Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

The Evolution of Criminal Justice

In twentieth century America, coerced confessions to criminal acts are not technically admissible as evidence in courts of law. Since the 1980's, however, a movement against the enforcement of such "technicalities" has developed within the federal courts. As more forms of questionable evidence become admissible, we must begin to ask ourselves if justice is being properly served. Although blatant physical torture is not yet regularly used, other techniques for obtaining confessions are common: promises of leniencey, threats, isolation, sleep and food deprivation, forced nudity and other practices which serve to demoralize the accused. The validity of these confessions is highly questionable.

Most people today would agree that confessions to acts of witchcraft are mostly false, as the confessed acts are impossible. Nonetheless, in seventeenth century Europe many witch hunters obtained very high rates of confession to such acts. Some, such as Matthew Hopkins in England, did so without using obvious forms of torture which would have left physical marks or deformities. This is because it is not the pain that makes the person confess, but the loss of hope that accompanies it. All methods of coercing witchcraft confessions during this period had the underlying, though often unconscious, goal of demoralizing the accused witch; once this was accomplished, the confesion always followed.

This is why these techniques are used today, not just to obtain confessions, but to break the spirit of anyone within the grips of the criminal justice system who proves to be a nuisance, and to break prisoners' ties to the community and thus limit public knowledge of what they are subjected to. While it is important to examine modern day uses of these methods in obtaining confessions, we can't ignore their use on already convicted prisoners, especially since convictions without confessions are more easily obtained now than in seventeenth century Europe.

Matthew Hopkins, English "Witch-Finder General" in 1645-6 used a method of obtaining confessions which proved quite effective: to induce a state of delirium in the accused to where she didn't know what she was confessing and often didn't remember it later. Elizabeth Clarke was ready to confess after three days and nights of " watching," which combined intimidation with sleep deprivation. A critic of Hopkins, John Gaule, described the procedure in 1646: " Having taken the suspected Witch, she is placed in the middle of a room upon a stool, or table, crosse-legg'd, or in some other uneasie posture, to which if she submits not, she is then bound with cords; there she is watcht and kept without meat or sleep for the space of 24 hours."

A famous modern case in which Hopkins style techniques were used, and one which involved a false confession to murder, is that a Randall Adams. The State of Texas sentenced Adams to death following a trial where the only evidence was the purchased testimony of witnesses and Adams' confession. Adams was unaware that he had signed a confession, as he had been deprived of sleep and food until he became delirious and no longer conscious of his actions. The effectiveness of this tactic is shown by Adams' previous refusal to sign a confession when investigators threatened him with a gun. All of this was exposed with the release of the film The Thin Blue Line. Had this film not been made, Adams would still be in prison.

This type of coercion, though, is most commonly applied today to prisoners who become politically active or are critical of authority. Adrian Lomax, who himself was recently put in a sensory deprivation control unit for writing an article which "encouraged disrespect" for a guard at the prison he was in, reported in a different article that a fellow prisoner at Waupun got three months in segregation for saying "burn it" as an American flag was being raised. Similarly, Amnesty International pointed out in its criticism of the isolation unit that it is used "to isolate and brutalize women for their political beliefs."

Matthew Hopkins wrote a pamphlet in 1647, in which he defended his practice by describing his method. He denied tying up his prisoners, walking and watching them, just as Lexington officials would certainly deny being brutal to their prisoners, but he did admit to isolating them and explained why: " When a witch is first found with teats, then she is sequestered from her house, which is only to keep her old associates from her, and so by good counsel brought into a sad condition... is brought to remorse and sorrow for complying with Satan so long... and then without any of the before-mentioned hard usages or questions put to her, doth of her own accord declare what was the occasion of the Devils appearing to her." Here, as in Lexington, the goal is to demoralize the prisoner and then brainwash her into submission.

Another effective seventeenth century method of demoralizing accused witches was the practice of stripping them early in the investigation. In England this was usually done under the guise of a search for the devil's mark, or witch's teat, from which she nursed demons in the form of imps with her own blood. The Malleus Maleficarum, an early German witch hunting manual, encouraged stripping the accused prior to the first attempt at talking her into confessing. The justification was a witch-tailored version of the excuse usually given for stripping a prisoner: " And the reason for this is that they should search for any instrument of witchcraft sewn into her clothes; for they often make such instruments, at the instruction of devils, out of the limbs of unbaptized children, the purpose being that those children should be deprived of the beatific vision."

