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PHR Research on Impact of Torture on Detainees Used in Brief to Support Findings of Involuntary Confession in Domestic Death Penalty Case

on February 22, 2010

In recent years, Physicians for Human Rights has done considerable research on the impact of psychological torture techniques used by US personnel on terrorist suspect detainees. Now, that work is being put to an important new use in the context of the deplorable treatment of a domestic inmate.Based on our findings about psychological coercion, PHR filed a brief on February 4 in a compelling death penalty case which is being brought before the U.S. Supreme Court for possible review. The lawyer for death row inmate Edmund Zagorski was familiar with PHR’s reports on torture of detainees and, seeing similarities with the treatment of his own client, contacted us for support of the Petition to the Supreme Court to review the case. With the Pro Bono assistance of skilled attorneys at Ropes & Gray, PHR crafted an Amicus Curiae (Friend of the Court) brief drawing on medical and psychological expertise in support of Zagorski’s appeal.At issue in the case is the question of the voluntariness of Zagorski’s statements implicating him in a murder plan. PHR’s brief argues that using Zagorski’s statements against him violates the Constitution’s prohibition on using involuntary statements against criminal defendants. The statements he made were the result of conditions of confinement that were tantamount to torture and effectively broke his will.The essential facts surrounding Zagorski’s treatment, as stated in the brief, are clear:
Arrested in May of 1983, Mr. Zagorski invoked his rights to remain silent and to counsel. The State of Tennessee then placed Mr. Zagorski in a windowless, unventilated 8' x 8' steel box. After fifty two days of near total isolation and sensory deprivation – a period punctuated by an oppressive heat wave – Mr. Zagorski was physiologically compromised and psychologically disturbed. Thirty pounds lighter and despondent, he offered a confession in return for the ability to dictate the terms of his execution. Subjected to harsh confinement conditions similar to those used for the express purpose of “breaking” pretrial detainees, it is little surprise that Mr. Zagorski’s will was broken. The State’s confinement compromised Mr. Zagorski’s ability to act volitionally, resulting in the statements that implicated him in criminal activity. The statements should be suppressed.
PHR’s analysis of the treatment of terrorist suspect detainees, found in our reports Break Them Down and Leave No Marks provided a fitting frame of reference for assessing what had happened to Zagorski in confinement. Those reports related how isolation, especially in combination with other coercive methods can cause extreme psychological distress. In Zagorski’s case there were four inherently coercive aspects of his detention – heat exposure, constant isolation, sensory deprivation, and heavy medication – which deeply affected his physical and mental health, and yielded an involuntary inculpatory statement.The extreme heat of the Tennessee summer of 1983 was a key contributing factor to breaking Edmund Zagorski’s will. During an usually brutal heat wave, with temperatures reaching 100 degrees outside, Zagorski sweltered inside the jail confined in a small, unventilated space. In the surrounding areas of Robertson County, crops were destroyed and livestock died because of the heat. Zagorski’s physical state was severely compromised by the heat, as seen in his loss of 30 pounds. He also injured his knuckles by badly beating them against the walls of his cell, and also likely suffered other physical manifestations of his deplorable condition: impaired circulatory, nervous, and neuroendocrine function.Isolation added to Zagorski’s suffering. As the brief states:
Isolated from all friendly human contact for almost two months, Mr. Zagorski suffered devastating psychological and physiological damage that rendered him incapable of making voluntary decisions as important as waiving constitutional rights. No longer able to make deliberate or conscious choices, he was unable to understand his rights, let alone effectively exercise them. Extended isolation wreaks havoc on the mind and body. Without any face-to-face interaction with other human beings and the mental stimulation of conversation, individuals begin to deteriorate. Being isolated for periods as short as two hours disrupts normal mental function, producing temporal and spatial disorientation, inability to think, concentrate, or reason; replacing normal processes with anxiety and paranoia. There are also severe physiological effects of extended isolation. Prolonged isolation results in increased stress, abnormal neurendocrine function, changes in blood pressure and inflammatory stress responses. Indeed, the effect of extended isolation ”often resembles an organic brain syndrome” – a physical disease identified by agitation, confusion, and acute, lasting brain function decline.
In addition to his nearly complete isolation, Zagorski was deprived of significant sensory stimulation which intensified the harmful effects of his isolated detention. Locked in his 8’ by 8’ metal box, Zagorski had no visual variety, no fresh air or sunlight, no physical exercise and no ordinary human interaction. This kind of sensory deprivation has significant cognitive effects. In one well-known experiment, volunteer humans subjected to confinement like Zagorski’s developed psycho-motor and cognitive responses that would be clinically diagnosed as depression and in some cases post-traumatic stress disorder, with symptoms including apathy, helplessness, and hopelessness. The impacts of sensory depression are discussed in PHR’s 2009 report, Aiding Torture: Health Professionals’ Ethics and Human Rights Violations.Zagorski also exhibited perceptible psychological harm, with frequent attacks of anxiety and uncontrollable rage, self-abusive and suicidal behavior, confusion, and disorientation. To control his behavior he was treated with powerful psychiatric drugs, several of which can impair the ability to think clearly, and some of which lower the level of consciousness and self-control.The bridge between the powerful physiological effects of the conditions of confinement and Zagorski’s loss of ability to act voluntarily is laid out in the brief:
The signs and symptoms described in Mr. Zagorski’s case are highly consistent with extreme physical and psychological duress, with predictable global impacts on his entire nervous system. The physiological stresses on his nervous system impaired Mr. Zagorski’s brain function and his ability to exercise higher cognitive function like voluntary decision making. This effect is demonstrated in a loss of his self-control, a loss of his autonomy, and a loss of the ability to control his thoughts or effect his will.
While the Zagorski domestic murder case and cases of suspected international terrorism are different in many respects, they share an important common lesson: Extreme coercive confinement can break a detainee to point where he can no longer fully exercise his cognitive functions. Skilled interrogators, whether in intelligence or domestic law enforcement understand that they get the most reliable and legally usable information from detainees who are functioning effectively cognitively and psychologically. Attempts to “break” detainees are not only immoral and potentially illegal, but they are not the most effective means of gathering usable intelligence or confessions.We believe the Supreme Court should agree to hear the Zagorski case (Edmund Zagorski, Petitioner v. Ricky Bell, Warden, Respondent) and address the important issues of abusive pretrial confinement and coercion of involuntary statements. Beyond the issues within PHR’s expertise, addressed in our Amicus brief, the case also involves an important question about the circumstances in which a defendant initiates contact with the police and makes an inculpatory statement. This issue, along with others, is analyzed in the Petition filed by the Counsels for Petitioner, the Yale Law School Supreme Court Clinic, the Office of the Public Defender in Tennessee, and Mayer Brown LLP (PDF).

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