Why do false confessions happen?

Coming on the heels of the conviction of the Chicago police commander Jon Burge, responsible for torturing up to 100 defendants into making false confessions, the Chicago Tribune published an excellent articleWhat Causes People to Give False Confessions.The journalists, Lisa Black and Steve Mills quote some of the best minds in the field such as Steve Drizin and Rob Warden, from the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Notherwestern University, Saul Kassin of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Richard Leo at the University of San Francisco, who all have studied the issue for some time and universally agree that false confessions happen and undoubtedly lead to wrongful convictions.

The reason why someone might confess to a crime they did not commit are many, as outlined in the article, but the answer to the question of why false confessions happen can be reduced to the most common denominator: confessions are the most powerful tool a prosecutor has to convince a jury that a defendant is guilty of the crime and therefore, will go to great lengths, even torture, to obtain one.

According to estimates there might be tens of thousands of false confession victims our state and federal prisons, either wrongfully convicted or having plead guilty to crimes they did not commit. We know that police and prosecutors will go as far as torture to obtain false confessions, but most are the result of leading witnesses, lying to witnesses and creating an environment in the interrogation room where the only plausible explanation to a set a “facts” presented to a defendant is that they must have been involved in the crime. In case after false confession case you will find police interrogators lying to defendants to obtain their confessions, and many of the cases are eerily similar. Police interrogators will lie about a suspects DNA being found at at the crime scene, failing a polygraph test or getting a death bed call from the victim implicating the individual.  In the infamous West Memphis 3 case, 16 year-old Jessie Misskelley, Jr. with an IQ of 67, was told he failed a police administered polygraph when. in fact, he had passed. Seventeen year-old Martin Tankleff was told by detective James McCready that his dying father had awakened from his coma to implicate Marty in his brutal assault and the murder of his mother. Both young men confessed to crimes they did not commit; Marty served 17 years in prison before he was exonerated, and Jessie is serving life. His co defendant, Damien Echols is on death row based upon Jessie”s false confession.

While we may never be able to stop false confessions from happening, we certainly can create laws and policies that help limit their incidence. Some states and municipalities do have laws that mandate the recording of confessions, but requiring the recording the entire interrogation process is more effective. Preventing police from lying to suspects, especially those who are young or who have mental disabilities would certainly be an important change. But that is not likely. As Suffolk County detective McCready informed CBS News 48 Hours” correspondent  Erin Moriartiy when she asked why he lied to obtain young Martin Tankleff”s confession, he responded, “because the Supreme Court gave me the right to lie.”

Leave a Reply