Updated: Aug 13
It’s near unthinkable: the idea that under certain circumstances you would ever knowingly incriminate yourself in the presence of police for a crime you did not commit. I would be willing to bet that if I asked you now, in all seriousness, do you think you are capable of ever confessing to a crime you didn’t commit, your answer would be “absolutely not”. It’s simply unthinkable, and yet it happens shockingly often. It happens to sane people, to grown adults, to normal, average citizens.
False confessions are the subject of the third part in my series about wrongful convictions in America called Reasonable Doubt. Here are the other parts:
Of the Innocence Project’s, to-date, 350 exonerees, 25% were convicted based on false confessions. Keep in mind that the Innocence Project is just one organization, whose area of expertise is DNA evidence. This is a sliver; it’s a tiny fraction of the big picture. Another organization, the Center on Wrongful Convictions, also works towards similar goals. It was founded in 1999 by Rob Warden. Warden has studied the causes of wrongful convictions and why people confess to crimes they did not commit, and he estimates that false confessions are involved in nearly half of all murder cases. Rob Warden researched and wrote True Stories of False Confessions. If no other book destroys the American justice system for you, this one will. It’s nothing short of absolutely terrifying.
It goes against all your common sense. It’s completely alien. Why would anyone confess to something they didn’t do? Especially a serious, heinous crime that could fetch you the death penalty? It makes no sense why anyone would ever do this, and yet… they simply do.
So, why do people confess to crimes they didn’t commit? Here are a few of the reasons researchers have been able to pinpoint:
1. Interrogation Methods – Even when police are following protocol by the book, there are still practices used in the interrogation room that can and do lead to false confessions. Add to that the fact that when you give some people a certain amount of power over someone else, they tend to not always follow protocol down to the last letter exactly. The envelope gets pushed, lines blur and the fact that police are just human beings in blue uniforms becomes apparent.
One of the most common factors that contribute to false confessions is the duration of an interrogation. In fact, this is one of the leading reasons people confess to things they did not commit. They are held in a room with no food, no water, no bed, no comfort, for upwards of 48 hours, sometimes more. Bright lights are shining down and every few minutes an officer comes in who is certain they’ve committed the crime in question and treats them like scum; like a hardened criminal. They’re yelled at. They’re sworn at. They are not allowed to sleep. Their minds become delirious with exhaustion. They try to hold out because they know they’re innocent, but eventually, their worn out minds search for ways out of the situation. Any way out of the situation. They think, “I’ll just tell them what they want to hear and prove my innocence in court”. They sign their own confession with blurry exhaustion and the rest of their lives unfold in prison.
Featured in harcover book, The Innocents, which sits atop my coffee table, Chris Ochoa:
Coercion can also lead to a false confession. Consider the case of Eddie Joe Lloyd, who contacted police to help with the investigation of a rape and murder. During questioning, police convinced Lloyd that if he confessed to the crime in question, it would somehow help them “flush out” the real perpetrator. Lloyd, who wanted nothing more than to help, signed his confession and spent the next 17 years in prison. It wasn’t until the Innocence Project got involved and had the DNA evidence in the case tested, that Lloyd was ruled out as a possible suspect.
In the USA, it is still legal for police to lie to the men and women they are interrogating about the evidence they may or may not already have. Police will often allude to evidence they have obtained that implicates the suspect they are interrogating. Examples of this are when police lie and say that their co-suspect in the next room already told them everything and that a lesser sentence will be given if they could just do the same. Police have also been known to say they have found blood, fibres, hair or fingerprints at the scene that have already been tested and match the suspect they’re speaking with. They’ll say things like, “We already know you did it” or “We have your prints on the gun”, etc. These lies can induce a state of terror, or of absolute confusion and in some cases, suspects say what the cops want to hear, and are absolutely sure they’ll have their chance to prove their innocence in court.
Sometimes, interrogators try minimizing the crime. In the interrogation room, police will use such language as, “it’s not as bad as you think” and give the suspect reason to believe that with a confession, they will be lenient with punishment.
2. Age – Children and teenagers are more susceptible to pressure, influence and fear. Young people tend not to fully understand the law – they will confess to escape the immediate situation, thinking they can later tell the truth and be released, or they are under the assumption that they are signing something other than a confession.
Warning: this video will make you extremely angry:
The saddest thing about this video is that this is one of many. A vast majority of false confession cases involve children and teenagers:
The Central Park Five – all of these boys were in their mid-teens at the time of their confessions. These confessions were obtained from 14, 15 and 16-year-old innocent boys through coercion, lies and intimidation.
Jeffrey Deskovic – I have followed this man’s case and the many things he has done since his exoneration for many years now. Deskovic was coerced into making a confession when he was just 17.
Peter Reilly – Reilly confessed to killing his mother after lengthy interrogations led him to believe the police assertions that he had blacked out and committed the crime. He was exonerated when a state trooper came forward with an alibi for Reilly.
The West Memphis Three – This story was made famous when it was the subject of a much talked about documentary trilogy called Paradise Lost. The boys confessed to killing 3 younger boys when they were just 16, 17 and 18. They have still not officially been exonerated. There is someone out there who killed 3 eight-year-old boys because the law refuses to admit it’s wrongdoings.
This is just a small, small handful of the many cases in which children have confessed to heinous crimes and turned out not to be the perpetrators.
