuit found Aleman’s Miranda rights had been violated because he had indicated a desire for counsel during his interrogation, and no lawyer had been provided. But aside from that, the court ruled, the police’s false account of the doctors’ statements had coerced Aleman’s confession. This was so because Aleman had no basis to question the doctors’ opinion. The court said:

The lies convinced Aleman that he must have been the cause of Joshua’s shaken-baby syndrome because, according to [Officer] Micci, the doctors had excluded any other possibility.

Courts have been reluctant to deem trickery by the police a basis for excluding a confession on the ground that the tricks made the confession coerced and thus involuntary. … The confession must be excluded only if the government feeds the defendant false information that seriously distorts his choice….

In this case a false statement did destroy the information required for a rational choice. … Aleman had no rational basis, given his ignorance of medical science, to deny that he had to have been the cause [of death].

Further, the court said, the police lie had rendered Aleman’s confession unreliable. That was a third reason to find it inadmissible. Again the reason was that the lie left Aleman with the belief he must have caused the baby’s death.

If a question has only two answers—A and B—and you tell the respondent that the answer is not A, and he has no basis for doubting you, then he is compelled by logic to “confess” that the answer is B. That was the vise the police placed Aleman in. … A confession so induced is worthless as evidence.

A confession that is worthless as evidence should not, of course, be admitted in a trial. Had Aleman’s case gone to trial, his confession should have been excluded as irrelevant. That is the implication of the Seventh Circuit’s analysis.

The Seventh Circuit’s analysis could be applied to cases that do not involve infant head injury and even to cases in which the police misinform the suspect unintentionally. Any time a suspect hears that technical evidence he is not equipped to question shows he must be guilty, he is put in the vise the police put Aleman in. And this is so even if the police misinform him by mistake, rather than through trickery; a suspect’s response to being put in the vise will not vary according to the hidden intent of the persons who put him there.