Just last month, Brandon Taylor’s future looked dim. Charged with first-degree murder, he faced a mountain of damning evidence and a possible life sentence.
His fingerprint found on a car door window was linked to the shooting death of a Memphis woman. Ballistics tests identified his 9mm pistol as the murder weapon. What’s more, police contended Taylor, an admitted marijuana peddler, had a sinister motive: He shot one of his customers, Tamara Hodges, 40, while attempting to steal her cash.
But then, on Nov. 30, Taylor’s fortunes made a stunning reversal. A Shelby County Criminal Court jury rejected the prosecution’s core allegations and instead convicted him of criminally negligent homicide, a lower-level felony that carries a maximum two-year sentence for a first-time felony offender such as Taylor.
Locked up in the Shelby County Jail since 2014, he was sentenced to time served and set free.
“It feels real lovely right now. I’m loving life,’’ said Taylor, 28, days after his release.
At the center of this dramatic legal twist are conflicting accounts about just what happened during an intense, two-hour police interrogation and the Memphis Police Department’s long reluctance to record its interviews of homicide suspects.
Lacking video or audio evidence of Taylor’s interrogation, jurors were left with a measure of doubt.
“I feel like they should be recording,’’ said Taylor, who contends police lied in written reports about his April 2014 encounter with detectives in MPD’s homicide offices. “They’re trying to say what they think you said or what they heard. But when you get it on videotape or audio you’re going to know 100 percent for sure I said this. You see where they can lie any time they want to by not recording these statements.’’
The development comes as MPD struggles to reverse a decades-old practice of taking unrecorded, written statements from suspects, lagging far behind a nationwide reform movement that’s led numbers of law enforcement agencies to systematically audio- or video-tape custodial interrogations.
In response to an opens in a new windowinvestigation by the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis in September, an MPD spokeswoman said the department planned to record “all investigative interviews in the near future’’ and hoped most of its detective bureaus would have recording capabilities “by the end of the year.’’
Yet, three months later those plans remain unfunded and incomplete.
“This administration is not reluctant to have cameras installed in rooms (where) people are interviewed,’’ Mayor Jim Strickland’s spokeswoman opens in a new windowUrsula Madden said in an email last week, asserting MPD has been weighing possible systematic recording for as long as a year. Nevertheless, she pointed to a daunting hurdle: The city must squeeze as much as $2.5 million from an already tight budget if the plan is to move forward.
If money can be found, MPD has a ready ally in Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich who says she, too, favors recording custodial interrogations.
“I think it would be helpful to a juror to be able to see the demeanor of the person giving the statement,’’ said Weirich, who, like other proponents, says video-taping would not only protect defendants from heavy-handed police tactics but also protect officers from bogus misconduct charges.
Still, considering that some local police departments have been recording interrogations for 15 to 20 years now, many defense lawyers remain skeptical of MPD’s intentions.
“My belief is that they’re fearful that they’re not going to get the confessions that they anticipate getting,’’ said Taylor’s attorney, Gregory Carman.
Brandon Taylor case
Carman spoke with the Institute days after winning the surprising verdict. His client, Taylor, who’d been held in the county jail for four-and-a-half years for allegedly shooting Hodges to death during a drug transaction, was suddenly a free man.
“That’s a huge victory,’’ said Carman, who represented Taylor with fellow assistant public defenders Kathy Kent and Thomas Paul Pera Jr. The trial was the second in two years for Taylor: He got a mistrial in 2017 when jurors couldn’t reach a verdict.
Though defense lawyers often believe their clients are victims of coercive tactics concealed by MPD’s failure to record, this time the lack of a recording actually worked to the defense’s favor, Carman said.
“I think that played a large role in this verdict. Because that was a good part of our whole argument or defense was the fact that because they don’t record, they don’t have the exact transcript of what happened in there,’’ he said.
A member of the Taylor jury agreed: A video recording could have helped sort out the heated discrepancies between the state’s and the defense’s cases.
“It would have made a difference. You would have seen his demeanor. You would have had specific answers,’’ said the jury member who agreed to be identified only as “a Memphis juror.”
In many ways, the state’s case appeared overwhelming.
“Most of the jury felt he did it,’’ the Memphis juror said, calling the verdict a compromise between the strength of the evidence against Taylor and the holes the defense punched in the case.
Though there were no known witnesses to the June 26, 2013 shooting of Hodges, who died just blocks from the Regional Medical Center while driving to seek medical treatment, detectives developed Taylor as a suspect through dogged police work.
It started two days after the murder when Taylor was arrested on unrelated misdemeanor charges at the Aspen Wood Apartments near Knight-Arnold and Mendenhall roads, one of the last places Hodges was believed to have visited. Officers chasing Taylor on foot saw him throw a green duffle bag into some bushes. Inside the bag, police found a 9mm Fratelli Tanfoglio handgun. Ballistics tests later matched the gun to bullets and shell casings found inside Hodges’s Honda Accord.
Police also recovered Taylor’s fingerprint from the exterior of a driver-side window on Hodges’s car.
Detectives moved to seal their case against Taylor 10 months later when ballistics tests finally returned from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. They called him in for questioning on April 15, 2014.
Taylor voluntarily surrendered that day after an officer contacted him. Per protocol, he was securely shackled in the homicide interview room.
“When Brandon came into the office he was calm. He wasn’t nervous,’’ former MPD homicide detective Mundy Quinn recalled.
But all that changed when officers confronted Taylor with the ballistics and fingerprint evidence, Quinn testified last month.
