The Truth About False Confessions

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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Thank you, Walter Olson
We've received a staggering amount of traffic today thanks to this kind mention in Walter Olson's influential blog. I'd like to welcome all the new visitors and urge you to give me feedback on this site, which remains a work-in-progress. Suggestions most welcome.
4:17 pm est

Good News
Need some good news? Click here -- Marty Tankleff may yet get a chance to establish his innocence.
8:42 am est

Public Awakening

law_order_ci.jpgA reader writes to inform me that a recent episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent involved a false confession and suggests that “maybe public awareness is beginning to awaken.”  I think so, though we haven’t reached a tipping point yet.  DNA exonerations sparked the beginning of a re-thinking of the assumption that wrongful convictions in general (not just those based on false confessions) are incredibly rare.  But the moment needs to be seized, the word needs to be spread. 

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5:14 am est

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

My Bleeding Heart

I’ve heard people dismiss the problem of false confessions by suggesting that most false confessors are mentally retarded or mentally ill.  That’s inaccurate, but it is true that a disproportionate number of false confessions (perhaps a third) spring from people in these categories.  However, to my mind, that makes the problem worse rather than less severe.  Don’t we owe the most vulnerable among us special protection?  All too often, the mentally impaired are subject to the same coercive interrogations that produce false confessions even among those without infirmities. 

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6:55 am est

Monday, May 29, 2006

Message From Marty Tankleff

marty_tankleff.jpgFalse confessor Martin Tankleff, from a correctional facility in New York sends along kind words about this website and the following message to the public:


“I would like to thank everyone for their continued support and assistance.  I am confident that with the team effort that everyone has put forward justice will prevail for me and my parents.  The truth needs to be told and the public can help in exposing the truth.  Anyone who has any information that can help me, please come forward.  No matter how small, or large, any amount of information or assistance will be greatly appreciated.  Again, thank you so much for your support.  I and my family greatly appreciate it.”

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8:34 am est

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Many Motivations
A lawyer writes to say that "some false confessions ultimately reduce to acts of altruism. I can recall several cases over the years where I was convinced the inmate pled to a violent attack---usually a knifing---of his mother's abusive boyfriend, when the circumstances suggested that the mother did the stabbing.  In some cases, it was a sibling the inmate had protected."

Given the powerful intuition that people would not confess to a crime they did not commit, it's important to keep in mind that there are actually numerous reasons one might do so.  Protecting loved ones is certainly among the many motivations for false confessions. 
8:11 am est

Saturday, May 27, 2006

False Confessions As Fatal
gavel.gifAccording to the Innocence Project, there are several sources of wrongful conviction more common than false confessions, such as eyewitness misidentification and prosecutorial misconduct.  However, that involves raw numbers.  In percentage terms, there is probably nothing more fatal to a defendant than his false confession.  Studies of proven false confessions suggest that when false confessors go to trial, 70-80% are convicted.  And, in most of these cases, there is virtually no evidence except the confession. 
8:51 am est

Friday, May 26, 2006

Yarris Follow-Up

Earlier I posted about the Nick Yarris case, and drew certain lessons from it. Peter Goldberger, who was involved in the case and called my attention to it, suggests additional lessons.  If we are to have a death penalty, we ought to take extra precautions to avoid wrongful convictions.  Yet various criminal law reformers call for streamlined procedures.  In the interests of "comity" to state courts and "finality," they would limit the death row inmate’s ability to challenge his conviction.  Had such calls been heeded, Goldberger notes, Yarris “would surely have been executed some years before the current sophistication of DNA testing came into effect, permitting his exoneration.” 


I would only add that DNA testing will not be available or decisive in every case.  Nick Yarris may have been lucky (if you can say that about someone who spent 21 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit).  We’ll never know how many innocent people have been executed.  

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9:33 am est

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Wild Case -- Nick Yarris

nick_yarris.jpgFollowing my tribute to Judge Becker earlier this week, a fellow former law clerk of his, Peter Goldberger, dropped a line to tell me about an amazing case he was involved with a few years ago:  Nick Yarris, a death row inmate exonerated by DNA after 21 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. The case may have involved a fabricated confession more than a false confession (a jailhouse snitch claimed Yarris made incriminating statements), but, in any case, serves as a potent reminder of some paramount truths: the fallibility of police and prosecutors and the grave risks posed by the death penalty.  I can’t vouch for all the details in this riveting account by Yarris himself, but the main story-line has been confirmed. 

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11:08 pm est


From the Reid Associates website: “The Reid Technique of Interviewing and Interrogation [is] widely recognized as the most effective means available to exonerate the innocent and identify the guilty.”


