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New Research: Why Innocent People Confess to Crimes They Did Not Commit

A September 2010 article in the New York Times highlighted an interesting phenomenon that has become more evident in an era where DNA evidence is available to help conclusively prove guilt or innocence – the fact that many people confess to crimes they did not commit, and serve lengthy prison terms as a result. Now, due to numerous real-life examples and research by experts, it is recognized that such confessions occur much more frequently than originally presumed.

Peter J. Neufeld, co-founder of the New York-based Innocence Project, said the new research is dramatic. “In the past, if somebody confessed, that was the end. You couldn’t imagine going forward.” Neufeld noted that rather than focusing on whether confessions were physically coerced, one should also “look at whether they are reliable.”

According to records compiled by Professor Brandon L. Garrett of the University of Virginia Law School, since 1976 at least 40 people have given confessions that were later shown to be false by DNA evidence. Prof. Garrett observed that it has been known for some time that the mentally impaired, mentally ill, young, and easily led can often be coerced into confessions, but cited the example of Eddie J. Lowery to demonstrate that even people who do not fall into any of those categories can also be induced into false confessions.

Lowery spent 10 years in prison in Kansas for the rape of a 75-year-old victim and was cleared by DNA evidence in 2003 after serving his sentence. He was later pardoned, and received a $7.5 million settlement for his wrongful conviction.

In another case, Jeffrey Deskovic spent 16 years in prison for a murder he did not commit in Poughkeepsie, New York; he was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2006. [See: PLN, Aug. 2009, p.12]. Prosecutors had successfully argued that his detailed confession could only have been made by the perpetrator of the crime.

A common thread in such cases, as disclosed by Prof. Garrett’s research, was the complexity of the alleged confessions. “I expected, and think people intuitively think, that a false confession would look flimsy ... [such as] ‘I did it’.” But, said Garrett, false confessions instead “looked uncannily reliable.”

Prof. Garrett cited the factor of police contamination during interrogations by introducing and describing elements of the crime when questioning suspects, either purposely or otherwise. “I had known that in a couple of these cases, contamination could have occurred ... I didn’t expect to see that almost all of them had been contaminated.”

Garrett’s research showed that most of the people who falsely confessed had been subjected to long, high-pressure interrogations without legal counsel present. In Lowery’s case, he believes that the contamination was intentional based upon the police going over the details of the crime. “They fed me the answers,” he said.

According to Lowery, “You’ve never been in a situation so intense, and you’re naive about your rights.... You don’t know what you’ll say to get out of that situation.”
Of course the next question to be considered is how many false confession cases exist that are not disprovable by DNA evidence.

An expert on the issue of police contamination during questioning of suspects, Steven A. Drizin, director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law, has stated that “contamination ... is the primary factor in wrongful convictions. Juries demand details from the suspect that make the confession appear to be reliable; that’s where these cases go south.”

Police training experts often advocate the videotaping of police interrogations, and ten states now require at least some videotaping when suspects are questioned, especially in death penalty cases.

Professor Garrett has authored a book on wrongful convictions, Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong, published by Harvard University Press, which is scheduled to be released in April 2011.

Sources: New York Times, www.law.virginia.edu