- Associated Press - Monday, May 26, 2014

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota’s top federal prosecutor says a new Justice Department policy on electronic recording is a good idea and cites a recent case in which prosecutors had to deal with competing confessions.

The new policy looks to agents to record interviews with suspects who have been taken into custody, but haven’t appeared in court. The change has been “a long time coming,” U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon said.

“This is an issue that I have been dealing with for 20 years on both sides of the courtroom,” Purdon said. “And as a prosecutor, I can tell you that having recordings of confessions makes trials a lot easier.”

Neil Fulton, head of the federal public defender’s office for the Dakotas, said the policy shift is important to help ensure a “full and fair court review” of statements by witnesses. But it doesn’t cover all interviews, he said.

“It is crucial to note that this applies only to custodial interrogations and many, if not most, interrogations are conducted prior to taking the person into custody,” Fulton said. “It is a step, not a solution.”

The case against Valentino “Tino” Bagola, accused of murdering two children on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation, came down to the jury deciding on a pair of confessions, one from the father of the two children and one from Bagola. Both statements were recorded and played for jurors.

Bagola was convicted in September and sentenced to life in prison. Purdon said the confessions were key evidence.

“Thank goodness they were both recorded so the prosecutors and eventually the jury could take a good hard look at both of those statements and see the problems that were present in the false confession by the initial suspect,” Purdon said.

Agents have typically interviewed suspects without recording them, instead taking handwritten notes and then producing a report summarizing the conversation.

One argument against recording was its inconvenience, Purdon said, but nowadays most people carry a smartphone that has a recording device.

“The juries want to hear these recordings,” Purdon said. “It’s important to the perception of fairness.”

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