I recently received a query from an attorney, in the middle of a robbery trial,
looking for informal assistance. He had tried to retain an expert witness on false confessions, but “my application was denied because the judge does not believe it to be outside the jury’s
This is amazing (but not uncommon). The idea that people falsely confess
is common knowledge? The idea that certain interrogation practices correlate with false confessions is common knowledge? Absurd!Fortunately, many judges do allow experts on false confessions to testify, which is
incredibly important for educating juries.
John Karr’s exoneration by DNA testing was no surprise.The pleasant surprise is that the Colorado authorities decided not to pursue murder charges in light
of the exoneration. Many prosecutors choose to believe a confession over the most reliable physical evidence. After a DNA
exoneration, they even come up with a new theory of the case – for example, that the confessor had an accomplice. Two cheers
for the folks who let Karr go. Why not three cheers?Because they arrested him
and brought him to Colorado on the basis of flimsy evidence
in the first place.
Why haven’t the many proven false confessions sparked faster and more aggressive reforms to ameliorate the problem?A major reason is that many people simply don’t accept the reality of false confessions – it’s too counterintuitive.Another reason is that the people who confess falsely tend not to have friends or
family in positions of influence. Sadly, the problem of false confessions (and, more generally, wrongful convictions) receives
too little attention because most false confessors are marginal members of society.Hence the perfect title to Margaret Edds’ superb book about the Earl Washington case: AN EXPENDABLE MAN.
I recently consulted an attorney about a case involving a borderline mentally retarded woman who, after numerous interrogations,
finally confessed to molesting her daughter.I won’t go into the details, but
suffice to say that there were very good grounds for doubting her vehemently recanted confession.Nevertheless, in the middle of the trial, she and counsel agreed to accept an offer to plead guilty to
a reduced charge – she will serve six months in prison instead of a possible ten years.
I can’t say I blame her or her attorney. Given the power of confessions to sway a jury,
even in the absence of any other evidence, their decision made sense. But cases like this remind us how crucial it is for
the police and the public to understand the prevalence of false confessions and the reasons behind them.
I’ll be posting a lot about the Karr case, for obvious reasons, but I don’t want to fall into the trap of forgetting about
all the other probable false confession cases.This website tells the disturbing story of what may very well be a false confession.
If it turns out John Karr is innocent, people may leap to the conclusion (already bandied about in some circles) that false
confessors have serious mental or emotional deficiencies.People with mental
illness or significantly sub-average intelligence are indeed among the populations particularly vulnerable to false confessions,
but it is dangerously inaccurate to over-generalize from this fact.
involving WilliamsCollege students is revealing.The subjects were asked to type at a computer keyboard and warned not to touch
the ALT key or the computer would crash.Thereafter, the computer suddenly "crashed"
and the experimenter falsely accused the participant of hitting the ALT key.While
all participants at first denied hitting the key, when confronted by a witness who claimed to have seen them do so, most signed
Real life confirms what this experiment
suggests: false confessors are by no means limited to people with mental handicaps.They include many people of normal intelligence and from assorted backgrounds.When we pigeonhole false confessors, we minimize the nature of the problem and deflect attention from the biggest source
of the problem: dubious interrogation tactics that might, under the right circumstances, break down you or me.
A frequent visitor to this site makes a shrewd observation about the Karr case: “I had noticed that early on [the authorities]
kept saying that Karr had details only the killer would know.But then later,
there was mention of all the research he did and I believe he even interviewed the little girl's grandparents.So it seemed to me that he might have found out unusual details from them.”
Indeed.A confession is best corroborated if it leads the authorities to evidence they
didn’t know about.Second best is if it includes details known only to the authorities
(and, presumably, by the culprit).However, there are quite a few false confession
cases in which the police claimed the suspect knew such details but failed to consider ways he could have learned of
them – for example, by independent research or even from the actual culprit.
It’s premature to assume that John Mark Karr’s confession was false, but his alleged claim
that the killing of JonBenet Ramsey was accidental is a red flag. A common
tactic that produces false confessions is when interrogators “minimize” the crime by introducing themes like accident or provocation
that can lead a suspect to expect lenient treatment. It's certainly possible that Karr's interrogators planted
the "accident" theme in Karr's mind and he ended up spitting it back.
The most encouraging aspect of this case thus far is that the authorities seem to get it – they understand that a confession
does not guarantee guilt.Typically, a confession produces a rush to judgment.Let’s hope the official skepticism is honest, and they’re not merely paying lip
service to ideals they know they’re supposed to profess.
I've returned from vacation a bit earlier than expected, and I'm eager
to resume my posts. Meanwhile, media interested in interviewing me about the JonBenet confession, lawyers looking for assistance,
and anyone else with a comment about anything confessions related, I'm eager to hear from you!
Your humble blogger will be on vacation starting tomorrow and until around August 23.I look forward to resuming my posts then.In
the meantime, if you are an attorney looking for assistance, I will be checking e-mail and will respond quickly to queries.
Excellent news from yesterday’s
AP wire: “Inmates in North Carolina who claim they were wrongly convicted got a new avenue of appeal Thursday
as Gov. Mike Easley signed a law creating a state innocence commission described as the first of its kind in the nation. .
. . The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission will review innocence claims from people who can present new evidence
that hasn't been considered in court.”
In this recent article about a recanted confession, one sentence jumps out at me, a quote from the police spokesman: “It’s frustrating because
now we don’t know what, if anything, he’s been telling us for the last seven months — if any of it’s true.”
Notice that, until the recantation, the police assumed the confession to be true.The implication is that, during
the ensuing seventh months, they did not look for evidence to confirm it.Or,
if they did look, they found none – yet still assumed the confession to be true.Not
surprisingly, this is a common theme in false confession cases: the absence of other evidence.Sometimes the police unwisely cease to investigate a crime once someone confesses.Other times, they continue to investigate but regardless of what they find or don’t find, they fail to consider that
the confession may be false.
I’ve posted quite a bit about how torture, and other tactics used
in the war against terror, risk producing false confessions. This article in Slate suggests that the mainstream media are becoming more attuned to the situation.
I often post about the failure of judges to protect against false
confessions.Needless to say, judges make mistakes in other areas as well.(News flash: despite the robes, judges are ordinary humans.)I’m reminded of this truism by a very interesting blog, http://www.thomspaine.org, which recently linked to us.The blog, dedicated to the issue of judicial recusal, maintains that judges often fail to disqualify themselves from
cases when they have a conflict of interest.