Virginia Beach police forged DNA results to get suspects to confess to crimes. The practice is legal.

Virginia Beach police forged DNA results to get suspects to confess to crimes. The practice is legal.
·3 min read
virginia beach forensics
A forensic truck is seen arriving at the Virginia Beach municipal center, the site of a mass shooting, in Virginia Beach, Virginia in the late hours of May 31, 2019.Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images
  • The Virginia Beach Police Department has agreed to stop forging DNA results to coerce confessions.

  • The Virginia AG's office investigated the department and found it forged forensic documents in five cases since 2016.

  • Though the AG called the practice "potentially unconstitutional," the police department said it was legal.

The Virginia Beach Police Department used forged documents to coerce suspects into confessions in a practice that the state's attorney general described as "potentially unconstitutional," but that the police department said was legal.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announced Wednesday that his office had struck a two-year agreement with the police department to halt the practice, after an investigation revealed that detectives had used forged documents on at least five different occasions between March 2016 and February 2020.

The investigation, from Virginia's Office of Civil Rights, found that police had forged forensic documents showing that the suspects' DNA had been connected with a crime. The documents purported to be from the Virginia Department of Forensic Science.

The forged documents included the forensic department's seal, letterhead, and contact information, the investigation found. In two of the five cases, police even wrote signatures of fictitious forensics employees. In one of the cases, the forged document was presented in court as evidence, the attorney general's office said.

The Virginia Beach Police Department did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment on the investigation. But the department told The Washington Post in a statement that the practice of using forged documents was "legal," although "not in the spirit of what the community expects."

It's generally legal for police to lie to suspects during interrogations, and it's common for officers or detectives to describe evidence that they don't have or that doesn't exist, according to The Innocence Project. Defense attorneys and civil rights activists have condemned the practice, saying it contributes to false confessions and wrongful convictions.

The Supreme Court has even upheld the practice several times. In the 1969 case Frazier v. Cupp, the court ruled against a man who confessed to participating in a murder after police lied and told him his cousin had already confessed. In the 1977 case Oregon v. Mathiason, the Supreme Court also ruled against a defendant who confessed to a crime after police lied that they found his fingerprints at the scene.

Prosecutors learned of the practice after they requested a certified copy of one of the forged documents

Despite the legal precedent, Herring said in a statement that the Virginia Beach Police Department's use of forged documents was "an extremely troubling and potentially unconstitutional tactic that abused the name of the Commonwealth to try to coerce confessions."

"This is clearly a tactic that should never have been used," he continued.

The attorney general's office said the police department's use of forged documents was discovered after an attorney requested a certified copy of one of the fake documents. But the Department of Forensic Science responded that they had never created nor known about the document.

Herring's office said Wednesday that by the time they started investigating, the police department had already stopped using forged documents to elicit confessions.

According to the agreement between the attorney general's office and the police department, all employees assigned to the detective bureau must now sign a statement abiding by the agreement not to use forged documents during interrogations.

The agreement also said the Office of Civil Rights intends to inform each of the suspects who was interrogated using the forged documents.

The agreement added that if a court determines that the Virginia Beach Police Department violates the agreement within the next two years, the department will be "ineligible for funding." The agreement was signed by the attorney general, the police chief, and the city manager.

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