Tuesday, December 2, 2008

False Confessions: Why Aren't We Taking Steps to Prevent Them?

Last Saturday’s Omaha World-Herald asks:

How could so many people admit in vivid detail to a horrendous crime that they didn't commit?

That was the question after the Central Park 5.

After the Norfolk 4.

And now, the Beatrice 6.

The murder case out of Beatrice, Neb., in which six people were wrongfully convicted in 1989 of the slaying of a 68-year-old woman, is a new national record for the most people exonerated in one case by DNA evidence.

Until this case, the record was held by the Central Park 5. Surely you remember that case: In April of 1989, a white female jogger was reportedly gang-raped by a group of juveniles who, incidentally, were black. Five of the boys (ranging in age from 14 – 16) confessed, were sentenced and served time in prison. Once the boys confessed, it was all over for them. As we mentioned in a previous blog post, “confession acts as the strongest piece of evidence that outweighs any reasonable evidence to the contrary.” Juries often find confessions so compelling, they consider other parts of the trial incidental. It turned out that one Matias Reyes was identified as the rapist through DNA testing, and he confessed to acting alone.

In the case of the Norfolk Four, four young sailors falsely confessed to raping and murdering a young woman in her Norfolk, VA, apartment. “Soon after the trial, the four men recanted and claimed that their admissions were coerced through the threat of the death penalty.” Later DNA testing proved that another man, acting alone, committed the crime. Unfortunately, three of the four remain in prison, serving life sentences without chance for parole. As recently as November 26th, Gov. Kaine has stated that their original confessions are the biggest roadblock to his pardoning them.
But they're asking for a whole series of confessions, and I can't give you the number, but 15 or 20 that were given at different points in time by different people, to all be discarded. That is a huge request.
Perhaps someone should tell Governor Kaine that, according to the Innocence Project, “In approximately 25% of the wrongful convictions overturned with DNA evidence, defendants made false confessions, admissions or statements to law enforcement officials.”

In Florida’s earliest DNA case, Jerry Frank Townsend, who is mentally retarded with the mental capacity of an eight year old, was convicted of six murders and one rape and sentenced to seven concurrent life sentences. In 1979, Townsend was arrested for raping a pregnant woman in Miami, Florida. During the investigation, he confessed to other murders. The confessions were largely the consequence of Townsend wanting to please authority figures, a common adaptive practice by someone with his mental capacities. Police took Townsend to murder scenes and recorded his confessions. Townsend was ultimately cleared by DNA and released on June 15, 2001. He had spent twenty-two years in prison. Read more about Townsend’s case here.

But back to the Beatrice 6. While experts say the case seems to fit patterns of other cases (although not necessarily the Norfolk Four), “young people with low-esteem or mental problems who were abusing alcohol or drugs,” the case had a particularly unsettling addition -- a police psychologist who played a role in the interrogations has previously served as private therapist to some of the defendants. According to the World-Herald, “Saul Kassin, a professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and co-author of Confessions in the Courtroom, and Richard Leo, a law professor at the University of San Francisco said that a psychologist acting in the dual role of trusted therapist and criminal interrogator would have had a powerful place of trust and persuasion over suspects.” Apparently so powerful that only one of the Beatrice 6 defendants refused to confess.

An attorney for one of the six said recently, "I'm fully convinced now that the police, if they wanted to, could get any borderline personality person, who has alcohol and drug issues, and scare them to death and get them to confess to anything."

We know why the police do it. Confessions are, as expert Kassin says, the “gold standard” in criminal trials. But how do they do it? And what can be done to prevent even more false confesstions?

We'll look at some of the answers to these questions in our next post.

*Some of the information in this post was taken from “The False Confessions in the Central Park Jogger Case” written by Elaine Cassel and published on December 17, 2002, at Findlaw.

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Anonymous said...

This is some seriously disgusting stuff. It does tend to make one despair of human judgment and compassion.

Toni said...

Yes, it is pretty disgusting. I just don't understand why we, as a civilized society, let so much of this "stuff" go on.