“He started getting defensive,’’ said Quinn, who’d worked for 28 years at MPD – nine with the homicide bureau – before retiring in 2016 to go to work for the DeSoto County Sheriff’s Office in Mississippi.
“…He then became upset. He became nervous. And he slammed his hand on the table. He wasn’t speaking anymore.’’
Though detectives were unable to secure a confession, they charged Taylor with first-degree murder based on the weight of the evidence against him.
Yet, Quinn’s account met fierce opposition under cross-examination.
“The only documentation that we have of that whole interview is basically (a) page of notes …?’’ defense lawyer Carman asked Quinn at one point.
“Yes,’’ the detective answered.
“That and your memory, right?’’
“And this was four and a half years ago, correct?’’
In his cross, Carman got Quinn to admit he didn’t fully recall the chain of events that supposedly sent Taylor into a panic. Quinn’s memory also was fuzzy when asked if detectives had shown Taylor a picture of another person of interest whom the defense suggested could be the actual killer. The officer was uncertain again when asked if Taylor had told officers that the second person had introduced him to the victim – both stumbling points that made an impact on the jury.
“He couldn’t remember anything,’’ said the Memphis juror, describing Quinn as a weak witness.
The notes and report Quinn repeatedly consulted to refresh his memory weren’t even his – they were written by a second detective, Fausto Frias, who’d asked most of the questions during the interrogation of Taylor.
Weirich said after the trial she didn’t know why her prosecutors didn’t call Frias to testify.
But defense lawyer Carman said opens in a new windowFrias performed so poorly at the first trial, prosecutors declined to call him for the second.
Things got so confusing at one point during the second trial a juror raised his hand and asked for the exhibit number of the report detective Quinn was consulting.
“That is not in evidence,’’ Judge Chris Craft told the juror. Hearsay rules allow only the author of a report to authenticate it as evidence, although witnesses like Quinn may consult such reports to aid memory.
The Memphis juror said after the trial such incidents took a toll, adding layers of questions to matters prosecutors couldn’t or wouldn’t explain.
“The defense did their job as far as introducing doubt.’’
MPD’s Plans to Record
Despite the verdict, MPD’s reluctance to record is infuriating for defense lawyers like Carman.
“They clearly have the capability. We have bodycams. We have car cams. We’ve got street cams. And. of course, as you know from this trial, they record every jail call that my client makes in jail. But yet we can’t spend five dollars for a recorder to record the actual interrogation and confession? Makes no sense to me,’’ he said.
Though Mayor Strickland’s spokeswoman Madden said MPD is developing a plan for systematic video recording throughout its detective bureaus, some homicide detectives already occasionally record at least portions of interrogations on their cell phones.
During a hearing last year, an MPD officer testified no recording existed of a three-hour interrogation of murder suspect Cordell Walton. Yet, a 21-minute cell phone audio recording the officer made later emerged and included a brief “hot mic” moment in which three officers seemed to openly worry about their interrogation tactics, which, according to defense attorneys, included fabricating a DNA report and planning to lie about it.
The development led to a deal earlier this month in which Walton, 23, who was charged with first-degree murder for allegedly shooting a woman to death and burning her body to cover it up, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Sentenced to 15 years, he will be eligible for parole after serving less than seven.
“It was pretty clear to me that they did not want that tape to be played in a public trial in front of a jury,’’ said Walton’s attorney, Neil Umsted, who believes the partial tape factored heavily into the state’s willingness to deal. “They recognized the problems with it.’’
Though Weirich said the plea was reached after “looking at all the evidence,’’ she conceded “the prosecution team was aware of’’ the tape.
Routine videotaping of custodial interrogations from the start of an interview to its completion would help defense attorneys to better size up cases and avoid many pre-trial suppression motions, Umsted said.
The failure to record “causes a lot of I would say unnecessary litigation,’’ he said. “It generates a lot of unnecessary work that clogs up the court system, that leads to uncertainty.’’
Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia have laws or court edicts requiring law enforcement to fully video- or audio-record interrogations of murder suspects – up from just three states in 2003. Though opens in a new windowTennessee is not among them, studies show many law enforcement agencies across the nation voluntarily record interrogations, including several in Shelby County – the Sheriff’s Office and the police departments in Bartlett, Germantown and Collierville – as well as departments in other major cities in the state, including Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga.
Authorities have offered several reasons for MPD’s hesitancy to embrace recorded interviews: Lack of storage space for tapes and thin walls in the Criminal Justice Center that made interview rooms less than soundproof.
Former MPD homicide detective Tim Helldorfer indicated in an interview last summer old-school interview tactics may also be hindering the transition.
“I think in some cases guys might have to change their techniques a little bit,’’ said Helldorfer, chief criminal investigator for the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office. Like many law enforcement agencies, MPD has in the past employed the controversial Reid technique of high-pressure interrogation said by critics to contribute to false confessions. Whether it’s currently used is uncertain.
Madden said MPD Director Michael Rallings has been exploring recorded interviews since the department moved its headquarters last year from the CJC to the old state office building at 170 N. Main. However, the city’s latest Capital Improvement Plan – which calls for spending $75 million over the next five years on police projects ranging from upgrading the radio system, installing in-car dashcams, replacing two precinct buildings and purchasing a helicopter – mentions nothing about recording custodial interrogations.
Proponents for financing such a plan should expect a challenge.
“…The administration is in the process of reviewing some options and developing a plan for implementation–which is expensive,’’ Madden said in her emailed statement. “The cost(s) range from $1.8-2.5 million. This is weighed against the City’s $100M in deferred maintenance and what we need to do for existing community assets, such as community centers, libraries and fire stations.’’
This story first appeared at www.dailymemphian.com under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.