How, pray-tell, does the Reid technique exonerate the innocent?  These folks “train” interrogators to discern the guilt or innocence of suspects through an initial interview primarily by observing and evaluating their demeanor and verbal cues.  The notion that guilt/innocence can be determined in this manner, debunked by social science, amounts to superstition.  Interrogators’ unjustified confidence in their ability as lie detectors contributes mightily to false confessions.  To hear Reid Associates boast about this imaginary skill is maddening.   

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6:34 am est

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Happens All The Time

A visitor writes: “I did not make a false confession, but it was only through willpower and anger at the two detectives who were trying to make me do just that.  They used all of the techniques you talk about [on your website].”

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1:45 pm est

Heard About This?

help.gifA visitor alerts me to an event he says happened about 6 months ago in Troy, New York.  “a man accused of something like child endangerment refused to sign a typed up confession--things were getting contentious between the interrogator and the subject, so to emphasize his refusal the subject  tore up the statement. The cops then arrested the man for the destruction of government property.”


I’ve been unable to locate this.  Anyone know anything about it?  Or similar scenarios anywhere?

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6:32 am est

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


hibar.gifI’m collecting cases in which courts declare that “we do not condone” some improper interrogation tactic, but then nevertheless admit the resulting confession into evidence or otherwise rule against the subject of such tactics.  Earlier this month a panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit explained that “we do not condone” an officer lying to a suspect by telling him that a confession to a crime would “stay confidential,” but still affirmed a grant of summary judgment in favor of the officer in the suspect’s civil suit against him.  The court noted that the cop “did not engage in physical or psychological abuse.”  Therein lies the problem: the courts set the bar far ridiculously high when it comes to determining what interrogative behavior is beyond the pale.

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1:57 pm est

Monday, May 22, 2006

Police Are Poor Lie Detectors

A reader alerts me to a book by a retired detective called We Get Confessions, which offers a candid account of interrogation tactics.  I look forward to it.  In the meantime, I find revealing some of the customer reviews on Amazon, such as this excerpt from a gushing review by a police officer: “I was always frustrated doing interviews.  I knew I had the right guy, but just didn't know how to get them to tell me they did it.”


“I knew I had the right guy”?  Therein lies a major contributor to false confessions.  Police often engage in dubious interrogation practices precisely because they “know” they have the right guy, and their presumption of guilt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The presumption, usually formed during an initial interview, rests on the notion that police can tell when someone is lying based on various behavioral cues.  In fact, social science research demonstrates that humans are poor lie detectors – and professional interrogators no better than anyone else. 

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11:23 pm est

Hot Off The Press

Click here for an excellent column in today’s New York Times by Bob Herbert.  If you don’t subscribe to the Times, and won’t get a chance to see it, the column is about Douglas Warney -- just exonerated by DNA testing after years incarcerated for murder despite the absence of any evidence except an extremely dubious confession.  Herbert wonders how the authorities could possibly send someone to jail for a crime he clearly did not commit.  Explore this website (the FAQ, my various posts, and the scholarly literature), and answers emerge. 

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10:28 am est

Defense Lawyers Take Note -- Voluntary Confessions

i_am_guilty.jpgAttorneys whose client came forward voluntarily and confessed to a crime are apt to assume the client’s guilt, even if the client insists he confessed falsely.  That’s understandable.  The idea that an innocent person would confess in the course of an interrogation is counterintuitive enough.  Would anyone come forward voluntarily and confess falsely?


The answer is yes.  I’ve mentioned that 200 people confessed to kidnapping the Lindbergh baby, and that was far from unique.  I just came across an article (no link currently available) in a Nebraska newspaper about the discovery of a woman’s remains that had been undiscovered for years.  The police believe it was homicide, but the County Attorney declined to release details, noting: “You’d be surprised how many people falsely confess to these types of crimes.”

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2:18 am est

Sunday, May 21, 2006

For Judge Becker

judge_becker.jpgIn 1985-86, I was a law clerk for Judge Edward R. Becker on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.  On Friday afternoon, Judge Becker passed away.  I can’t manage an adequate eulogy: the grief is too great and the man was too great.  As this is a public space, I’ll limit myself to brief comments about his public side: his judging.  He was, quite simply, the ideal judge.  In 36 years on the bench, not a single party should have walked away from a case he presided over (as trial judge or appellate judge) without feeling that he or she received a fair shake.  Others talk about justice as evenhanded, about judges doing all they can to put aside personal predilections or political views.  Judge Becker embodied that ideal. 

