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September 14, 2010

"Confessing to Crime, but Innocent"

The title of this post is the headline of this piece in today's New York Times. Here are excerpts:

[M]ore than 40 [persons] have given confessions since 1976 that DNA evidence later showed were false, according to records compiled by Brandon L. Garrett, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law.  Experts have long known that some kinds of people — including the mentally impaired, the mentally ill, the young and the easily led — are the likeliest to be induced to confess.  There are also people like Mr. Lowery, who says he was just pressed beyond endurance by persistent interrogators.

New research shows how people who were apparently uninvolved in a crime could provide such a detailed account of what occurred, allowing prosecutors to claim that only the defendant could have committed the crime.  An article by Professor Garrett draws on trial transcripts, recorded confessions and other background materials to show how incriminating facts got into those confessions — by police introducing important facts about the case, whether intentionally or unintentionally, during the interrogation.

To defense lawyers, the new research is eye opening.  “In the past, if somebody confessed, that was the end,” said Peter J. Neufeld, a founder of the Innocence Project, an organization based in Manhattan.  “You couldn’t imagine going forward.”...

Of the exonerated defendants in the Garrett study, 26 — more than half — were “mentally disabled,” under 18 at the time or both.  Most were subjected to lengthy, high-pressure interrogations, and none had a lawyer present.  Thirteen of them were taken to the crime scene....

Some defendants’ confessions even include mistakes fed by the police.  Earl Washington Jr., a mentally impaired man who spent 18 years in prison and came within hours of being executed for a murder he did not commit, stated in his confession that the victim had worn a halter top. In fact, she had worn a sundress, but an initial police report had stated that she wore a halter top.

Steven A. Drizin, the director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law, said the significance of contamination could not be understated. While errors might lead to wrongful arrest, “it’s contamination that is the primary factor in wrongful convictions,” he said.  “Juries demand details from the suspect that make the confession appear to be reliable — that’s where these cases go south.”

Jim Trainum, a former policeman who now advises police departments on training officers to avoid false confessions, explained that few of them intend to contaminate an interrogation or convict the innocent. “You become so fixated on ‘This is the right person, this is the guilty person’ that you tend to ignore everything else,” he said.  The problem with false confessions, he said, is “the wrong person is still out there, and he’s able to reoffend.”

Mr. Trainum has become an advocate of videotaping entire interrogations.  Requirements for recording confessions vary widely across the country.  Ten states require videotaping of at least some interrogations, like those in crimes that carry the death penalty, and seven state supreme courts have required or strongly encouraged recording.

September 14, 2010 at 09:06 AM | Permalink


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sounds like EVEN more reason to REQUIRE non-editable video of EVERY interchange between govt and the public and in the case of interrogations like this! that individuals with NO KNOWLEDGE of teh actual case talk to the individuals.

Posted by: rodsmith | Sep 14, 2010 4:30:36 PM

Mr. Otis is skeptic. Would appreciate a comment here.

All witness testimony is nearly worthless, none should be allowed without validating physical evidence.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 14, 2010 9:02:59 PM

"The problem with false confessions, he said, is 'the wrong person is still out there, and he’s able to reoffend.'"

Well, that's a problem. A bigger problem (ten times bigger by Blackstone's reckoning) is that an innocent citizen is behind bars.

Posted by: John K | Sep 15, 2010 10:43:47 AM

Gladstone was a bewigged, Royalist toady. He condemned our beloved patriots to death in absentia. He voted for the Stamp Act. What a horrible human being.

Why is it better to let 10 guilty men go free than to condemn one innocent one?

Because 10 guilty men generate lawyer make work fees. When released, they will commit 100's of crimes each, and will increase lawyer billings. When you release 10 guilty men, you condemn 100's if not 1000's of innocent crime victims to injury and cost. This increases the call for bigger government.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 15, 2010 2:07:38 PM


No offense, SC, but I believe you might be insane.

Posted by: John K | Sep 15, 2010 9:30:48 PM

John: Sorry. Gladstone was a great Victorian prime minister. It is Blackstone and his Commentaries from the 18th Century. Thanks for picking up on the mistake.

Are you a lawyer? If not, we have no dispute. I respect your pro-criminal viewpoint, and have no argument against it.

My messages here are mostly addressed to lawyers. They understand them at another level than you might otherwise. They know they are insane, not me. They believe in supernatural doctrines that minds can be read, the future forecast, that 12 strangers can detect the truth by using their gut feelings, that our standards of conduct should be set by a fictional character. Why fictional? This part is nuttier than a fruitcake. To make the standards of conduct "objective," of course. They never admit it, this character is a thinly disguised avatar of Jesus, making tort law unconstitutional and a violation of the Establishment Clause. That is why the word, reasonable, is at the center of the law, and not the words, useful, safe, intelligent, mainstream, customary, and the dozens of other possible ways to arrive at a standard of practice. And what is the real meaning of the word, reasonable? It comes from the noun, reason. That means, very specifically, the ability to perceive God, in Scholasticism, when nearly the entire common law was set up, in the 13th Century.

The lawyers know about Gladstone, and his highly offensive old joke at the expense of the public.

I suggest you skip over my comments, since they all assume some legal training.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 15, 2010 11:08:53 PM

My viewpoint isn't pro-criminal. It's pro citizens accused of crimes. There's a difference, at least there's supposed to be.

I know who Gladstone was...just not in the context of Blackstone's ratio.

Posted by: John K | Sep 15, 2010 11:50:48 PM

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