The Truth About False Confessions

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Thursday, September 28, 2006


A visitor makes good points about the torture debate:


“Thanks to secret courts and rules precluding defendants and their lawyers from having access to the evidence, we'll never know how many false confessions tactics like ‘long-time standing’ will produce. Our founding fathers brilliantly protected us against the gross injustices and huge waste of resources that false confessions produce” by protecting various rights – the right against self-incrimination, the right to confront one’s accuser, and the right to an attorney. 


Much of the debate over the CIA’s powers of interrogation concerns the Geneva Convention. The visitor rightly suggests that we focus on our Constitution. We don’t owe non-citizens the same rights as citizens, but we do ourselves no favor when we adopt methods that cause others to confess falsely. 

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5:58 am est

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

That's Better (On Experts)

Apropos my recent post about courts excluding expert witnesses, you shouldn't get the idea that all courts do so. A recent opinion in New York allowing in expert testimony about false confessions, is excellent, including this excerpt: “jurors might be expected to assume that an innocent person will not confess to a crime he did not commit.  Therefore, [testimony about] accepted social psychology principles, establishing that the phenomenon of false confessions does occur, should be admissible to explain behavior that might appear unusual to a lay juror not familiar with the phenomenon.” 

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1:41 am est

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Kudos to Whistleblowers

A visitor proposes that I say a good word about the members of the military who have brought to light the harsh interrogative practices used on suspected terrorists.  He then eloquently does the honors himself, so I’ll quote him directly.


“They risked career and reputation while employed by the military command structure, where obedience to orders is paramount.  That we have a military that can produce individuals capable of defending our country both militarily and constitutionally is the miracle of our form of government. With few exceptions, our generals and chiefs of staff have always recognized that might must work for right to preserve our unique democracy.  Those who would move us away from a recognition of civil rights and towards the tactics our enemies embrace dishonor the Constitution and the military, as Senator McCain and Gen. Colin Powell, among other highly decorated veterans, have noted.”

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1:30 am est

Monday, September 25, 2006

Experts Banished

Last week I posted about a case involving a polygraph examiner who helped trigger a confession.  In that California case, the defendant was not allowed to impeach the polygraph examiner with testimony by a false confessions expert. The court of appeals upheld this ruling. Earlier this month, a court of appeals in Ohio also upheld the exclusion of expert testimony about false confessions. This is bad stuff, given the importance of expert witnesses to educate juries about this counterintuitive phenomenon.

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12:25 am est

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Another DNA Exoneration

Another new DNA exoneration here (New York Times subscribers only), but after the man spent 16 years in prison. There’s something else depressing about this case as well. The DNA evidence actually exonerated the defendant at the time of his trial (excluding him as the donor of semen found in the victim), but the prosecution convinced the jury (based on zero evidence) that the victim had consensual sex with someone else just before the murder. Even DNA can only go so far when people are absolutely convinced that a confession must be true. 

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11:02 pm est

Polygraph Scam

From a California court of appeals decision last week, upholding a conviction: "Defendant made damaging admissions to a polygraph examiner who, although she was unable to administer the polygraph because defendant was medicated, continued to interrogate him for nearly three hours."

This is what it has come to: the polygraph examiner helps secure a conviction(in a shaky case -- the jury acquitted on most charges and a previous jury hung) not by administering the test but by playing cop. Polygraphs were introduced into law enforcement as a means of detecting truth, but they have become a crude weapon for eliciting confessions, including a good many false confessions.

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6:52 am est

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

New DNA Exoneration, But. . . .

The only thing about this article I don’t like is that both judge and prosecutor seem unconvinced about the exonerated man’s innocence – based solely on a highly unreliable confession contradicted by physical evidence. 

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11:02 pm est

Monday, September 18, 2006

Tortured Reasoning?

standing.jpgThe following is the CIA’s description of "long-time standing," one of the interrogation methods that President Bush and his supporters think essential for use on terrorists: “Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions.”


But are those confessions reliable?  Just wondering.