It’s a cliché, but no less true or important for that: we take solace from knowing he touched countless lives in ways that live on.  The crusade against false confessions is rooted in a passion for justice.  In my case, that passion was stoked by this special man, whom I already miss terribly.

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12:05 am est

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Promises, Promises

Under Texas case law, similar to most states, a confession is inadmissible if the police make a promise “of some benefit to the accused” deemed likely to be “influential” in producing a false confession.  In practice this amounts to little protection, as a case earlier this week illustrates.  A court of appeals in Houston ruled a confession admissible even though the officer told the suspect: “we can talk to the DA, get you an offer, if you can help us.” As this suggests, courts tolerate all kinds of suggestions of leniency – even though these are known to cause false confessions. 

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9:01 am est

Friday, May 19, 2006

Bill Buckner And False Confessions

bill_buckner3.jpgThe folks who took my quiz about the 1986 World Series got it wrong, as does almost everyone.  People tend to think Bill Buckner’s famous muff was in game 7 (it was game 6) and that the Red Sox were leading (the game was tied).  In other words, they think that if Buckner made the play, the Red Sox were world champions and since he missed, they lost.  False and false.  If he made the play, the game would have continued in extra innings; since he missed, the series went to game 7 – Red Sox still could have won it. 


In a fascinating essay in a great book, Stephen Jay Gould claims that the mistaken recollection about the 1986 Series reflects the way our brains work – we have a need to tidy things up, to convert life’s messy realities into neat narratives.  I think that helps explain the reluctance to believe that innocent people confess to crimes.  If even a person’s own admission that he did X does not prove that he did X, life seems rather unstable. 

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12:07 am est

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Recent Good News

Nicholas Mears, coerced into a confession by police in South Dakota, has reached a settlement in his civil suit.  Read more here.  The confession was so obviously bogus that the trial judge excluded it from evidence, citing the many lies told to Mears and the absurdity of the confession.  Prosecutors then dropped charges. 


There’s more good news here.  A few days before the scheduled execution of Jerry Wayne Conner last week, the North Carolina Supreme Court stayed the execution so that he could obtain DNA testing.

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8:45 am est

Scary Case
surveillance.jpgThis case scares me -- a man sentenced to 45 years for aggravated assault and armed robbery, based primarily on his recanted confession  The victim has never identified him.  Nearest one can tell, the only evidence against him is a grainy video “shot from an angle that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to conclusively identify [the defendant]” and the confession, which he maintains was given “under intense pressure after hours of interrogation.” Years ago, I’d have read about this case and assumed the defendant’s guilt.  But anyone versed in false confessions has to feel terribly uneasy about guilty verdicts in cases like this.
7:50 am est

Adversarial Prosecutors

A visitor writes: “There is far too much stress [in our justice system] on winning.  Our system is not successful when it allows the conviction of the wrong man to be more acceptable than an unsolved case.”


Interestingly, prosecutors are supposed to be exempt from the extreme adversarial ethic.  The Supreme Court has referred to the prosecutor’s twofold aim: “that guilt shall not escape or innocence suffer.”  Alas, too many prosecutors ignore the second part of their obligation.  They are no less adversarial than defense attorneys – wins and losses are how they define success. 

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4:45 am est

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Taping Interrogations In Japan

japan_flag.jpgI’ve mentioned that the problem of false confessions is not limited to America.  Neither are the solutions.  I’m glad to announce that Japan’s “Supreme Public Prosecutors Office” very  recently introduced, on a trial basis, audio and video recording of some interrogations.  Read more here. 

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11:27 am est

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

False Confessions For Sex?

From yesterday’s London Guardian:


"Four Luton-based police officers have resigned after they were found to have given remand prisoners special favors in exchange for giving false confessions, their force said yesterday. A 12-month internal investigation by Bedfordshire police found that some prisoners were allowed to have sex with their girlfriends and take home visits, and were also given cigarettes and extra meals. So keen were some criminals to get their rewards that they admitted to carrying out crimes committed while they were in custody. As a result of the inducements, the crime detection rate improved in Luton."

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11:09 pm est

Hot Off The Press

dna.gifThis incredible story in today’s New York Times (subscription needed) describes the case of Douglas Warney, the latest false confessor to be exonerated by DNA tests. Today prosecutors in Rochester, New York are expected to request Warney’s immediate release from prison, where he has spent more than a decade for a murder he did not commit.