This tactic is most frequently used in modern times to discourage prisoner contacts with their families and other outsiders. One case involved a prisoner's sister who was stripped to her underwear after a visit, because she was suspected of passing marijuana to her brother during her visits. Although a guard was posted to watch the two during their visit and the searching guard felt under the visitor's bra, no marijuana was found. A 1991 case from Rhode Island concerned a prisoner's visiting daughter who was strip searched in retaliation for the prisoner's sarcastic remark that a high ranking prison official had supplied him with cocaine. In 1988 a prisoner's wife was subjected to a body cavity search without probable cause as a condition to visiting her husband. These women all won their cases in court, but the frequency of these cases indicates that strip searching of visitors is common, as most visitors are not likely to file suit.

Similarly, prisoners themselves are routinely subjected to strip searches as a condition to have visits. At the Washington State Reformatory, for example, prisoners are constantly observed during visits and are not allowed to leave the visiting room without terminating the visit. Nonetheless, they are strip searched following each visit and subjected to a visual anal search.

Another method of coercion that was common in witch cases was the use of the threat of torture. The Malleus suggests that if the judge can't convince the witch to confess (after stripping her), that he show her the implements of torture and try again to covince her. The principle can also be extended to the threat of further torture when torture has already been applied. Historian William Monter suggests that a major reason for the relative mildness of the Swiss witch trials is that the Swiss followed the restrictions in the Imperial law code, which placed a three day limit on torture. Many people were able to withstand severe torture without confessing because they knew that it would eventually end. This strongly supports the idea that it is not the pain which brings out the confession, but the sense of hopelessness. It can also help us to understand why modern prison officials are so eager to get past state limits on the length of time a prisoner can be placed in isolation. They do this by labeling it " administrative," as opposed to " disciplinary," segregation, making it conceivable for a prisoner to spend months, years or even his entire sentence in control units such as the IMU at Walla Walla.

The other side to this is the practice encouraged in the Malleus of granting false promises of leniency if the person were to confess, which, combined with threats of torture, proved to be a very successful measure. The effect is the same in modern times. A U.S. government report noted that in 1986, defendants pleaded guilty in 89% of cases resulting in conviction. This is because they are about 40% more likely to receive a prison sentence if convicted by a jury and three times as likely to receive life in prison or death. This is made very clear to them during the plea bargaining process. As in the seventeenth century, however, it is possible that promises of leniency in exchange for guilty pleas are false, as judges can, and often do, increase the sentence agreed upon by the prosecutor. At this point, the accused has already pled guilty and has lost his right to a jury trial.

Friedrich Spee, a former confessor to convicted witches, anonymously published a criticism of German witch trials in 1631, in which he showed that it was impossible for an innocent person not to be convicted. He took his audience through the judicial procedure with the hypothetical case of a woman named Gaia. At one point he says, " If Gaia does not die and some exceptionally scrupulous judge hestitates to torture her further without fresh proofs or to burn her without a confession, she is kept in prison and more harshly fettered, and there lies for perhaps an entire year to rot until she is subdued." This implies that in some cases women who withstood torture without confessing would confess after being kept in prison for long periods of time. Similarly, prisoners who insist on their right to a jury trial often change their minds after being held in jail for month after month. This is because the point at which the confession is made is not necessarily the point of greatest pain, but that of greatest despair.

To add particulat relevance to all this, let's look at one more modern case. Alexander Cockburn recently outlined this case in The Nation, which involved Clinton's new Attorney General, Janet Reno. When faced with a tough bid for re-election as a Florida prosecutor in 1984, Reno decided that she needed to have more convictions in her name, resulting in what is known as the Country Walk case. A couple who ran a day care center in a wealthy neighborhood were investigated for molesting children, but as in the case of Randall Adams, there was no reliable evidence against them, and a great deal of evidence in their favor. Rather than doing the rational thing and concluding that maybe they were innocent, though, Reno simply changed strategies, trying to divide the couple and get the woman to testify against her husband.

At this point nearly all of the previously mentioned techniques were used on this woman. She was imprisioned, placed in segregation, stripped and kept naked under the guise of a suicide watch, and threatened with further such treatment if she didn't confess and testify against her husband. After eight weeks of this, she was still insisting on her husband's innocence, so, as with Adams, they subjected her to countless hours of "good counsell" until she finally cracked. In her delirium, she stated, among other things, that her husband had hung her and their son up by their ankles, rubbed their legs with feces and placed snakes on their genitals. As many a witch had confided in Friedrich Spee that they had given false testimony in order to end the torture, this woman told the judge in her case that she was innocent but pleaded guilty "for her own good." She got a ten year sentence plus deportation, and her husband, who still maintains his innocence, got six life sentences plus 165 years. ( Florida isn't running a prison system; it's running a mortuary.)

Critics of the seventeenth century witch trials were right when they claimed that a confession which is produced through torture cannot be trusted, whether that torture is blatant or subtle. This is something to keep in mind as we modern Americans get tougher on crime by eliminating the protections traditionally guaranteed to the accused and convicted.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login