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11:04 pm est

Sunday, September 17, 2006

More Weird Motives
steak.jpgI've often posted about the fact that there are many motivations behind false confessions. My recent post about serial false confessor Henry Lee Lucas prompted a visitor to recall that Lucas "kept getting the Texas Rangers to feed him information and porterhouse steaks -- he parlayed the former into just credible enough confessions so he could get them to drive him around to sites of murders and feed him the latter in order to coax the confessions." 
11:44 pm est

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Missing The Point

On the Reid Associates website, one encounters this testimonial from an interrogator: "I have been using the Reid Technique since the training. I have been very successful using this technique. I got a confession two days after the training. I also got a confession from a long-time sex offender. He had been investigated many times over a 20 year period -- with no one obtaining a confession until I used the Reid Technique on him."


Notice the implicit assumption here – obtaining a confession is a good thing.  For all this officer knows, both confessions he boasts about were false! This says it all about the Reid technique: it’s all about obtaining confessions. The technique is undeniably effective. But it’s effective at obtaining confessions from the innocent and guilty alike. 

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11:19 pm est

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Wrong Lesson

From the beginning, I was concerned that John Mark Karr’s confession might be a setback for public understanding of false confessions. My concern is exemplified by this recent headline in the San Francisco Chronicle: “Innocents Often Confess Falsely To Big Crimes: Experts Say They Do It For Attention Or May Be Mentally Ill.” 


Yes, some false confessors crave notoriety and others are mentally ill. But that hardly begins to exhaust the universe of false confessors. As I continually emphasize, the single biggest cause of false confessions is certain widespread police interrogation tactics. 

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11:03 pm est

A Worthy Sentiment
Responding to my recent post about Ray Hill, a visitor tells me that Hill was a law school hero of his, and cites a particular quote from Hill he remembers well: "The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state."
5:47 am est

Monday, September 11, 2006

Not Appealling

In response to my “Time To Cry” post yesterday, a visitor writes: “Respectfully, it's not time to cry. It's time to appeal.”  Two problems. First, the decision to allow or exclude expert testimony is generally considered within the discretion of a trial judge, and thus not a basis for reversal on appeal. Second, in yesterday’s post, I omitted part of the lawyer’s message: “Waiting for client to decide if he wants to appeal.  . . . [He] faces 7 other indictments, 5 of which could result in a life sentence.” In other words, already convicted for one crime he likely did not commit, the client may want to cut his losses. 

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11:11 pm est

Time to cry
not_allowed.jpgSeveral months ago an attorney in Texas consulted me about a forthcoming criminal case.  His client, afflicted with mental illness, confessed to multiple acts of arson but had recanted the confession and there was no physical evidence to support it (despite investigations at many crime scenes).  Based on the attorneys’ in-depth description, there was extremely good reason to believe this confession false. I urged him to retain an expert who could educate the jury about false confessions.  He did so. The other day I contacted him to find out how the trial went.  I received this reply:
“Judge refused to let false confession expert testify on theory it would not aid the jury since it is common knowledge that false confessions can occur.  . . . Convicted and sentenced to 25 years.”
7:30 am est

Friday, September 8, 2006

Just The Facts, Ma'am

The lawyer for a teenager charged with murder in Nebraska is trying to get his confession suppressed by pointing out all the facts the confession got wrong – including “details” like who was present and who did the shooting. This is a feature of many false confessions: they are error-ridden. What does it tell us that judges and juries nevertheless believe these confessions? The intuition that an innocent man would not confess is so strong that it trumps the competing notion that someone who committed a crime ought to be able to get the basic facts right.     

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6:02 am est

Thursday, September 7, 2006

More DNA

A visitor responds to my most recent post on DNA:


“Great take on the nature of DNA evidence. Universally accepted laws governing this type of evidence and the handling procedures for it are desperately needed. I have followed one case quite closely ( and have found an evolving policy that constantly maintains some loopholes which could only be for obstructionist purposes. It appears that a level playing field is not what the police or justice system wants. Hope you keep looking into and pressing this subject.”


I will certainly continue to press the subject of DNA as a forensic tool. DNA testing was a major factor in awakening people to false confessions (and wrongful convictions more generally) and remains a crucial vehicle for exonerating the falsely accused. It is infuriating when prosecutors see DNA as a single-edged sword designed to procure convictions but to be ignored or circumvented when it suggests innocence.     
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5:36 am est

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

New Guidelines Welcome, New Mindset Needed

This short article in Sunday’s Boston Globe is worth a look.  The article concerns new guidelines for Massachusetts district attorneys.  The guidelines are good, but the best part of the article is a quote by a defense attorney:


“The toughest thing of all is changing the mindset of the police. . . . Once they have a suspect, their whole effort is centered on getting as much evidence against that particular suspect instead of thinking the suspect might be innocent and getting leads on someone else who may have done it."