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8:05 am est

Mistaken Eyewitness Identification

mistaken_id.jpgApropos my recent post about why I focus on false confessions, a reader writes to discuss her related crusade – mistaken eyewitness identification:


“During a trial involving a relative of mine, we had two great expert witnesses. The jury listened to and seemed fascinated by these experts. Everyone thought that the verdict would be not guilty. But the verdict was guilty and it seemed to me that although the jurors listened intently, they just couldn't shake two myths about eyewitness testimony-- that memory is like a camera (you either have it or you don't, but it doesn't change), and that the more certain someone is, the more accurate that person is.  My personal feeling is that they struggled with the new information from the expert witnesses, but then fell back on what was familiar to them. That's why I decided that it would be a big help if people learn about how memory works BEFORE they are ever on a jury, so that the expert witness testimony would not be the first time they were hearing this information.  So, I came up with the idea for a play for schools and community groups. . . .  What I'm doing is much easier than what you are doing.  False confessions are the most difficult of all problems to convey to the general public.  It's so counterintuitive.  Without someone like you bringing this to the public’s attention, I'm not sure how people would begin to learn about it. . . . I'm hoping that through your Web site, public education about this issue will spread so that, again, people will not be hearing about it for the first time from an expert witness (if the expert witness is even allowed to testify).”

I appreciate this message on multiple levels.  The reader has devoted herself to a great cause – mistaken eyewitness identifications account for many wrongful convictions.  She’s also right that false confessions present an even bigger challenge in terms of educating the public and jurors.  (People are surprised to learn that eyewitnesses are often wrong, but that’s not as counterintuitive as innocent people confessing.)  Finally, I appreciate her kind words about this site.  If you share her sentiments, please spread word about the site to help educate the public (lawyers and policymakers included). 

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6:46 am est

Monday, May 15, 2006

Bizarre Baseball Question
buckner.jpgI've got a crazy question for those visitors who are baseball fans (either serious or casual).  Remember Bill Buckner's famous error in the 1986 World Series? What was the situation at the time, i.e., which game of the series, what inning, which team ahead?  If you're not sure, guess, but the answers must be based on memory. 
I promise that later in the week I will explain why I asked and connect this exercise to false confessions.  Meantime, let me hear your best guess!
11:15 am est

Quite a weekend

red-cross.gifFirst, the Red Cross protested that the United States will not allow them to visit our enemy combatants held in secret locations.  As I keep lamenting, we have every reason to believe that our indefinite detention and prolonged interrogations of designated enemy combatants are procuring false confessions – all the more so when no outside observers are allowed in.  Why isn’t there more outrage?  As a society, we are in “see no evil” mode.  


Next, it appears that another round of DNA tests in the Duke lacrosse case produced the same result as the first: no match with the accused.  I harp on this case because it links up to false confessions in a key respect: the tendency of many prosecutors to presume a suspect’s guilt and act accordingly, even when evidence fails to support the presumption.  Mike Nifong now has a choice: he can persist in a prosecution that, at least based on what we know, is unjustified.  Or he can admit that he made a big mistake.  Any bets?

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12:15 am est

Sunday, May 14, 2006

A reader weighs in on cop shows

dragnet.jpg"I am pleased that someone is taking action to inform the public about false confessions.  Born in 1950, I was raised with the idea that 'a policeman is your friend.'  I've seen changes in the police and our government since the mid-60s that make me uneasy around cops and leery about the fairness of our justice system winning is everything; the truth be damned. . . . I was a big fan of Dragnet, and Quincy back in the 70s.  I liked CSI when the show appeared several years ago, but I worry about shaping of American minds with the prevalence of law and crime shows that portray infallibility of the good guys.” 

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6:49 am est

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Criminal injustice (the big picture)

I posted some time back that, while plea bargaining is a source of many false confessions, it is less disturbing than false confessions in an interrogative setting.  A reader responded: “I am encouraged by the attention on your website devoted to the dangers of false confessions, but disturbed by the implication that coercive plea bargaining represents a lesser danger to defendants and public policy than police interrogation itself.  We have sacrificed justice in a devil's bargain to obtain judicial efficiency which is neither just nor efficient.”  


Another reader writes that “I've been interested in the general area of wrongful convictions since reading about the McMartin case in LA many years ago.  Then we had the recovered memory scandals.” And other readers complain

that the right to a speedy trial is routinely violated. 


These messages serve as useful reminder that the criminal justice system is riddled with problems large and small. Why, then, my focus on false confessions?  There are a number of reasons, but for now let’s settle for this: we can’t solve all the problems of the world, certainly not at once, but we can greatly reduce the tragedy of false confessions.    

