The Tragedy of False Confessions
There are enough injustices in our society without innocent people being convicted
of heinous crimes. Yet, it turns out that happens with far greater frequency than
we ever imagined. DNA testing, a relatively new phenomenon, has already exonerated
175 people convicted of crimes.
Then the more amazing part: one fifth of them had confessed to the crime! And
when it comes to false confessions, this is only the tip of the iceberg. One
study by two law professors documented 125 proven false confessions these
include people exonerated before or during trial. And these are only the cases
we /know/ about.
Why would anyone confess to a crime he didn't commit? A new website/blog, created
by my sometime co-author Alan Hirsch, notes many reasons. But, Hirsch says,
"In most cases, it's a function of interrogation tactics geared to break
people down. These tactics succeed too well : they break down innocent people."
Some of the tactics are obviously deplorable. For example, interrogators exaggerate
or fabricate evidence -- for example, falsely telling a suspect that eyewitnesses
saw him commit the crime. They often imply that the suspect will receive lenient
treatment if he confesses and the most severe punishment if he refuses. Many
false confessors are young or borderline mentally retarded, but the interrogation
tactics taught to police could break down anyone. (In one social science experiment,
students at Williams College falsely confessed to misconduct when confronted
with bogus evidence.)
The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects a person from
being a "witness against himself." All too often that is what happens
not on the witness stand but in the police station, and even after a person
has been read his rights. The spirit and sometimes letter of the Fifth Amendment
are violated routinely as such police cajole and bully innocent people to confess.
Prosecutors, judges, and juries usually ratify the error because they can't
believe the confessor innocent only adding to the suspect's Kafkaesque
Why would the police engage in outrageous tactics that implicate the innocent?
For the same reason that prosecutors, judges, and juries play their roles in
this tragedy they are convinced that no one would actually confess if
he were innocent. Since we now know that this intuition is false, we need to
take measures that guard against false confessions. Hirsch's website proposes
a range of reforms, including mandatory taping of interrogations. But, he suggests,
the most important reform is education.
Everyone must recognize that false confessions can and do occur. The realization
is particularly important among law enforcement and judges -- but also everyday
citizens. This is partly because everyday citizens comprise juries, and it is
typically juries who convict false confessors. Ordinary citizens also elect
representatives, and some of the necessary reforms require legislation.
Again, nothing will happen until we overcome the intuition that innocent people
don't confess. How strong is that intuition? Even /after/ DNA exoneration, many
defendants remain incarcerated or have to face another trial, because prosecutors
or judges still refuse to believe that the confession was false. Sometimes prosecutors
concoct an entirely new theory of the case (for example, that the defendant
was an accomplice rather than the actual perpetrator) supported by zero evidence.
False confessions are far from the only cause of wrongful conviction. Other
common sources include mistaken identification, false accusations (a cousin
of false confessions), government misconduct, junk science, and poor defense
lawyering. Some of these problems are particularly acute, such as the unreliability
of eyewitness identification and the inadequacy of many over-worked and under-funded
public defenders and court-appointed attorneys.
The reality of wrongful convictions has many ramifications, including for capital
punishment. Some people who do not object to the death penalty in principle
recognize that it will inevitably result (and no doubt already has) in the execution
of some innocent people. Indeed, some of the wrongfully convicted exonerated
by DNA were only days away from execution.
We cannot possibly accept putting people to death without knowing that they
are guilty. The false confession phenomenon is a powerful reminder that we often
/think/ we're certain of guilt without an adequate basis. After all, what could
be more reliable than a defendant's own admission that he committed the crime?
That's what we used to think. Now that we know better, it should give people
pause about many aspects of our criminal justice system, including the death
For serious insight into these problems, for laymen and lawyers alike, and
a sense of what you can do to help, www.truthaboutfalseconfessions.com
is a good place to start.