Interrogating Juveniles Without Recordings: Pressure Turns Friends Into Confessors
By Cynthia Levy
The Innocence Institute of Point Park University
In December 1975 when Frank Slazinski returned to his Lawrenceville home after a lengthy hospital stay caused by a beating he took from robbers, they struck again.
This time, the 82-year-old retiree was bludgeoned with a blackjack before his assailants took $15 and a television set, which was never recovered.
He managed to tell his daughter two kids were responsible, and flashed cops two fingers before he died four days later.
As weeks became months with no arrests, three Butler Street youths were among a handful of suspects. James “Red” Phillips, 19, a neighborhood bully, William Pirozzi, 17, whose mother worked at the restaurant where Mr. Slazinski regularly ate and knew he just got a new television, and Jeffrey Cristina, 17, the new kid on the block with a clean record.
By the time detectives filed charges against all three, they’d amassed a total of six confessions – some recorded, some not — riddled with contradictions and lies. Charges were dropped before trial against Mr. Phillips and Mr. Pirozzi entered a guilty plea for a three-year prison hitch.
Mr. Cristina, who maintained his innocence, was the only one to go to trial because his father would not let him plead guilty. Despite another series of confusing recantations, he was convicted as an adult and sentenced to life behind bars.
He remains confounded by his conviction and devastated his claims of innocence have escaped examination by appeals courts.
Killing for Nothing
The first to be arrested was Mr. Phillips. He was charged, passed a polygraph test – which is inadmissible in court—and was released seven days later after charges were dropped.
Mr. Cristina was brought in next. Officers taped the interview and his father was present. He said Mr. Phillips kidnapped him and Mr. Slazinski in a car and beat him during a 45 minute siege.
Court documents suggest Mr. Pirozzi partially corroborated his story, saying he tried to help Mr. Cristina get out of a car driven by Mr. Phillips.
The following day Mr. Cristina was questioned again, without his parents.
He abandoned the kidnapping story; instead stating on a tape machine he says was repeatedly turned on and off, he was standing outside the victim’s apartment with Mr. Pirozzi when Mr. Phillips told them he was going in to “collect some money.”
When he heard a crack inside the apartment, Mr. Cristina told police he saw Mr. Phillips beating the old man with a blackjack. Mr. Cristina led police to the hidden blackjack saying Mr. Pirozzi asked him to hide it after the beating.
Then Mr. Pirozzi changed his story too. He said Mr. Phillips kicked in the apartment door and went in, but wasn’t sure if Mr. Cristina did too.
The next day, both added another twist in their third statements to police, claiming they served as lookouts, but fled when the beating began. Both were charged with murder based on their admissions.
In the Shuman Detention Center, awaiting trial, Mr. Pirozzi offered police yet another version where he was clearly being led by investigators. This time he left Mr. Phillips out of the murder plot, and said Mr. Cristina was the killer.
Trial of Lies
Despite all of his previous statements, Mr. Pirozzi implicated Mr. Cristina in the killing. Prosecutors also used Mr. Cristina’s final statement in which he admitted being a look-out as a confession.
While Mr. Pirozzi pointed the finger at Mr. Cristina, he couldn’t keep straight how much money was taken and if Mr. Cristina possessed a blackjack.
After being drilled about the inconsistencies and replying “I don’t know” to more than a dozen questions asked by both attorneys, Mr. Pirozzi was asked which story was true.
“None of it is,” he said, sobbing.
After a break to regain his composure, he again implicated Mr. Cristina in the killing and insisted after all the lies, he was now being truthful.
Mr. Cristina took the stand and said after telling numerous lies, he finally wanted “to tell the truth.” Now he admitted attempting to rob Mr. Slazinski with Mr. Pirozzi, but said both fled after the elderly man beat Mr. Pirozzi with a cane.
Fifteen minutes later, he testified, he gave Mr. Pirozzi the black jack which was used in the killing. Days later, he said Mr. Pirozzi told him he and Mr. Phillips killed the elderly gentleman.
Mr. Cristina was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
In June, Mr. Pirozzi told Innocence Institute reporters he faced such pressure during interrogation he’s blocked out the memories and wishes to be hypnotized to figure out what really happened.
Mr. Pirozzi did remember certain elements of the case when specific instances were broached, even though he said he was drunk and on medication during his initial interrogation.
Today, he doesn’t remember lying under oath (and admitting it), nor does he recall penning a letter to Mr. Cristina’s brother while awaiting trial where he wrote that since he was in Carrick with his girlfriend the night of the murder, that he, “don’t know if Jeff was there that night.”
“I was brainwashed,” said Pirozzi about his lack of recall during what he said were “long, long hours” of questioning.
As Mr. Cristina was shipped to prison, information about Mr. Phillips and Mr. Pirozzi began to emerge.
A woman told police Mr. Pirozzi implicated Mr. Cristina because Mr. Phillips threatened to kill a family member. She also said Mr. Phillips threatened her after she visited Mr. Pirozzi in jail.
During his pre-sentence investigation, Mr. Pirozzi confessed again to an Allegheny County psychologist, this time his story matched much of what Mr. Cristina said on the witness stand.
Mr. Pirozzi told the psychologist he borrowed the blackjack from Mr. Cristina, to commit the robbery with Mr. Phillips. He told the counselor Mr. Cristina declined participation. He said after the robbery, they left Mr. Slazinski unharmed, but Mr. Phillips returned and beat him to death.
Afterwards, Mr. Pirozzi told the psychologist Mr. Phillips threatened him and told him to blame the crime on Mr. Cristina.
In a later letter to Mr. Cristina’s sentencing judge, the psychologist, Jay Greenfield, said the case “left a great weight on him” and he worried Mr. Cristina got a “bum rap.”
Dr. Greenfield also revealed in pre-sentencing reports both teenagers repeatedly failed lie detector tests stating, they “blew the machine up.”
In October 1989 after 13 years in prison, Mr. Cristina filed for and was unanimously approved for commutation by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Board of Pardons; but former Gov. Tom Ridge denied it.
Mr. Cristina’s appeals are exhausted and without extraordinary judicial relief, he will never be freed.
“I was brought up believing that the justice system was correct and true, so during my trial and everything leading up to it, I always thought everything would work out and that they would find the truth. That didn’t happen,” said Mr. Cristina.