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12:11 am est

Friday, May 12, 2006


fcs_by_age.gifI’ve published several posts noting that false confessors come in all sizes and shapes -- and ages. That said, young people are particularly vulnerable.  In a recent study of proven false confessions, roughly a third were minors (under 18) and roughly 60% were under 25.  Another third were between 25 and 39, which some of us think of as young! 

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10:52 am est

Thursday, May 11, 2006

False confessions on the job

autozone.jpgFalse confessions have moven into a new venue: the “loss prevention” industry.  Major companies have literally taken a page out of the police interrogation handbook -- for dealing with suspected employee theft, they train their loss prevention personnel with manuals modeled after the leading police manuals (and thus employ the very methods that have produced numerous false confessions in the criminal arena).


Last month a jury socked the auto parts chain AutoZone with a $7.5 million punitive damages award for extracting a false confession from an employee accused of stealing. Read about it here.  Punitive damages are designed in part to deter future wrongdoing.  Let’s hope that corporate America takes notice of this verdict.     

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11:10 pm est

In Justice

in_justice.jpgI've been urged to ask people to contact ABC about renewing the show In Justice (the fate of the show will apparently be decided this week) in order to keep the issue of wrongful convictions in the public eye.  You can go to and at the bottom, look for "Contact ABC"-- that will take you to a screen to send your message.

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9:07 am est

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Multiple false confessions

dan_young.jpgDan Young, who spent 12 years in prison in Chicago for a rape and murder he did not commit, was finally released last year following his exoneration by DNA tests.  Last month, Young was killed by a hit-and-run driver.  Newspaper accounts of his tragic life describe events surrounding his false confession.  As is often the case with false confessions, Young’s saga reads like a bad novel.  Young and one Harold Hill both confessed to the crime, and both ended up exonerated.  This account of the case notes that “a third man charged with the crimes was set free not long after his arrest after police discovered he was in jail when the murder occurred.  Like Young and Hill, that man also confessed to police.”


Three false confessions in one case – one of them by a man who was in jail when the crime occurred!  The phenomenon of multiple false confessions in a single case is far from unique.  (The Central Park jogger case featured five false confessions) Nor is it accidental.  Police use one false confession to leverage another.

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11:52 pm est

False confessions as international problem

yogi.jpgWhen told that a Jew had been elected Mayor of Dublin, Yogi Berra said, “Only in America.”  I wish false confessions were “only in America.”  This blog receives visitors from around the world – a reminder of the international nature of the problem.  Many countries, including England, Ireland, Norway, and Canada have featured prominent false confession cases.  In Japan, virtually all criminal defendants plead guilty, and it’s hard to imagine that all are guilty.  The interrogation techniques used by Israel against Palestinian prisoners practically guarantees some false confessions.  And, of course, I haven’t even mentioned those police states whose practices are far less enlightened still.


Needless to say, I am far more versed about criminal justice in America.  I urge international visitors to this site to share knowledge about false confessions in their countries.  

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8:32 am est

It's about poverty

equal_justice.jpgA recent New York Times article quotes a man serving 25 years in prison for the same offense that landed Rush Limbaugh probation: “The wealthy and influential go to rehab, while the poor and powerless go to prison.”  It reminded me of something my old law professor, Charles Black, used to say:  “Most issues are about poverty.  Abortion is about poverty.  If you’re wealthy, you’ll find a way to have an abortion whether it’s legal or not.  The death penalty is about poverty.  No one wealthy is ever put to death.” 


False confessions are partly an issue of poverty.  I’m not aware of data on point, but I’d bet that most false confessors are poor.  This is true for a number of reasons, not least of which is that people of means are less likely to be rounded up in the first place and more likely to request legal assistance when they are. 

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6:48 am est

Tuesday, May 9, 2006

War on Terror & False Confessions
hamid_hayat.jpgSeveral readers have asked whether I believe that convicted terrorist Hamid Hayat may have confessed falsely. The short answer is yes, the case looks suspicious. I’ll be looking into it more and posting about it. For present purposes, I reiterate what I said a few weeks ago: in many respects the war on terror creates the perfect storm for false confessions.
2:40 pm est

Moussaoui's false confession
Zacaris Moussaoui is asking for a new trial, stating what some of us have said all along: his testimony about his plan to fly a fifth plane into the White House on 9/11 was sheer fabrication.  The response to his testimony was most revealing: many commentators declared (wrongly as it turned out) that Moussaoui had sealed his death sentence – they either assumed he was telling the truth or that the jury would think so.  In either case, it’s a reminder of the power of confessions: even an outlandish one coming from someone like Moussaoui (seemingly deranged and/or taunting his captors), and supported by no evidence, is widely believed. 
10:03 am est

