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?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.
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.
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.