I was recently consulted by an attorney whose client, in the course of
a 9-1-1 call, confessed to starting the fire that was burning him and his house. All evidence suggests that the confession
was false. However, it appears that the man actually believed he was telling the truth. There are many cases
of voluntary false confessions (people coming forth free of interrogative pressures), and many cases of internalized
false confessions (people believing their false confession), but this case seems to present something extremely unusual
-- a confession both voluntary and internalized. This is a useful reminder that false confessions come in all
varieties. We should never assume a confession true simply because it doesn't fit the most common paradigms of false confessions.
I recently traveled to Idaho to testify in a suppression hearing. However,
my testimony proved unnecessary. When the prosecution learned that the defense had retained a false confessions expert, it
offered a deal too good to turn down -- probation, for an offense that carried a very stiff sentence. This is another
example of how a confessions expert can help level the playing field.
A visitor to this site writes to remind me of false confessors who "went
to trial and beat most of their charges but were advised by their attorney to sign a plea for the ones that came back undecided."
What she describes is subset of a larger problem: pressures on innocent people to plea bargain. There's no question that
a substantial number of false confessors end up pleading guilty. Many factors encourage them to do so, including
the fact that many times their own attorney doesn't believe in their innocence. Even if he does, he may recognize that
others won't. That's why education about false confessions remains the single most important reform.