Tucker Carlson vs Al Sharpton

carlson_sharpton.jpgInteresting exchange last night between these two media celebrities.  Citing leaks casting more doubt on the credibility of the accuser in the Duke lacrosse case, Carlson goaded Sharpton to join his call for her head.  Perhaps haunted by the ghost of Tawana Brawley, Sharpton was uncharacteristically noncommittal.  Carlson is likely right -- this case has serious signs of a false accusation.  If that turns out to be the case, let’s hope the media focuses less on the troubled accuser than on the prosecutor who rushed to judgment.  The case has already publicized the largely dysfunctional college sports culture.  If it ends up shining the spotlight on prosecutorial abuse, a great deal of good may come of it.    

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2:11 am est

Monday, May 8, 2006

Muhammad Salah

Muhammad Salah is on trial in federal court in Illinois for funneling money to Hamas.  Salah confessed (he says falsely) to Israeli interrogators whom, he claims, abused him for three months.  This account of the case in the Chicago Tribune says that at a hearing to determine whether the confession may be admitted into evidence, a member of the Israeli Security Agency testified that “Salah provided information about the location of the body of a dead Israeli soldier that, while not fully accurate, suggested that Salah knew secret Hamas information.”  To the experienced student of false confessions, that “not fully accurate” is a beaut.  In other words, Salah did not know where the soldier was buried, his claim to know turned out to be false, but the interrogators decided that his inaccurate claim suggests his guilt. 

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11:13 pm est

"I just wanted to go home"

A disproportionate number of false confessions, perhaps a third or more, are from minors.  The reason they most often give for having confessed falsely? “I just wanted to go home.”  That may sound ridiculous until we focus on a few facts.  First, that sentiment is often expressed after hours of grueling interrogation in which the interrogators seem impervious to the child’s insistence of innocence and show no signs of ending the interrogation.  Second, kids are kids – that’s why the law treats them differently from adults in countless respects.  Yet, when it comes to criminal interrogation, they are often afforded little or no special protection.  

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9:48 am est

blaming the victim

Something about false confessions triggers prosecutorial chutzpah.  Cases like Teresa Sornberger’s are beyond belief.  She confessed to a bank robbery when police threatened to call child welfare and have her children taken away, but she quickly recanted.  She had served four months in jail when the real culprit was apprehended.  Was the DA conscience-stricken?  At least mildly remorseful?  Actually he declared that the case “shows the system works” -- and charged Sornberger with obstruction of justice for her false confession.  This case is not unique.  In a number of cases deceitful or coercive interrogations led to false confessions, prosecutors have charged the confessor with obstruction. 

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6:42 am est

Sunday, May 7, 2006

E-mail from a justifiably angry public defender

mirandarights.jpgI think every lawyer and cop ought to re-read Miranda once a year... It's especially noteworthy that it cites thirty years of American concerns and long-standing concerns over the third degree in Great Britain.  Clearly, the false-confession deniers belong to the faith-based community, not the reality based community.  . . . Haven't these guys been discredited?  And why can't they just agree to tape everything and stop using techniques that are plainly unreliable?”

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7:26 am est

Saturday, May 6, 2006

Welcome to Nader readers

nader.jpgWelcome to first-time visitors who learned of the site thanks to Ralph Nader.  Please revisit, as you’ll find new posts daily.  False confessions link up with many issues involving criminal justice, and as you’ll see when you scroll down, I’ve posted on Moussaoui, Duke lacrosse, and various provocative issues.  Please share your thoughts.  I frequently post reader responses.   


And a special thanks to Ralph Nader.  Some people, angry that his candidacy helped elect George Bush in 2000 (one of many contributing factors), unfairly downplay his lifetime crusade in the public interest.  Though perhaps best known for his relentless fight against corporate abuse, Nader has devoted himself to countless causes linked only by his aversion to injustice of any sort.


In that spirit, please spread word of this blog!  The battle against the tragic injustice of false confessions is winnable.

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3:20 pm est

Happy ending

earlwashington.jpgOn Friday Earl Washington received a $2.25 million verdict against the estate of the man who coached and coaxed him to confess falsely to murder and rape – leading to 18 years imprisonment (much of it on death row) before the mildly retarded Washington was exonerated by DNA tests.  Washington’s amazing story is the subject of this excellent book.      

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10:46 am est

More Moussaoui

A reader writes: “It was very clear that Moussaoui is delusional and not part of any conspiracy except with his own ego.  In reality, we have sentenced a man to life in prison for lying.  The American public seems to be pleased, when in fact they should be terrified.”


