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Truth about false confessions

Steve Chapmen, Column, Chicago Tribune, December 11, 2003

In 1989, 5 teenage boys were arrested for savagely beating and raping a jogger in Central Park, leaving her unconscious and near death. They were convicted and served lengthy prison terms. But last year, they were exonerated after a convicted killer confessed to the crime and DNA evidence backed him up. This week, three of them filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against law enforcement authorities demanding compensation for what happened to them.

How did the criminal justice system make such a terrible mistake, victimizing these innocents while letting a vicious predator go unpunished? Simple: They confessed.

For a jury, there is no evidence more compelling than a defendant's declaration that he did exactly what he's accused of doing. In this case, the Manhattan district attorney had videotaped statements from the five suspects, which sealed their fate. But as their exoneration shows, that kind of evidence can't always be trusted.

It's obvious that if you want to find a guilty person, you should look for one who's admitted his guilt. But if you want to find an innocent one? Same place. Contrary to what you might expect, we have discovered that a lot of suspects who incriminate themselves are lying through their teeth.

The number of cases where such incidents have led to erroneous convictions is long and growing longer. The Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University law school says that of 42 erroneous murder convictions documented in Illinois since 1970, 25-60 % - stemmed from false confessions. Nationally, according to the Innocence Project at New York's Benjamin N. Cardozo law school, such admissions figure in one of every four unjust capital convictions.

Why on earth would anyone admit to being a rapist or a killer if it weren't true? All sorts of reasons. One is that police interrogations can be so relentless and exhausting that they drive even an innocent person to despair. Suspects may be tricked by bogus claims that they failed polygraph exams and by promises of leniency if they utter the magic words.

They may even be physically threatened or abused by the cops - a depressingly familiar phenomenon in Illinois, where several exonerated death row inmates say they were tortured into confessing. The accused may suffer from mental disabilities that keep him from understanding the significance of incriminating statements or make him unusually vulnerable to police manipulation.

There are some obvious remedies. The most promising is videotaping police interrogations, from start to finish, so the jury can see the circumstances that produced the confession. Police would be less prone to overbearing or duplicitous tactics if they knew their conduct would someday be on public view.

Another is to make sure juries get the information they need to understand why confessions can't always be trusted. In recent years, criminologists have done vast research on this topic, and defense lawyers put them on the stand to explain their findings--like other experts whose specialized knowledge may illuminate a crucial piece of evidence.

But often defendants find this possible salvation unavailable. University of Pittsburgh law professor Welsh White says that in about half the states that have ruled on the issue, judges have barred experts from testifying about false confessions--generally in the belief that juries are capable of evaluating whether a confession is credible without any help from fancy-pants academics.

The record of wrongful convictions, however, indicates that juries acting on their own instincts can be completely fooled. They often put too much weight on a defendant's self-incrimination and not enough on the pressures that led to it. That's why so many people are sent to prison after confessing to things they didn't do. Hearing from an expert can overcome that tendency.

As a federal appeals court said in a 1996 decision, overturning a conviction because the trial court rejected such testimony, "Even though the jury may have had beliefs about the subject, the question is whether those beliefs were correct. Properly conducted social science research often shows that commonly held beliefs are in error." Expert testimony "would have let the jury know that a phenomenon known as false confessions exists, how to recognize it, and how to decide whether it fit the facts of the case being tried."

Juries are regularly allowed to hear confessions from defendants and urged to believe them. Why shouldn't they be allowed to learn about the grounds for doubt?

Anything that reduces the frequency of wrongful convictions ought to be embraced by prosecutors and police. False confessions aren't good for them or anyone else--except the guilty.


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