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11:22 pm est

Monday, September 4, 2006

More Karr & DNA

A visitor writes:


“I find it disturbing that American law can be allowed to manipulate DNA evidence to meet whatever goal fits the present situation or goal. We either believe in DNA as a science to be used in our courts for evidence, or it [should be] disallowed completely. In the Ryan Ferguson case (in Missouri), the DNA specifically pointed away from the accuser who was obviously a confused self-confessor, and away from Ryan.  Still, Ryan Ferguson is spending 40 years in prison.  The FBI was involved in this case with regard to the DNA, yet Ryan was still brought up on charges, tried and convicted with the DA attempting to discredit any DNA testing. John Karr was not even charged with a crime [because of] DNA alone.  Both DNAs point to someone else.  One was convicted, the other not even charged. We either use it, or we don't.  There should never be an ‘in between’ with this science, to flow one way or the other to close a case or use it as a trusted evidentiary science.”


I’m not sure if the visitor is suggesting that all criminal justice policies should be uniform across the states. One advantage of having 50 separate justice systems is that different approaches can be tried and we can see which work best.  But in the case of DNA, all states use it and they should – it’s considered an invaluable forensics tool by virtually all experts. However, some prosecutors use it selectively, and I completely agree with the visitor if he is saying that prosecutors should not pick and choose when they trust DNA – hailing it is irrefutable science when it suggests guilt, but claiming it is unreliable when it supports innocence. 

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10:59 pm est

Ray Hill

rayhill.jpgI recently had the pleasure of meeting Ray Hill, somewhat of a cult figure in Houston. Hill is a former Supreme Court litigant (winning an important 1st Amendment case), gay rights activist, playwright, and host of a radio show devoted to prison life that’s relished by prisoners in the Houston area.  A long-time student of Texas justice, he regaled me with tales, such as that of Henry Lee Lucas, a serial false confessor (he confessed to hundreds of murders, most of which he could not have committed) who died on death row. Lucas was sentenced to death for a murder in Texas that he confessed to but that took place while he was apparently in Florida. Henry Lee Lucas, a crazed man, was an improbable martyr in the cause of reforming the criminal justice system. Ray Hill, a delightful character, is a hero in that same cause.         

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7:06 am est

Sunday, September 3, 2006

Sleepless in Maryland

It’s often remarked that blatantly coercive interrogation tactics (think “third degree”) are a thing of the past.  Not entirely.  Last week a jury in Maryland awarded a man $6.4 million because of the brutal treatment that produced a false confession and landed him in jail. (He served 8 months before DNA testing exonerated him.)  The man was interrogated over a 38 hour period during which he slept 55 minutes. 

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8:28 am est

Saturday, September 2, 2006

Another Post-Karr Lament

A visitor writes:


“[Larry Tice and I] have something in common, we both have an innocent son in prison in Virginia because of a false confession. In the Karr case it was said that there had to be supportive evidence to support his statements. There was no supportive evidence in my son's confession statement and it was accepted anyway.” 


It’s clear that the DA’s decision not to prosecute John Karr is leaving a lot of people scratching their heads – not because the decision was incorrect (it was clearly correct), but because they or their loved ones were not treated the same. Too many prosecutors value a false confession more than hard evidence.  

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6:55 am est

Thursday, August 31, 2006

A Father's Lament

A visitor writes:


“I applaud the actions of the DA in not pursuing the case against Karr. I only wish that the justice system in Norfolk Virginia had even an iota of the integrity that they have in Colorado. I am addressing the case of The Norfolk 4. Please see for information on the case. In Norfolk, 4 innocent men were sent to prison, three of them for 2 life terms without parole for a rape and murder they did not commit. The actual perpetrator is in prison for the crime after he confessed and admitted that he acted alone. The 4 innocent men and the one guilty man are all proven by DNA, yet the great Commonwealth of Virginia makes no mistakes and therefore 4 innocent men went to prison because of confessions coerced by a police detective with a history of coercion. So my question is: why does DNA count so much in other states and other cases yet it is ignored in the case of the Norfolk 4?


Why do I ask this?  Because one of the Norfolk 4 is my son, Derek Tice.”

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11:03 pm est

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