3. State of mind – As we learned last week, our minds are not always trustworthy. Many factors can make your own mind do things which may or may not be in your best interest. False confessions have been elicited from people in many different states of mind, but some states are more fruitful than others.
Fatigue – Days without sleep or proper food can make anyone delirious. Interrogations that last an excruciatingly long time have a tendency to successfully mine out confessions. These are the circumstances in a large majority of false confessions cases.
Stress – When the situation becomes too much to bear, people will break down and confess. Threats, lies and manipulation can all add to the stress factor in the interrogation setting and cause the suspect’s mind to go quickly to the “say what they want to hear” solution.
Mental illness – Johnny Lee Wilson was mentally challenged and had an IQ of 79 when he confessed to the murder of Pauline Martz. He had been under the impression he would be allowed to go home if he confessed. Ada JoAnn Taylor, who had a history of mental illness spent 20 years in prison for a rape and murder she did not commit, after confessing to it. Kasgo Lado, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, was released recently after falsely confessing to a crime:
4. Police Misconduct – In false confessions cases, especially those involving children and the mentally ill, there is a pattern of police misconduct, from refusing to read the suspect his rights and not allowing him to seek counsel, all the way to out-and-out torture. While there are a great many good policemen, the idea that we should blindly trust the men and women of the police force to do exactly what they are supposed to do, even when they are under extreme pressure to find a culprit, is idiotic at the absolute best. Police are human, just like the rest of us. They are capable of making horrible mistakes, abusing their power and anything else that any other human being is capable of. For some reason, in our society, we feel we mustn’t distrust police, we must blindly respect them and never question anything they do. Unfortunately, that results in cases like this:
Accountability in the police force is not only essential for any civilized society, the absolute refusal to believe that cops could ever do anything wrong, is one of the biggest mass delusions that leads to horrendous and sickening amounts of wrongdoing. Blind respect for any profession is always unfounded.
5. Ignorance of the law – When men and women who have confessed to crimes which they did not commit are asked to explain why they confessed, many of them had similar explanations. They reason that they were sure they would have a chance later to prove their innocence. If they could just get out of the situation at hand (the interrogation) they could find a way to prove their innocence. The problem is that a confession has trumped even DNA evidence in some cases because people simply cannot believe that anyone would confess to something they didn’t do. These men, women and children who falsely confess to things they did not do are unfamiliar with the history of false confessions and wrongful convictions. They don’t believe that it could ever happen in the USA; that an innocent person could be locked up or put to death for something they didn’t do. Some suspects in interrogation don’t understand what it means to be signing your own confession, and some equate it with signing a witness statement. They are unaware, especially children and the mentally ill, of how binding that single confession will be and how it will colour all the other evidence in their case. This is why children and the mentally ill should never be interrogated without the presence of counsel. Even if they don’t ask for it.
6. Voluntary Confessions – these are confessions made without the need for interrogation. The confessor comes to the police department on his or her own and confesses to the crime. There have been many documented cases of such confessions throughout history and all over the world and they can be easily debunked. For instance, when the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped, over 200 innocent people confessed to the crime. In Salem, in the 1600s, women came forward, confessed to being witches and were put to death. Obsessed with details in the JonBenét Ramsey case, John Mark Karr came forward and confessed to killing the child. After careful investigation, police realized he could not have been involved. Many people came forward and confessed to the Black Dahlia murder. Examples just go on and on. People do it for notoriety, for perceived gains, because they are deranged or unwell. For the most part, voluntary confessions are treated with skepticism by police and rarely lead to a conviction without other evidence.
Many people have long viewed the confession as the ultimate form of evidence. Why would anyone but the guilty confess to some horrible crime? It’s off-putting to know that confessions are no more evidence than a vision from a dream. And yet, many people who maintain their innocence sit, rotting away in prison cells, after confessing to murders, rapes, kidnappings and robberies to end days on end of interrogations. Many of these people have contacted the Innocence Project, but, unfortunately, a lot of their cases lack the DNA evidence that could exonerate them. So, they will remain behind bars. I assure you, that though some are guilty, some are also innocent and that has two awful side effects: 1. An innocent human being is locked up 2. A guilty human being walks free, potentially committing more crimes. That means more murder victims, more sexual assault victims, more victims of theft and assault and endangerment.
Confessions must be taken with a grain of salt and jurors must be made aware of the factors that lead to false confessions. If a confession is admitted as evidence in a trial, jurors must be made aware of the circumstances surrounding it. How long did the interrogation go on? How old is the defendant? Is the defendant mentally ill or have a history of mental illness? Was the defendant intoxicated at the time of their confession? Was the suspect promised something if they would confess? Was the defendant lied to about evidence in possession? Is there video of the interrogation? Is part of that video missing? Why? And so on and so forth.
Interrogation procedure must also be reformed. Every interrogation should be video-recorded. Confessions should not be able to be admitted as evidence at trial unless the total time of interrogation was less than a couple of hours. Confessions from children, the mentally ill and the intoxicated should be immediately dismissed. Police should be held accountable for misconduct, intimidation, coercion and mistreatment of suspects. With just these few small changes, we could avoid some seriously disastrous outcomes.
This is part 3 in a series about wrongful convictions in America called Reasonable Doubt. Here are the other parts: