Last month a jury in
acquitted a man of several criminal charges stemming from a car accident. The man had confessed, but testified that he did
so under a relentless grilling from a police detective who didn’t believe his protests of innocence. The jury apparently did
believe him – a rare case of a jury overcoming the intuition that innocent people don’t confess. Just maybe, that intuition
is beginning to weaken as the public learns the truth about false confessions.
Earlier this month Pennsylvania
became the latest state to establish a commission to study the causes and prevention of erroneous convictions. And with good
reason. Of the 200 people convicted of crimes who’ve been exonerated by DNA tests in the last two decades, 9 were from Pennsylvania – and they averaged 15 years in prison prior to exoneration.
I’ve posted often about the importance of false confession expert testimony. Some courts reject such testimony, while
others allow it. Good news from California last month – two favorable rulings in one week. In a juvenile
criminal matter, when the government appealed the suppression of the minor’s confession, the court of appeals rejected the
government’s contention that a trial court erred in allowing expert testimony about “the minor’s unusually high degree of
susceptibility to suggestion.”And in a murder case, a court of appeals found
that the trial court erred in excluding expert testimony. Regrettably, the court found this to be harmless error, but at least
it recognized that such testimony should be allowed as it “can serve to refute the commonly held notion that people do not
confess to crimes they did not commit.”
Today marks this website's one-year anniversary. We've received more
than 41,000 visitors, which I gather is quite high for a site devoted to a public policy issue. Thanks to one and all, especially
those who comment on posts and pass along news and notes I might have missed. Keep fighting the good fight.
The New York Times recently published a letter from the FBI’s Assistant Director
for Public Affairs objecting to the Times’ contention that the FBI opposes the taping of interrogations. He insisted that
“while the bureau has and continues to oppose mandatory recording, we recognize that there are many situations in which recording
a defendant's interview may benefit the investigation and prosecution.”Let’s
hope so (although mandatory taping would be the best policy).
It appears that, at long last, charges against the Duke lacrosse players
will be dropped. Some key lessons to be learned from this fiasco: 1) Justice delayed is justice denied. These innocent
kids had prosecution hanging over their heads long after it was obvious that the charges against them were flimsy. 2) We
should all be skeptical of accusations. At least to a certain extent, we need to import the trial concept of "innocent
until proven guilty" into the court of public opinion. It's too often assumed that criminal defendants are guilty, an
idea that should have been erased by the staggering number of DNA exonerations. Finally, beware proseuctorial misconduct. Most
prosecutors are honorable public servants, but too many seem to believe that their sole mission is getting people behind
bars -- without due regard for whether they belong there.
A decision by Canada’s
Supreme Court last month will no doubt make matters worse for innocent suspects. The Court pooh-poohed the claim of a defendant
that his confession to multiple robberies was involuntary because police led him to believe that, if he confessed, his girlfriend
would not be charged.At one point he volunteered to confess to 30 or 40 robberies
if it would keep her out of trouble and, after confessing, explicitly said he did it “for my girl.” The Court decision relaxed
the standard for finding confessions voluntary, and thereby encourages police to engage in dubious interrogative practices
– a prescription for false confessions.
An article in Monday’s New York Times includes the FBI’s opposition to taping interrogations: “Psychological
tricks like misleading or lying to a suspect in questioning or pretending to show the suspect sympathy might also offend a
jury, the agency said.”
Such tactics should offend a jury, since they induce false
An Australian crusader against police
corruption has written an autobiography, titled Recollections of an Unreasonable Man, published by ABC books. The book details
a wide range of police misconduct, including the extraction of false confessions.