You’re called into the police station for an interview regarding the murder of a man in your apartment building. He was someone you only ever saw in the elevator or at the mailbox. Your most meaningful interaction was the one day that you tripped on a stray Verizon flier. He saw it and you both kind of laughed because it was a cartoonish misstep.
The man was shot while you were watching reality TV in your apartment and eating leftover Thai food. It’s unlikely you’ll be of much help in the investigation.
At the police station you’re sat in a cramped room and a detective gives you a can of Coke. She’s friendly, even tells a few jokes. But after some general questions about your work and your impressions of the deceased she levels with you “look, I know you shot your neighbor last week. I’ve got security footage and witnesses and DNA evidence.” You try to tell her that there must be a mistake. You’re innocent. She shakes her head.
“I already know that you did it. I just want to know why.”
Jose Peralta was just eighteen when the crime happened. He still had his baby fat and was cultivating a wisp of a mustache. According to a neighbor who taught Peralta basic woodworking, Peralta was kind and skilled with his hands. But school did not come easily to Peralta. He was enrolled in special education classes but failed many of the required credits and dropped out before earning his high school degree. That’s when he started working construction and met Jose Romero. In his thirties, Romero was a sturdily built man with a coarse black ponytail that ran down his back. The age difference and Peralta’s antisocial behavior made it difficult for the pair to chat but they worked well together, primarily cutting and installing insulation.
Here’s what we know:
On January 2, 2017 the two were supposed to drive to Bakersfield for a job, but Peralta’s silver Nissan Titan had a flat tire. Romero took a nap at Peralta’s house while Peralta and a group of teenagers worked on his truck, which was parked behind Tony’s Liquor Store. Among the boys were Peralta’s brother and Romero’s nephew.
They were in the middle of lifting the vehicle when Peralta’s neighbor, Jose Rodriguez rolled up in a black Dodge Charger. He leaned out of his car window and started shouting at Romero’s nephew and Peralta’s brother, accusing them of scratching his car. The young men attempted to calm Rodriguez but he kept yelling. The smell of alcohol wafted off his breath. In the fray, Peralta called Romero on the phone and Romero rode his bike to the site of the altercation. By the time he got there Rodriguez and the other boys were gone. It was just Peralta and his now-mended truck.
What happened next is less clear.
According to the prosecution, Romero and Peralta drove to Rodriguez’s house, lured him outside and then took turns stabbing him. Romero ran away, leaving Rodriguez bleeding out on the street. Peralta sat in the truck for three minutes before driving away.
According to Romero, he drove with Peralta to Rodriguez’s house and knocked on Rodriguez’s door, with the intention of clearing up the accusations about his nephew. But Rodriguez came out swinging, pushing Romero back towards the truck. The confrontation escalated and eventually Romero took a knife from the truck door and stabbed Rodriguez until he fell to the pavement. Then he ran away, leaving Peralta stunned in the passenger seat.
It’s Wednesday February 19 and Peralta is in court. He faces the charge of murder.
Peralta’s mother and siblings are hunched in the back row of the gallery – the girls in ripped jeans and sparkly sandals, the boys in athletic hoodies and sneakers. Throughout the trial Peralta glances back at them, giving a bright smile; like a child who found a lollipop in his pocket. He smiles while the medical examiner testifies about Rodriguez’ stab wounds. He smiles while a neighbor describes holding Rodriguez’s bleeding neck. He smiles while Detective David Ortiz asserts that after Romero stabbed Rodriguez, he handed Peralta the knife and Peralta finished the job.
The prosecution’s primary evidence for the murder charge is a confession that Peralta gave during a polygraph test after having been interviewed for 9 hours.
That confession didn’t come while Peralta was under arrest. After Rodriguez’ death, officers found Peralta and Romero working a job in Bakersfield. They arrested Romero and held Peralta for three days before letting him go. But after his release, Detective Ortiz was still suspicious of Peralta because he owned the truck and because Rodriguez’s wife, who witnessed part of the altercation, initially told police that she thought two men were involved in the stabbing. She first told officers that it was mostly Romero but he handed the knife to Peralta at the end. Then she said she wasn’t certain what happened. Later she stated that it was only Peralta who stabbed Rodriguez. During another statement she informed officers that there may have been three men.
That’s why, when Peralta came to get his backpack that had been confiscated from the truck, Ortiz took the opportunity to talk.
The entirety of the exchange was played in court. In the video, Peralta sat in a plastic chair, shoulders caved in towards his chest, in a fluorescent-lit white room. Ortiz, a tall man with a shaved head and muscular shoulders, performed what was either an interview or an interrogation, depending on your definitions.
He told Peralta that there was security footage of the altercation that showed him stabbing Rodriguez. Then the detective cocked his head. “I know you guys killed him. I just want to know why.” Peralta furrowed his brow, shook his head. To every accusation he mumbled one word answers. “No.” “What?” “Huh.” Then Ortiz changed his tactic. “Look,” he said “I think the guy was being an asshole…and you were defending yourself. But if you don’t talk, people are going to assume the worst.” According to Ortiz, the worst was that Peralta “stabbed the guy and then left him on the road to die like a dog.” Shaken, Peralta asked if he could leave and Ortiz nodded. “The door is open. You can leave whenever you want.” But he added that it wouldn’t look good and that he would only arrest him later.
Ortiz did not have security footage of the incident. Peralta had more options than saying he stabbed Rodriguez in self defense or allowing the court to assume he was a cold blooded killer. Leaving wouldn’t have hurt Peralta’s case.
Ortiz lied in order to manipulate Peralta into staying and confessing to a crime. What Detective Ortiz did was not wrong, at least not according to current law enforcement standards. Lying during an interview or interrogation is a legitimate tactic that has been codified since the 1969 case Frazier v. Cupp. Officers can lie about the existence of DNA or security footage or eye-witnesses. They can offer a false twofold path that implies that if the subject doesn’t talk they will be painted as a monster but if they confess they will be viewed as a sympathetic character. Officers can also imply that there will be consequences if the subject leaves despite the fact that they are holding the door wide open. And because that door is wide open, the officer never has to mirandize the subject.
The psychological domination created by such a web of lies can be trying even for individuals with the sharpest mental acuity. Eighteen year-old Jose Peralta did not fall into that category. Several academic assessments determined that he had an auditory processing disorder, a learning disorder that contributed to him being several years behind in math, reading, and basic comprehension.
The dizzying interview continued for hours. Peralta denying, Ortiz insisting, Peralta asking to leave, Ortiz allowing but advising against it. Peralta stood, wandered to the door, sat back down and slouched on a loop. There was one thing that Ortiz said would clear everything up: a polygraph test.
What happened during the polygraph would end up being the most incriminating piece of evidence against Jose Peralta.
It’s been hours since you arrived at the police station and you haven’t left your little white room. The accusations from the detective keep hitting you like an unrelenting wave. You’re getting tired. The plastic chair digs into your legs. Your only meal today was a candy bar from the vending machine. And the detective throws you a lifeline: the polygraph.
Do you take it?
Read part two of “Cops and the Art of Lying” here.