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Eye on the Courts: The Danger of False Confessions

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In yesterday’s column, readers brought up the often-asked question about false confessions – do innocent people really falsely confess and is this a huge problem?

In October of 2008, Jim Trainum, a 25-year veteran detective in Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department, addressed that very question, writing that, as a police officer for 25 years, “I never understood why someone would admit to a crime he or she didn’t commit. Until I secured a false confession in a murder case.”

He writes, “I stepped into the interrogation room believing that we had evidence linking the suspect to the murder of a 34-year-old federal employee in Washington. I used standard, approved interrogation techniques — no screaming or threats, no physical abuse, no 12-hour sessions without food or water. Many hours later, I left with a solid confession.”

The scene was typical – at first the suspect couldn’t say much about the murder and professed her innocence, but as the interrogation progressed, “she became more cooperative, and her confession included many details of the crime.”

Detective Trainum even noted that “the suspect’s attorney later told me that she believed her client was guilty, based on the confession.”

The lady would be charged with first-degree murder.  Except for one problem: “We discovered that the suspect had an ironclad alibi. We subpoenaed sign-in/sign-out logs from the homeless shelter where she lived, and the records proved that she could not have committed the crime. The case was dismissed, but all of us still believed she was involved in the murder. After all, she had confessed.”

Detective Trainum illustrates a key problem with false confessions – even among professionals, the defense attorney and the police, a confession is taken as so believable that it outweighs all other evidence.

Researcher Brandon Garrett combed more than 250 wrongful convictions in his book, “Convicting the Innocent,” and found that nearly 20% of those involved a false confession.

In one case, the defendant “could not say much about the crime” during his confession, but despite this “he was still convicted, even though the jury heard that DNA testing on the clothes the attacker wore had excluded him and his codefendant.”

We are often led to question the competency of defense in such cases, but in many defenses attempting to challenge the veracity of the confessions, “judges found the confessions to have been voluntarily made and appropriate for the jury to hear.”

Professor Garrett writes, “Even after DNA testing excluded these people, judges sometimes initially denied relief, relying on the seeming reliability of these confessions.  These false confessions were so persuasive, detailed, and believable that judges repeatedly upheld the convictions during appeals and habeas review.”

As Detective Trainum discovered after the fact, there were problems with the interrogation itself that led to the false confession.  Despite the fact that videotaping in the mid-1990s was not standard operating procedure (and even now only 18 states require it), they videotaped the interrogation in its entirety.

He writes, “Reviewing the tapes years later, I saw that we had fallen into a classic trap. We ignored evidence that our suspect might not have been guilty, and during the interrogation we inadvertently fed her details of the crime that she repeated back to us in her confession.”

He added, “If we hadn’t discovered and verified the suspect’s alibi — or if we hadn’t recorded the interrogation — she probably would have been convicted of first-degree murder and would be in prison today. The true perpetrator of the crime was never identified, partly because the investigation was derailed when we focused on an innocent person.”

“Threats and coercion sometimes lead innocent people to confess, but even the calmest, most standardized interrogations can lead to a false confession or admission,” Detective Trainum writes. “Those who are mentally ill or mentally disabled may be particularly vulnerable, but anyone can be dazed when confronted by police officers who claim to hold unshakable evidence of one’s guilt. Some confess to crimes because they want to please authority figures or to protect another person. Some actually come to believe they are guilty, or confess to do penance for some unrelated bad behavior. Innocent people come to believe that they will receive a harsher sentence — even the death penalty — if they don’t confess.”

The problem is vexing for police.  Some of these cases appear to be willfully manipulated where the police cut the recording to make sure that the confession included accurate information.  But some of these cases involve inadvertent contamination.

As Professor Garrett writes, “We now know that in many of these cases, police contaminated the confessions by disclosing facts to the suspects.”

But he asked why this information does not come to light in the cases that went to trial.  He answers, “The answer is that at trial, police denied ever having disclosed those key facts.”  The police testified under oath, and denied having disclosed facts to the suspect.

