Thursday, February 23, 2012

The False Confession Industry

When questions arose about whether or the teens that allegedly assaulted and raped a female jogger in Central Park years ago were wrongfully convicted, conservative columnist Ann Coulter remarked that of course the convictions were correct. Why? Police had the teens' confessions, she wrote, which should have eliminated all future questions regarding justice in that case.

Indeed, most people believe that a confession is the Gold Standard of criminal evidence, and that a confession should trump everything else, including forensic evidence (such as DNA matches) and even the Laws of Time and Space. Author David K. Shipler has an intriguing article on the New York Times op-ed page that goes into some detail about false confessions and the smarmy tactics police and prosecutors use to get them.

Beginning with the interrogation of a juvenile police tricked into confessing to a crime he didn't commit (it seems that the boy was in juvenile lockup when the murder of a policeman was committed, although that little fact did not stop police from trying to get him convicted), Shipler notes that jurors don't like to believe that innocent people would falsely confess, and judges don't want to believe it, either. Yet, they do. Writes Shipler:
False confessions have figured in 24 percent of the approximately 289 convictions reversed by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project. Considering that DNA is available in just a fraction of all crimes, a much larger universe of erroneous convictions surely exists. If nearly a quarter of overturned convictions involves a false confession, police interrogations are creating an epidemic of injustice.
And who confesses? He notes:
If you have never been tortured, or locked up and verbally threatened, you may find it hard to believe that anyone would confess to something he had not done. Intuition holds that the innocent do not make false confessions. What on earth could be the motive? To stop the abuse? To curry favor with the interrogator? To follow some fragile thread of imaginary hope that cooperation will bring freedom?

Yes, all of the above. Psychological studies of confessions that have proved false show an overrepresentation of children, the mentally ill or mentally retarded, and suspects high on drugs or drunk on liquor. They are susceptible to suggestion, eager to please authority figures, disconnected from reality or unable to defer gratification. Children often think, as Felix did, that they will be jailed if they keep up their denials and will get to go home if they just go along with the interrogator. Mature adults of normal intelligence have also confessed falsely after being manipulated.
One of the most egregious cases of false confession involved the wrongful conviction of Martin Tankleff, who at age 17 was alleged to have brutally murdered his parents. Tankleff was in prison for 17 years until his conviction was overturned a few years ago, and it turned out that police and prosecutors hid exculpatory evidence in order to better secure a conviction.

The Tankleff case hits home because I am good friends with a person who was working with the lawyer who finally was successful in securing Tankleff's release from prison. Legal documents that I read long before they became public were quite chilling.

First, there was another suspect who clearly had motive to kill the Tankleffs and he had a reputation for violence. Second, had personal ties with a police detective who just happened to be involved with the Tankleff case and was in a good position to lead investigators away from the real killer. Third, the nature of the evidence itself demonstrated that Martin was not the likely killer.

Yet, none of that mattered to police and prosecutors. They wanted a conviction, and Martin was a convenient target. Writes Shipler:
A cunning lie generated a false confession from Martin Tankleff, 17, who found his parents one morning in their Long Island home slashed and stabbed, his mother dead, his father barely alive. The boy called 911 and was taken for questioning. Getting nowhere, Detective K. James McCready decided on a trick. He walked to an adjacent room within hearing distance, dialed an extension on the next desk, picked up the phone and faked a conversation with an imaginary officer at the hospital. He went back to the son and told him that his father had come out of his coma and said, “Marty, you did it.” In fact, Seymour Tankleff never regained consciousness and died a month later.
Martin soon confessed to the killing (and he managed to get the details of the murder wrong, but that didn't matter to police and prosecutors), and although he quickly recanted, the confession was allowed during the trial and the jurors dutifully convicted an innocent man.

As is often the case in American life today, where there is government wrongdoing, often there is someone to make money from it. With false confessions it is John E. Reid & Associates. One of the "tricks" that Reid teaches is how to slip in a Miranda warning without the person being interrogated realizing what is happening. In other words, Reid teaches police and other "interrogators" who to manipulate and lie, knowing that these things often bring about false confessions. However, convictions, not truth fills the bottom line for Reid.

While I would agree that most people in prison are guilty, nonetheless the realization that probably thousands of people languishing behind bars are innocent is not something that decent people should tolerate. Once upon a time, we depended upon police and prosecutors to be the agents that would investigate and find out what the truth really was.

Unfortunately, those days are long behind us. Truth no longer matters, and it no longer matters with the people who claim always to be telling the truth, and whose lies have horrible and bloody consequences.


Anonymous said...

48-minute video of a law school professor and former criminal defense attorney explaining why you should never agree to be interviewed by the police here.

Anonymous said...

"10 Rules for Dealing with Police" video available online in 4 parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Anonymous said...

Anon, 9:48am. Very interesting, I could not believe this. When you trust these ppl. to help and this.. Oh nooo what is the world coming to. The truth really does not matter. Lord help us all.

Anonymous said...

PBS Frontlines episode The Confessions investigates how high-pressure police interrogation techniques led four innocent men -- current and former U.S. Navy sailors -- to confess to a brutal 1997 crime they didn't commit.

Doc Ellis 124 said...

Greetings Dr Anderson,


Thank you for writing this essay

Doc Ellis 124

Lynne said...

Excellent article. I'm going to share this too. Thank you.

Joseph said...

Doc Anderson, great article. Pithy but loaded with information and insight! I remember being the object of three polygraph interrogations - even though I was guilty of nothing, I was scared and nervous. What is the most primal, basic and instinctive drive that trumps all else? To flee when trapped. It is irrational. It is primarily why people confess - to get away! It is a drive more successfully resisted by smarter and older people. But until you undergo such an interrogation you may not experience this impulse of wanting to do anything to go home, get away, and thus you have no sympathy for a false confession.
I recently talked to a friend who 25 years ago was accused of a parkinglot hit-and-run (the car had been joyrided after not having its ignition keys removed...). He was harshly interrogated for 2-and-1/2 hrs and he said the detective had him almost believing he did it! He said this was a startling revelation to him then but he did not breakdown. Luckily he had witnesses to verify his story.
That YouTube video ref'd above is great. By Prof. James Duane at Regent Law School it is a primer on how you can get screwed by the police. The video also has law student and police detective George Bruch talking about the technique of telling a suspect "This is off the record..." and then dramatically turning off an old cassette recorder. This technique was tried on me! I thought it was ludicrous at the time but it is a time-tested technique to "fool" the suspect. As Martin Tankleff knows the police can lie with impunity and the results are evidence that may be presented to a jury, even if the suspect immediately recants after being fooled.

Help FREE Bryce said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

There was more to the confessions regarding the Central Park Jogger case than "they falsely confessed." For example, the parents of some of the suspects were standing beside them at the time. Also, it was recorded with no rubber hoses in sight.

Furthermore, the same group had assaulted several other people that night.

justiceseeker51 said...

All this reminds me of the West Memphis 3. The lying and corruption that goes on, is really mind boggling. Have any of you seen it? It's called Paradise Lost(?), where the 3 boys were railroaded....

We have got to do something about all this , to me is hatred.....for their fellowman.

maria said...

You are so right! It's all about hating your fellow man. Ever since the false accusation of my husband, people in our neighborhood have aimed their cars at our kids when they are walking to the bus stop, they have killed some of my dogs an cats, they call their daddy a rapist etc, etc. all that because they heard some gossip.
Please pray for our family for trial is coming up in march in catoosa

Anonymous said...

Maria, Will be praying for you all.People are cruel, but if it was them, They would see things different, Never know it might one day. I wish no ill will to anyone but they better wake up...

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