I don’t know the details of the evidence against Moussaoui, but to the extent the case against him was based on his own words, more than a little skepticism was in order.  And to the extent we frequently convict people based mostly on their own words, we ought be very concerned indeed.     

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8:54 am est

Friday, May 5, 2006

Tip of the iceberg

iceberg.jpgEarlier today, I made reference to a recent study of 125 proven false confessions, and noted that this probably represents the tip of the iceberg.  There are a number of factors behind this conclusion, starting with the study itself.  Its authors, Steven Drizin and Richard Leo, made a point of including only those cases where the confession was demonstrably false.  They excluded dozens of others where substantial evidence suggests it was false.  Second, in the apt words of the authors, “Most false confessions are not easily discovered and are rarely publicized; they are likely to go unnoticed by researchers, unacknowledged by police and interrogators, and unreported by the media.” 

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11:44 am est


John Reid is coauthor of the most influential manuals on police interrogation techniques – the techniques that produce false confessions. An outrageous article on the website of Reid Associates flatly declares that “false confessions are rare phenomena,” and supports the point by citing to an outdated study that pre-dates DNA testing.  A recent empirical study reported 125 proven false confessions and everyone (excluding Reid?) who has studied the issue is convinced that this is just the tip of the iceberg. 

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6:49 am est

The Miranda Myth

miranda.jpgSome people believe that, as long as police read and suspects understand the Miranda warnings, there is little or no risk of a false confession.  What this overlooks is that the innocent suspect is most likely to waive his rights.  Think how often we assume someone is guilty because he clams up and hires a lawyer: “If he were innocent, he’d have nothing to hide.” Indeed, many innocent suspects think exactly that and waive their rights to silence and counsel – not realizing that innocence is no guarantee that you won’t be broken down.  

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5:54 am est

Thursday, May 4, 2006

Air-tight alibi

in_jail.jpgA Public Defender in California writes to tell me about a recent case: “I represented a minor in our county charged with a murder that occurred while he was in custody in juvenile hall.  They don't give passes to go out and whack people, so that was enough to get the case dismissed-- five days after I was able to verify his custody status.”


This situation is actually far from unique – there are a number of false confessions in which the suspect was in jail at the time of the crime or otherwise had an air-tight alibi.

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9:46 am est

Did the jury believe Moussaoui?
jury2.jpgOne of the proposed mitigating factors for the Moussaoui jury to consider was that his testimony about his alleged plan to fly a fifth plane into the White House was "unreliable."  Zero jurors found that to be a mitigating factor. It will be interesting to hear whether that's because they believed Moussaoui or because they didn't regard the alleged plan as relevant to his sentence. The latter seems hard to believe.  The former would be a potent illustration of the tendency of jurors (and everyone else) to believe confessions -- no matter how outlandish and unsupported by evidence.
5:37 am est

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

murder & rape

In a recent study of 125 proven false confessions, roughly 80% involved murder and another 10% sexual assault.  What accounts for this?  I suspect that police are most intent on procuring confessions in murder cases.  In the case of sexual assault, it may be that because of the absence of other witnesses (meaning a likelihood that it will be a he said/she said), suspects feel particularly vulnerable when an interrogator insists that they are guilty and that it will be impossible for them to prove their innocence. 

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2:21 pm est

Prisoner's dilemma
accuse2.gifEarlier today Yale Law School Professor Ian Ayres posted about false confessions at this site, noting that the famous "prisoner's dilemma" helps explain why innocent people would confess in certain situations. Ayres notes: "If you face a high enough prospect of conviction if an alleged codefendant finks, and if you will be given a lower sentence if you confess first, it can be entirely rational to falsely confess."  Indeed, quite a few false confessions have occurred in the codefendant context.
11:08 am est

Politics and prosecutors

dna.jpgA brief AP story this morning is pregnant with meaning.  It reports that District Attorney Michael Nifong, who is prosecuting the Duke lacrosse players, won a narrow victory in the Democratic primary in his quest for re-election.  The article goes on to say that Nifong had confidently predicted that DNA results would confirm the guilt of the players he indicted, and still insists on their guilt even though DNA tests suggest the opposite.  Nifong’s situation illustrates a major potential problem with prosecutors: their decisions can be affected by politics. 