In one case he cites in his book, “The prosecutor emphasized in closing arguments that the police were not ‘lying’ and ‘didn’t suggest to him’ how the crime had been committed.”  In this case, they argued the suspect described exactly how the crime had been committed.

It was only later after the defendant was exonerated based on DNA testing, that the defense attorneys learned that “the second officer expressed real doubts about the interrogation” and was worried that facts were disclosed to the suspect during the interrogation.

As Professor Garrett notes, “I do not know whether these police officers were aware that their testimony was false.  Some of these officers may have been malicious.  However, many of them may have believed they were interrogating a guilty person.”

Part of the problem at trials, as Law Professor Steven Drizin notes, is that it is “not uncommon” for police to conduct an initial interview in which they “use a gamut of techniques” to secure admissions.  However, those are not recorded.  “Rather, police tape a second interview only once the admissions have been secured.”

Detective Trainum writes, “Videotaping interrogations is proved to decrease wrongful convictions based on false confessions. When the entire interrogation is recorded, attorneys, judges and juries can see exactly what led to a confession. Police officers become better interviewers over time, as they review tapes of their interrogations, and confessions are easier to defend in court.”

Finally, Professor Garrett worried that, while he was able to work with a dataset of 250 known exonerations, most false confessions likely occur in cases without physical evidence that been reviewed by the courts over time and we are probably just scratching the surface.

Indeed, the case we illustrated yesterday and the case that Detective Trainum writes about never got to the court system, as they were discovered before the damage was done and a conviction was obtained, and therefore are not even in the universe of cases that Professor Garrett would have analyzed.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About David Greenwald

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

3 comments

  1. David wrote:

    > In yesterday’s column, readers brought up the often asked question
    > about false confessions – do innocent people really falsely confess

    Did anyone ask this? I think everyone knows they happen (a SF cop I know says a crazy homeless guy admits to killing JFK every time they arrest him)…

    > and is this a huge problem.

    We all know it is not a “huge” problem (unless you consider golfers getting killed by lightning strikes a “huge” problem).

    > Detective Trainum illustrates a key problem with false confessions
    > even among professionals – the defense attorney and the police,
    > a confession is taken as so believable that it outweighs all other evidence.

    This is not true, if a guy was locked up in a jail in another state when someone was killed (or not born when JKF was killed) his confession will not “outweigh” ALL other evidence (and another reason why this “almost”never happens).

    > Researcher Brandon Garrett combed more than 250 wrongful convictions
    > in his book, “Convicting the Innocent,” and found that nearly 20% of those
    > involved a false confession.

    He didn’t say how many “wanted” to be convicted (yet could not even find 50 for his book). A recent interview on NPR about “Orange is the new Black” mentioned a lady who said drugs were hers to save a boyfriend with priors from a long jail term. I’ve read a lot of books on the LA gang culture and the Mafia and there is a long history of falsely confessing to “help” another member of the gang or increase your status in the mob.

    I bet the number of (sane) people “tricked in confessing is about the same as the number of openly gay transgender Republicans or vegan activists that love duck hunting…

    • ” I think everyone knows they happen”

      I think you are considerably unestimating this issue. Not everyone knows they happen, though a few people will chalk it up to a few crazies looking for attention. This isn’t the issue here. These were people who all confessed at the police station but went to court and challenged the confessions.

      “We all know it is not a “huge” problem”

      I disagree, we don’t know the extent of the problem. What we do know if the effect is to lock innocent people in prison while guilty people are free and kill and rape again. It’s at the very least a huge problem to the indvidual defendant and victims.

      “This is not true, if a guy was locked up in a jail in another state when someone was killed (or not born when JKF was killed) his confession will not “outweigh” ALL other evidence”

      True, but in several of the cases, the jury ignored exculpatory evidence (DNA mostly) and convicted on the basis of the confession.

  2. “…most false confessions likely occur in cases without physical evidence that been reviewed by the courts over time and we are probably just scratching the surface”. As an American, this statement makes me very sad.

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