Police Force Lying to Suspects during Interrogations: Legal Injustice?

By Shady Gonzales

NEW YORK, NY – The Innocence Project non-profit organization this week discussed the potential injustices of the police force being able to legally lie to suspects during interrogations.

IP noted that in nearly every state across the country, this practice and overall utilizing deceptive tactics is legal.

This discussion had been motivated by John Oliver, HBO host of the show “Last Week Tonight,” who earlier commented on the false confession phenomenon.

The false confession phenomenon refers to those that incriminate themselves in crimes that they did not commit. These false confessions are typically grouped into three categories: (1) voluntary, (2) coerced-compliant, and (3) coerced-internalized, said IP.

The project chronicled more than 3,000 incarcerated individuals found innocent of charges held against them and liberated from detainment since 1989. Of these individuals, more than 10 percent of them had falsely confessed to crimes they did not commit.

IP cites, as example, the case of Christopher Tapp, who, after 21 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, charges for rape and murder were renounced and he was exonerated after giving a false confession while being interrogated.

In this case, Tapp, 20 years old at the time of his interrogation, had been questioned for long hours across multiple days.

Tapp’s initial story, noted the IP, was that he had nothing to do with the murder and sexual assault but this story changed over the coming days as law enforcement fed him false information about what other witnesses had testified. Tapp was threatened with the death penalty, and asserted that he did not remember what he had done because his actions were so brutal that he repressed them.

According to IP, there was also DNA evidence found at the crime and investigation that did not match Tapp, who had also given testimonies that did not align with the facts of the crime.

Tapp was found guilty of the crimes and sentenced to life in prison.

After the Innocence Project, various attorneys, civilians, and the mother of the victim had increased their efforts to release Tapp throughout the 2010s, the DNA evidence was used to trace the true criminal through forensic genealogy.

After monitoring Brian Dripps, the last individual whose genealogy matched the DNA evidence found at the crime scene whose specific DNA hadn’t been tested, investigators recovered a cigarette butt he had thrown out, IP discovered.

The DNA matched that on the cigarette butt and Dripps confessed to the rape and murder. He said that he acted alone and did not know Christopher Tapp.

The Innocence Project notes that adults that do not have mental challenges and are traditionally normal still provide false confessions frequently, and some groups are particularly susceptible to false confessions, such as young people and people with cognitive deficits or mental illnesses.

According to the Innocence Project, “people often falsely confess due to stress, exhaustion, confusion, feelings of hopelessness and inevitability, fears of harsher punishments for not confessing, substance use, mental limitations, or a history of trauma.”

Psychological coercion and feeding of facts by law enforcement, even unintentionally, compels the innocent to confess, IP maintains, adding that there are countless others incarcerated who showed every trademark of a false confession during their trials that are still fighting for their freedom.

A current example is Melissa Lucio, scheduled to be executed on April 27 of this year. She was charged for the murder of her two-year-old daughter in 2008 but her confession shows many trademarks of a false confession, said IP.

Being brought in for interrogation only two hours after her daughter’s death caused by an accidental fall down their apartment stairs, Lucio confessed to murdering the infant with the words, “I guess I did it.”

This confession followed long hours of interrogation into the night and over one hundred assertions that she did not harm her child.

Her 12 other children have repeatedly said Lucio was never violent with them and are still fighting for her innocence.

IP notes that Oregon, Illinois, and Utah recently became the first states in the nation to ban deception by police while interrogating juvenile suspects. This is because juvenile suspects are particularly susceptible to falsely confessing.

The Innocence Project is currently working to enact policies that would serve to reduce the incident of false accusations—the first of these policies is uninterrupted electronic recording of investigations.

The Department of Justice and 30 states across the nation require the recording of interrogations. The Innocence Project is working to mandate this policy in the remaining 20 states.

The second of these policies is the regulation of interrogation methods and the banning of police deception while interrogating, as many methods are psychologically coercive and manipulative and decrease the reliability of statements.

The third policy is the assessment of the reliability of confessions in pre-trial hearings where courts would be able to assess the validity of a confession before it is submitted to the judge and jury as evidence.

About The Author

Shady is a third year undergraduate student at UC Santa Barbara. She is majoring in history with a minor in professional writing. She is passionate about working in the criminal defense sector of law and plans on attending law school in the near future.

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