We don’t know for sure whether Nifong’s handling of this case has been affected by concerns about reelection.  We do know that, following DNA exonerations in the case of false confessors, prosecutors often refuse to acknowledge the person’s innocence.  I’ve long suspected that politics influence this reaction: it doesn’t go over well to admit that you’ve put an innocent man behind bars.  At least that’s the assumption.  I wonder.  The public may be more forgiving than some think, and may appreciate a willingness to admit mistakes.  I hope we find out in Nifong’s case. Unless he has substantial evidence against the lacrosse players that we don’t know about, let’s hope he dismisses the charges.  That would set a terrific example.

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8:48 am est

Polygraph Perversity

polygraph.jpgUnder current law, the police may use polygraphs for internal investigatory purposes, but the results are inadmissible in court.  This situation is somewhat perverse.  In many cases, police do not use polygraphs to ferret out truth but rather to induce confessions – whether or not it’s true, they tell the suspect that he failed the test.  This interrogative technique, though known to cause false confessions, is generally condoned by the courts.  These same courts will not allow into evidence the results of polygraph tests.  I’d much prefer that polygraph results be allowed into evidence where experts (from both sides) could interpret the results and explain their significance to the jury.  Polygraphs are far from infallible, but that’s true of all evidence.  In any case, the admissibility of polygraph results out in the open would be far preferable to their use as a deceitful tactic to produce confessions.  

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6:07 am est

Tuesday, May 2, 2006

We're not alone!
There's now another blog devoted to false confessions --
It's operated by Steve Drizin, a professor at Northwestern University Law School and director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions. Steve is a real hero in the fight against false confessions and other injustices, and a most welcome addition to the blogosphere.
2:50 pm est

Like a bad movie (the case of Walter Ogrod)

I reluctantly use the overused “Kafkaesque” quite a bit when discussing false confessions.  I’m afraid there’s no better characterization of what many false confessors go through.  The case of Walter Ogrod sounds like a bad movie.  The jury at his murder trial was about to announce the verdict when one juror blurted out that he disagreed with it.  The judge immediately declared a mistrial.  It turns out that the other 11 jurors wanted to acquit.  At a retrial Ogrod was convicted based primarily on the testimony of a notoriously unreliable jailhouse snitch – that and Ogrod’s dubious confession.  How dubious?  The fact that it failed to convince eleven jurors at his first trial (this was before the snitch came along) says it all.  It takes an awfully shaky confession not to win over a jury. 

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10:04 am est

Worst of both worlds

DNA testing, among other things, has revealed the staggering frequency of wrongful convictions.  At the same time, in the last few decades numerous high-profile criminal defendants have been acquitted (at least of the major charges) despite overwhelming evidence of guilt, including: O.J. Simpson, Bernhard Goetz, Imelda Marcos, the police officers who battered Rodney King, Michael Jackson, Robert Blake, Marion Barry, Oliver North, Don Ling, Robert Durst, and Jayson Williams.  Why do we get the worst of all worlds – punishing many innocent and acquitting many guilty?  That’s a complicated question with a number of answers, but one link between the two phenomena is the role of defense attorneys.  The elite criminal defense attorney can get a guilty client off, whereas false confessors often lack even adequate representation – and need more than that, since they are up against the overwhelming intuition that an innocent person would not confess. 


5:46 am est

Monday, May 1, 2006

Reader Response on Norfolk 4

navy.jpgI recently posted about the Norfolk 4, a case quite likely involving wrongful convictions of four U.S. Navy men.  A reader well-versed in the case points out that the lead interrogator in the case had been demoted earlier in his career for inducing false confessions from teenagers.  The reader notes the tactics that produced the dubious confessions in the case of the Norfolk 4 and says that “Americans should be outraged that our young sailors could be subjected to these tactics.”  Amen.  Indeed, Americans should be outraged that anyone would be subject to tactics that predictably produce false confessions. 

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7:04 am est

The court as enabler

policebadge.jpgA few weeks ago a Colorado court of appeals issued the latest decision in the “we don’t condone” line of cases.  In these cases, the court casually describes an interrogation of the sort that leads to false confessions, claims it does not “condone” such tactics, and then upholds the confession anyway.  In this case involving a woman charged with making false bomb threats to a school, the police told her that she could be charged with either a state or federal offense and noted that the latter carried a 15 year prison term whereas the former might mean nothing more than a ticket and a $50 fine.  They implied that a confession would assure her of the minor punishment.  The court said: “While we do not condone the detectives’ implication that they were responsible for the charging decision, we see no indication that this point caused defendant to confess.  Instead she continued to deny responsibility.” 


This is mind-boggling.  It implies that for an interrogative tactic to be coercive it must instantly produce a confession.  If the court understood false confessions, it would know that it is doesn’t work the way.  Education remains the closest thing to a panacea.   

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6:24 am est

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